Marlena Happach: “This is the end of the big investments”

Marlena Happach is making a lasting impact as the Director of Architecture and Spatial Planning in Warsaw, Poland. Driven by her belief that quality of the city’s public places determines quality of life, she is working to “make more space for pedestrians”, “increase green in the city”, “create multifunctional, attractive spaces”, and emphasize the human scale that residents clearly prefer. “This is the end of the big investments, we want to start making little changes…” says Happach

This will be a new direction for the City. At the turn of the century Warsaw welcomed the flood of foreign capital and famous architects to build skyscrapers taller than the Soviet Palace of Culture in order to demonstrate that Warsaw is no longer dominated by the Soviets. But perhaps now the symbolism of these new skyscrapers is becoming apparent: are Warsovians saying they do not want to be dominated by these new rulers?  Will calmer, human-scale projects that respect residents’ quality of life be able to prevail?

A new Metro line east of the Vistula River is sparking development and gentrification of older neighborhoods, such as Praga. Under the previous Conservative city government these neighborhoods would probably have been opened up to high-rise development by global investors and international  “starchitects”, as happened around the Soviet Palace of Culture, with the City offering developers big incentives. But the current city government appointed Happach to shape this fast-growing area at a more human scale in character with local identity, protect the existing residential population (many of whom are elderly and low income), and improve livability of existing buildings. This is a challenge that cities around the world face, particularly in today’s virulent atmosphere of single-minded global capitalism, but the problem in Warsaw is further complicated by property ownership claims.

This is not going to be easy. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and opening of Poland to unbridled capitalism Poland has fallen victim to some of the most ruthless profiteers. The inhabitants of Praga are under great stress. Numerous buildings have been torched; owners are under pressure to sell; low income tenants are being forced out; rents have been raised 300%. There has been brutal retaliation against activists fighting these tactics, but this has strengthened the neighborhood to unite to stop this injustice:

“They demand fairer and more realistic rules on the distribution of social housing; a program that will ensure that municipal properties are not privatized and demolished to make space for office blocks and condos; and, finally, the construction of new council estates in lieu of subsidizing developers who build on cheap land on the city outskirts, fueling the gentrification of the center and putting a strain on public services.”

This is the situation that Marlena Happach is dealing with. Can Warsaw prevent unethical and criminal developers through planning tools such as master planning, building height limits, design guidelines and form based codes, fees and taxes on developers, legal protection of current owners and renters, etc.? And can property ownership and tenants' rights be justly resolved? Are these tools strong enough to prevent corruption and greed? And can they also restore the historic buildings, maintain the mixed-use human scale, and create a beautiful, hospitable public realm? It's a lot to ask, but we really hope so!