Imagining the city

Each and every one of us hears stories. We learn, as children, about magical kingdoms, about enchanted forests and faraway castles. That imagination, that sense of creation, fuels us. We want; we want more, and we want better.

How can we capture this creative potential, and apply it to nearby lands, to perhaps making our own neighbourhoods better?

Warsaw’s redesign of its ‘fairytale square’ made sure to ask children exactly what they wanted in their ‘dream playground’. And, the idea to upgrade the square was made off the back of demands by local residents who were very clear in what they wanted: a safe environment with varied spaces for children of all ages to play, surveillance cameras and a lockable fence.

Plans for the fairytale square

“Three rooms and a kitchen” was the slogan used by Warsaw’s Białołęka Cultural Centre when it opened in a new area of town – the projection of a homely, inclusive atmosphere was key to encouraging locals onto its premises, and finding out from them what they wanted from its services. The idea that nothing affects identification with a place as much as taking responsibility for it, saw the centre actively reaching out to all age groups, challenging them to come up with activities for the centre.

The culinary area now offers joint cooking; there is also a show space, a small gymnasium, spaces for small meetings and the process even led to the emergence of a group of more active residents, who now offer their time, knowledge and skills, by leading neighbourhood sewing classes, or providing legal advice.

Midowa street

Miodowa Street runs along the edge of Warsaw’s Old Town. Its architecture is composed almost entirely of historic palaces and churches. It is both the main thoroughfare for tourists into the historic centre, and the only route out for a handful of residential streets that lead off to its side.

Yet, the road surface, and condition of the pavement was falling into disrepair, and so a few years back the city administration announced a plan to resurface the road and renovate the pavements, which led to a huge controversy. Why were citizens not being asked about the upgrades? Warsawians expect to be consulted…

Citizens’ consultations

What do these examples have in common? Well, they have all been organised through Warsaw’s system of citizens’ consultations.

“We started by speaking with a very few people; now it is with many thousands,” says Anna Petroff-Skiba, Head of Warsaw City Council’s Public Consultation & Resident Involvement Division. “It’s not easy”, she continues.

Indeed, the process, which began in 2008, started on a small scale. Citizens were asked about local subjects: their playgrounds, their streets. But gradually the topics being consulted on have become broader. Do we want a greener city? Should it be car friendlier or car free?

We started by speaking with a very few people; now it is with many thousands
— Anna Petroff-Skiba, Head of Warsaw City Council’s Public Consultation & Resident Involvement Division

And that leads to many different opinions, many voices; complicated outcomes. So why do it?

“The first thing is that people in Warsaw want to be involved, we have a lot of activists”, says Petroff-Skiba. And, as she goes on to explain, “people can correct our ideas. Often, they know much better than we do how a place might be used.” With this in mind, a lot of Petroff-Skiba’s work revolves around preparing the ground for new projects with people, most especially local residents who will feel the biggest impacts on their daily life.

It’s important to note, too, that Warsaw’s citizen consultations do not simply come from the top, so to speak. People power is alive and well, with propositions that have collected at least 1,000 signatures from people on the city level, and 300 signatures from people on the district level, able to be discussed by the city council.

The dual process of running a participatory budget also helps to guarantee that as many projects as possible can be consulted on and assessed for feasibility.

“Last year we had more than 100 consultations,” says Petroff-Skiba.

Building trust

For the moment, the process has changed – COVID19 means moving almost everything online. The team at the Centre for Public Communication, that Petroff-Skiba leads, came up with ideas to share posters with people to print from their homes to share notifications about new/upcoming consultations.

Usually, the team works with a network of partners, including NGOs, and, as Petroff-Skiba points out, “you can meet us on the street, you can go to the website, you can come to a workshop…there are a lot of ways to meet people and get involved”.

People can correct our ideas. Often, they know much better than we do how a place might be used
— Anna Petroff-Skiba

But, given the current climate, one of the big projects for Petroff-Skiba’s team these days is that they are now working on a citizens consultation platform, modelled on one already trialled by Barcelona.

On the outcomes of her work, as Petroff-Skiba says, “I hope that people know they can trust us and that the confidence between our city hall and inhabitants are better.”

As an observer, this certainly does seem to be the case.

When it opened, the consultation on Midowa street was all encompassing. Passers-by were consulted on the street. Walks were arranged, so that people could think about the entire street, rather than a section of it they knew well, or used regularly. Information points were set up at bus stops.

What type of street did residents opt for? Well, the historic buildings were to be the heroes, with their facades exposed. And in opposition to the initial plans, and in spite of the narrow width of the street, residents wanted to keep their bicycle lanes!

Knowing that you are listened to is invaluable in building trust, So credit where credit is due to those who are brave enough to listen, and imagine the future city.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer