At a fork in the Odra river, a monumental statue of a woman wading into the water marks an event that Wroclaw’s residents would likely rather forget. Two decades ago, that river and its sisters rose up and swallowed the city, killing 55 residents. 162,000 people were evacuated and the city sustained half a billion euros in damages. The city’s response? Embrace the river, develop it, and make it part of urban life.
De-risking the river
The first step, according to Katarzyna Ganowska, Wroclaw development officer, was “major investments to create a proper flood protection.” Before these safety measures were in place, “we had many difficulties to develop river embankments, so this first step turned the key in the lock”. Next, the city moved full tilt into a scheme of modernisation that sought to create an asset out of the former threat, bringing the riverside back to the residents.
When the waterway still posed a flood risk, it was naturally impossible to develop it with residential or office buildings. However, Wroclaw was undergoing an investment boom, and the pressure to make more land available was intensifying. This was especially true in the area of real estate, with many Polish and international companies enthusiastic to carry out development in the urban area. Remembering the lessons of the past, the city held safety as its number one priority.
This meant that a lot of hydrotechnical investments had to be made, such as the modernisation of the floodway system, strengthening the embankments and building dykes to hold the water back. The city had to plan for these, reserving the right amount of land for the optimum interventions in the most appropriate places.
The locals, who had mobilised en masse to combat the flood, now came out in force to reinvent the space. “People showed us their need to use the riverside,” Ganowska says. Residents led the process with the city facilitating bottom up ideas, “they created a local initiative for small beaches by the riverside, some small bars for the summer, and we tried to follow their need and create a regulation to allow this.”
Wroclaw worked with lots of different local and national actors to find funding and to mediate different visions of the future riverbank, “We managed to find some funding to refurbish the embankment on the city centre.”
A river weaves through a city like a narrative through a book, and Wroclaw honoured this simile in a 2018 river policy that responded to the different themes and chapters of its rivers: “We picked a different character for each of our five rivers, and in each river chose different sections to define the river character based on the part of the city that is beside this part of the river.”
As the rivers move through natural areas, including the European Natura 2000 network, it blends seamlessly into forests and meadows. “Close to residential areas, we made sure to include spaces for sport and recreation,” says Ganowska, “and where the rivers move through historically important parts of the city, we make sure to connect its infrastructure with those heritage elements.”
A big part of bringing the river back to the city has involved making it more navigable. “We have created a proper connection along it and across it,” says Ganowska, “we want to create a sense of place, so we have focused on enabling pedestrians and cyclists. We made a lot of connections under the bridges; just adding a small path under a bridge can make a huge difference for accessibility.”
“We want to be a city of short distances”
The city has also been investigating water-based transport, and this year will pilot its first water tram. “We always kept an eye on the map to make sure that all people would have access to the river. We want to be a city of short distances for everyone.”
But it doesn’t stop there. The city is also cooperating with the national government on an international project to create water nodes that would connect river transport in Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany, Ganowska calls this “a major investment that could really change transportation in Wroclaw.” The city is also thinking about improving links between land and water: “We are thinking about a proper harbour that could improve transportation and connect to a railway line.”
According to Ganowska, it is impossible to overstate the transformation that these investments have brought about in the feeling of the city. For half a century, contact with the embankment was very limited, “it wasn’t good enough, the risk of flood kept people far from the embankment.” Now, “many people want to run businesses on the waterside, people want to build their houses by the riverside. Businesses want to develop on the marina.”
It is also a fertile space for non-profits to spring up; “we cooperate with loads of non-profit organisations that want to support the river and the areas nearby.” These include organisations that promote sailing, special education programmes and activities for children. One of the most impressive of such organisations is the 800 square metre, low-emission Odra Centre, which is afloat on the river whose name it bears.
The centre has a water school that teaches everything from the cultural history of the river, to hydrology and marine biology; a space for tourists; a library which will archive important documents related to the river; a café restaurant; a shipbuilding section where visitors can build their own miniature boat and learn about the history of navigation; and a series of knot tying workshops – why not?
Further from the city centre, the river is also creating opportunities for the local food system. “About 18% of the surface area of the city is agricultural land” reveals Małgorzata Bartyna-Zielińska of Wroclaw’s Sustainable Development Department, “then there are allotment gardens covering around 5%.” More than one in ten Wroclaw residents use these gardens to grow vegetables and crops.
“Linking suppliers and people who want to buy local food”
“But we don’t have any statistics for how much of that food is going to the local food market,” Bartyna-Zielińska says. “We’re starting an EU project to learn more about agricultural potential, not only within the city, but also the region, to integrate farms into the local economy. It is about sustainable innovative food system solutions; sorry, that’s the project talk. We will create hubs for bringing together local farmers, restaurant owners, local sellers, schools and citizens, linking suppliers and people who want to buy local food.”
Apart from the official allotments, which are managed by an allotment association and not available to everyone, the city is working to facilitate citizen-driven solutions – social gardens. “Even with the development, there’s now a lot of land that belongs to the city that has not been developed yet and is perfect for growing vegetables and for social integration. Part of the project would be creating a database of this land so that people who want to start social gardens could use it. We’ll even train them to help them get started,” Bartyna-Zielińska says.
The point is to create social spaces
The city doesn’t see this as being mostly about the local economy, however. “The point is to create social spaces where people can develop a stronger sense of community, as well as encouraging a shift from meat to more plant-based diets.”
The empowerment of local growers and the development of the riverfront signal a synthesis of once opposed urban and natural worlds. Far from thinking of nature as opposed to civilisation Wroclaw has brought all its natural resources to bear to enhance sociability and a sense of community that is deeply rooted in place.