Warsaw is rebuilding itself – but its foundations remain unstable

The Zlota 44 tower (2dL) and the Palace of Culture and Science (R), Poland's tallest building, in 2014. Image: Getty.

“Warsaw is being sliced up like a cake,” one resident told me bluntly, when I asked her what she made of the plethora of developments teeming across the city’s landscape. “We are in a mess.”

You wouldn’t necessarily think this was the case: to the unassuming tourist, Warsaw is undoubtedly blossoming. The impact from years of backbreaking oppression – first from the Nazis, who razed 85 per cent of the city to the ground, and then from the Communists – has all but disappeared, with a richer, more modern look cultivated in its place. Warsaw will soon be home to the tallest building in the EU, the Varso tower, and many other ground-breaking developments simmer away in offices and infrastructure departments.

Hidden beneath the surface, however, there’s a more complex picture, and residents are apprehensive about the city’s future. Swathed in the ice-blue of the countless skyscrapers which pepper its lukewarm skies, the rickety nature of Warsaw’s modernisation is a parasite which feeds liberally on the progress of development. And this has been disregarded by those in power to such an extent that it now encompasses issues from all fields of city life. The frantic desire for Warsaw to move as far away as possible from its downtrodden 20th century past has now exploded into internal quibbles, developmental nightmares, and slapdash construction, all sullied ever further with the overarching concern of Warsaw’s citizens, who feel that they are not being listened to.

The debates in Polish politics can be found in microcosm in the development of its capital, with strains between the governing Law & Justice (PiS) party and opposition Civic Platform (PO) bringing spats onto the very streets. PO is the mayor of Warsaw’s party – and, by a small majority, the dominant force in the city council. But tensions with PiS in the city have been exacerbated with the reprivatisation affair, a cataclysmic concern that has been rumbling on since the end of the war.

The Bierut Decree of 1945 transferred all of Warsaw’s property and land into state ownership to expedite its reconstruction; owners were promised being that their property would one day be returned, if they so desired. But individuals’ claims have been repeatedly unfulfilled, and the system has been marred with scandals and PO implicated in dubious dealings – prompting increased activity by PiS in city management. With local elections later this year, all is still up for debate.


The reprivatisation issue is still a shady one to Poles – but what this means for Warsaw’s development is far more concerning. Land has become a burden, and developers fear spectres of age-old claims to property; a fear manifested in a culture of uncertainty, with allegations of developer corruption bandied around by Warsaw’s residents. Though a recent development strategy for the city took into account thousands of citizens’ views, many told me they were anxious about the city’s heritage, claiming weak laws for protection of history threaten the last vestiges of its past.

Journalist and resident Ronald Smit told me that “the few characteristic buildings Warsaw had left are being demolished at high speed”. This is an issue which has, in fact, ravaged the area since 1945, when swathes of the city centre, some undamaged by war, were demolished for the erection of the Palace of Culture and Science.

Another bone of contention is public space. The focus on construction has eclipsed wider, more social matters, with one citizen telling me that “the way things are going every street is going to resemble the Grzybowska corridor,” a vastly overdeveloped area of Warsaw. Tacked on to the concerns about a lack of city planning, there is worry that constructors are failing to consider the parts of the city left when new builds are created.

One development which attempted to actively combat these tensions is the recently built Warsaw Spire. Jeroen van der Toolen, managing director for central Europe with developer Ghelamco, told me that the company’s mission had been “to bring this part of the city back to life... It was crucial for us that it would contribute to increasing the quality of life and work in the city.”

He believes the city’s development can coexist with its history, claiming that the area is more “metropolitan” as a result. And Warsaw has, of course, always striven for rejuvenation, a process which has earnt it the name ‘the Phoenix City’. As resident Phil Goss told me,

“When I came to Poland in January 1991, the Warsaw Metro was still, quite literally, just a hole in the ground... The country just wasn’t ready for business. In the intervening 27 years we’ve seen many changes... Warsaw was rebuilt as a city for the future... That future is now.”

And certainly, despite deep-rooted complications, the city is trying its best – with successes particularly seen on the level of transport. Michał Grobelny, a spokesperson with the Warsaw Public Transport authority, explained that the public transport network is expanding annually. Construction of M2, a new east-west metro line, is ongoing.

But the development has been hit with a complication found across most projects modernising the city: that of archeological discoveries. Grobelny told me that construction workers had “transported 450 pieces of ammunition from the site, including over 100 artillery shells. The construction of the subway was therefore suspended for a total of 16 times.”

It is certainly true that remnants of the past eventually find their way to those ice-blues surface of Warsaw’s development. For residents, politicians and constructors, the history of the city remains of paramount importance to its future: Phil Goss claims that “it will take a lot more than new buildings to make Warsaw lose its identity, its history, its past.”

But if Warsaw cannot negotiate its relationship to its past successfully, then its future may always be under threat.

 
 
 
 

Britain’s housing policy must “ditch its relentless numbers game”

Some houses. Image: Getty.

Britain must build more homes – that much is certain. But a relentless focus on how many means we have lost all focus on the types of homes we must be building. This means we risk repeating the mistakes of previous decades, building homes entirely unfit for future generations.

This is the stark conclusion of a new report from Demos, Future Homes. Analysing the trends we expect to be shaping Britain in the future, we find our current approach to housebuilding has not kept pace with these changes. Indeed, we found that one third of the public don’t think new homes will be fit for purpose in thirty years’ time. Putting this right demands a revolution in our approach to housebuilding.

First, new homes must be fit for multigenerational living. This living arrangement is already on the rise: after decades of decline, average household size is rising, in part due to an increase in the number of multigenerational households. But housing design has not kept pace with these changes: our research found that two thirds of the public do not think new homes are not fit for multigenerational living.

We do not bemoan the rise in multigenerational households – quite the opposite. In a time of social isolation, multigenerational living may help to reduce loneliness amongst the elderly, helping them to stay integrated in society and play an active role in family life. More social contact between the young and old could also reduce the scope for intergenerational conflict, fostering mutual understanding between different generations.

Multigenerational housing may also help ease care burdens at both ends of life, making it simpler to look after the elderly, while allowing relatives to more easily help with childcare. It could also reduce the under-occupation of housing by the elderly, freeing homes at the top of the housing ladder. It is no exaggeration to say that in a time of increasing social and political division, building more multigenerational housing could help bring Britain back together – a first step on the path to a more connected society.

That’s why we call on the government to enshrine a commitment to multigenerational housing in its new Future Homes standard. Multigenerational households should also be entitled to council tax discounts and permitted development rights introduced for “granny annexes”, ensuring current housing stock can be made fit for multigenerational living.


We also need to build much more environmentally friendly homes whilst improving the state of our dilapidated housing stock. With the government aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, this will require a radical change to housebuilding – especially when home energy efficiency has not improved since 2015.

To address this we call on the government to reintroduce the zero carbon homes standard and to launch a Green Homes Fund backed by a new, state-backed Green Development Bank. This would allow the government to make ultra-low interest rate loans to fund energy efficiency home improvements, as is widely and successfully done in Germany.

We must also begin to prioritise the creation of green space and gardens when building homes. This isn’t just what the public wants – we found gardens are the most important feature when choosing a home after location – but is good for our health too. Studies show that those living close to green space are more likely to exercise regularly – vital if we are to tackle today’s obesity crisis. That’s why our report calls for the government to introduce a new “green space standard” for all new homes, eventually giving all residents the right to a garden.

We recognise our proposals could increase the cost of housebuilding, potentially raising property prices – a great concern given the state of Britain’s overheated housing market. However, we believe our proposals can be justified for two reasons.

First, much of the recent explosion in property prices derives from land price increases, not construction costs. Therefore, if our changes were introduced alongside sensible policies to bring down land prices, such as a land value tax, their impact on cost would be limited. Second, even if there are additional costs today, the cost of pulling down new homes in just a few decades would be enormous. This has to be avoided.

Homes can be so much more than a roof over our heads, helping us respond to the great challenges of our time – loneliness, climate change, the crisis of care. But this can only happen if Britain ditches its relentless numbers game on housing and begins to care about the types of home we build, not just the number.

Ben Glover is a senior researcher at Demos.