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.

 
 
 
 

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.