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.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.