Warsaw’s Local Centres

Currently, urban development in Europe takes place mainly through improving the internal structure of cities. Instead of expanding territorially, cities transform internally, thus increasing the standard of living. This European trend to improve the quality of life includes Warsaw which is also a city of very uneven spatial and social structure.

One of the manifestations of the diversity of the urban fabric of Warsaw is the fact that large areas lack well-developed local centres – areas for daily exchange between members of small communities. Because, in fact,  a city is both the spatial arrangement and social life, the daily activity of its inhabitants, based on mutual exchange. Both factors contribute to the wholesome life of the city and its friendliness towards the residents.

In Warsaw, interpersonal contacts within in the urban space, occur on two levels – metropolitan and local. Therefore, the city must develop in parallel to these two aspects, the spatial and the social one.

Consequently, the transformations of the internal structure of Warsaw should include the city centre on the one hand, and the local centres, used daily by residents, on the other. The latter are closer to people than the metropolitan centre, visited rather sporadically. However, those node areas existing in the network of public spaces which stand a chance of becoming local centres generally lack form and services they offer are incomplete. This unrealized potential hinders the development of local social life or fulfilment of the basic needs of the inhabitants.

That is why it is so important that the improvement of the quality of life in the city be carried out both on the metropolitan level, catering for the needs of the two-million metropolis, as well as on the local level, translating into the daily functioning of the inhabitants of individual districts. Changes on both levels should render the city more friendly and make its residents feel better.

The “Warszawskie Centra Lokalne” project (Warsaw’s Local Centres) addresses this very need. Its first objective was to define the concepts of a local centre in the context of Warsaw and the needs of its residents. The second objective was to identify the potential regional centre areas, basing on their location, spatial configuration and the capability to focus on social life. Another important factor determining that potential was whether the tested areas already exist in the awareness of the inhabitants and host more or less spontaneous meetings and grassroots activities.

The methodology consisted in analyses of the spatial layout of the city, and examined the functioning of diverse areas within its structure. In the first phase, the network of public spaces in Warsaw was analysed and node areas identified. The analyses took into account the position in the city structure and the spatial formation of individual sites. Most importantly, these sites were required to have a defined urban form or a potential of transforming into an organized public space.

Also selected were areas of natural social interactions in the city’s spatial layout. These are usually intersections and areas surrounding public transport stops but also those with desirable services attracting the residents. Marketplaces, small shops, and areas related to culture and recreation are examples of such centre-forming areas.

The first stage of analyses examined Warsaw’s public space structure. Identified were over two hundred node areas playing an important role in the public space network. The analyses took into account their role in the spatial structure of the city and the possibility of increasing the appeal of the existing public space. Research shows that people feel comfortable in clearly formed spaces with defined boundaries, hence improving the quality of social life calls for creating urban spaces in the form of urban interiors.

In the second stage, we examined the way in which residents define a local centre, so that their feelings and experiences are taken into account when choosing a location. On the basis of information gathered during meetings with residents and city activists, as well as through social media, places perceived by residents of various districts of Warsaw as current or potential local centres, were identified.

Linking the results of the first and second stage showed a clear correlation between the urban and the social criteria. In many cases, the conclusions from the first and second stages overlapped with each other, although, at times, residents also suggested the areas subjectively essential to them, even though these places did not have the characteristics of the local centre meeting the town planning criteria.

The conclusions from spatial analyses and activists’ opinions, together with the discussion during the workshop, served to further clarify the criteria to be met by the local centres. The following criteria defining the concept of the local centre were adopted. Local centres:

  • contain an element of generally accessible public space;
  • are multifunctional (allowing interchangeability of functions, depending e.g. on the season of the year or the time of day);
  • are within walking distance from places of residence (10-15 minute walk);
  • facilitate trade, intellectual and social interaction;
  • have a program / an offer for different age and social groups;
  • connect people, build the local community;
  • have a pleasant and good looking urban form;
  • have their own unique character, capable of developing local identity.

In the third stage, all 253 places typed according to the selected criteria underwent the on-site verification combined spatial planning audit. The idea was to identify places where, with the use of the available means and in the foreseeable future, it will be possible to achieve the desired effects translating to a definite improvement in the spatial standard.

The on-site verification examined such factors as the transformation capacities, the ratio of the expected effects to the expenditures, the possible changes in the arrangement and use (including the introduction of new functions) as well as the problems of ownership with logistical and formal issues related to the transformation (eg. the need to rebuild the road infrastructure or acquire land). In this way, 167 locations with highly diverse potential, showing the characteristics of the local centre, were identified.

Analyses conducted in the last phase allowed for selecting 32 locations which, according to the authors and after taking into account all the criteria, are most likely to improve the spatial standard within the anticipated cost. However, it is difficult to determine the features common to all mentioned places due to the difference of their potential. Some lack well developed infrastructure but could acquire the characteristics of the local centre through by way of improving the quality of public space. Others are primarily hubs lying on the daily routes of the residents. They are inherently well frequented and enriching their offer could enhance their functioning. Still others serve the residents as daily recreation areas.

As a result, places investigated as potential local centres or local centres requiring investment represent different areas of the city which, for functional reasons, are being transformed into centres of local activity. Among them are places of shaped urban form but of poor functionality, those lying on communication routes but offering unattractive public space and those offering attractive commercial functions but little else. Important were also places of recreational values, where enrichment program can provide a social life in a fuller dimension.

One of the additional selection criteria was improving the network of local centres (in terms of land area and the number of residents they serve), so priority was given to those places which can clearly improve the quality of social life in less central areas of the city.

Finally, the proposed locations were verified for ownership issues, as well as possible conflicts with planned investments (existing claims, formal and legal liabilities), to pick the first 10 places where the necessary investments will be carried out.

The planned activities, aimed at strengthening or developing the local centres, will, in each case, require an individual approach and adaptation to the specific local needs, as their scope must be adapted to the situation and site-specific expectations. Therefore, designs should be consulted with local communities already in the phase of programming and creating the reconstruction concepts.

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