The Polish government is super-sizing Warsaw. But bigger might not mean better

The Warsaw skyline. Image: Getty.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has announced plans to add 32 new municipalities to the city of Warsaw. This would increase the area of the city fivefold, making it significantly larger than Greater London with less than a third of the population. The move has been labelled a power grab by the city’s mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, as it could help Law and Justice gain control over the city in next year’s local elections.

Political machinations aside, though, could the plan actually make Warsaw a better city for its residents?

If the goal is economic growth, then there would need to be clear signals that a larger urban area would attract both businesses and households. True, there is strong evidence that large cities are a key source of productivity and economic dynamism. But it does not follow that making cities larger makes them more successful.

In fact, it’s probably the other way around: successful cities tend to grow economically – and that growth leads to them become large cities. While there are examples, notably in China, where entire, pre-planned cities have been successful in many respects, there’s a real risk of pre-planned cities becoming ghost cities – boarded-up shells of what might have been.

In democratic, capitalist societies, cities tend to grow or contract depending on economic expansion or decline. For example, the shrinkage of Glasgow and Sheffield in the UK was not promoted or planned – it came about as a result of the grinding poverty and lack of opportunities associated with industrial decline, which caused people to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Going large

So what drives the growth of cities? Economists highlight the importance of “urban agglomeration”: in other words, the economic benefits of firms being located close together. If a particular cluster of firms becomes very successful – perhaps due to new technology or proximity to cutting-edge research outfits – this attracts skilled workers to the area and makes the commercial sector all the more competitive. This, in turn, attracts more firms and more skilled workers, leading to a virtuous circle of increasing productivity and prosperity.

So, a critical issue for Poland is whether there are clear agglomeration economies to be exploited through expansion. If, for example, Warsaw’s economy is currently bursting at the seams – with rocketing house prices and spiralling commercial land values, say – and the only thing constraining urban expansion is planning restrictions (such as the greenbelt around London), then it would make sense to lift these restrictions and plan for expansion in a rational and coordinated way.

This would help to relieve upward pressure on property prices, making the city cheaper for residents and helping firms to become more competitive. But without clear signs of growing agglomeration economies, planned expansion may not be met by actual expansion – at least not of the sort associated with some of the world’s most economically successful cities.

It’s also worth considering the impact that Warsaw’s growth might have on other parts of the country. The UK experience suggests that concentrating wealth and economic activity in a single city can lead to higher levels of inequality for the country as a whole. What’s more, as property prices rise, low-income families are pushed further away from the city centre, making it harder to access jobs and amenities.

The London bubble. Image: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre/Flickr/creative commons.

Such inequalities can worsen political and social divides. London has essentially become a country of its own, with distinctive culture, demographics and social networks. Indeed, recent research looking at the patterns of telephone calls shows that Londoners rarely make calls to other parts of the UK.

So, even if the expansion of Warsaw was successful for the city, it could be a zero sum game for the country as a whole, due to rising inequality and deepening social divides.

Going green

Perhaps the motivation behind the Law and Justice party’s plan is environmental: increasing population density could help to reduce carbon emissions. Yet the evidence for environmental benefits of this kind of urban expansion is mixed, to say the least.

If the addition of 32 new municipalities results in urban sprawl, this will increase commuting distances and carbon emissions. Also, if urban expansion comes at the cost of depopulation in smaller towns and rural areas, the carbon emissions from the depopulated areas can remain surprisingly persistent – a fact that is often overlooked.

Even if increased population density is achieved, some of the most sophisticated models of city structure and carbon emissions suggest relatively modest gains, compared with say a well-coordinated network of medium sized towns and small cities. This may be partly due to the congestion and traffic jams that plague large cities, which can greatly reduce energy efficiency.

Also, some sources of renewable energy work best for relatively small population centres. This is partly due to energy storage issues. While it might be feasible to build an energy storage facility to regulate the energy supplied by wind turbines for a small city or town, this might not be possible on a larger scale. There are also the health impacts of pollution associated with large cities, which need to be taken into account.

The truth is, neither economic growth nor environmental improvement are guaranteed rewards of urban expansion. In fact, increasing the size of Warsaw on such an ambitious scale could cause problems that affect the whole country for many years to come. Of course, the proposed changes may amount to nothing more than tinkering with municipal borders for political ends. Gerrymandering is never a desirable political endeavour. But in this case, it might be preferable to misplaced plans for urban expansion.The Conversation

Gwilym Pryce is professor of urban economics & social statistics, and director of the Sheffield Methods Institute, at the University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.