WARSAW – “We are the first generation that is not associating public space with oppression, but rather with freedom and the public sphere,” says 30 year-old sociologist and urban activist Joanna Erbel, explaining why activism around public space issues has become so fashionable in Poland over the past couple of years.
To city inhabitants across Poland, the results of this activism are obvious. More people rely on biking for getting to work. There is a rising interest in local and ecological food and a newly discovered passion for urban gardening. Attempts to build residential complexes in green areas are rejected by grassroots campaigns, and many citizens submit projects for financing from participatory budgets introduced over the last years in several cities.
“Our generation had to find some new focus because topics like state democracy were already taken up by the older generation; so we turned to cities as the subject of our political activity,” adds Erbel. “Finally, people started going abroad and getting ideas. Erasmus probably did more for biking in Poland than any public policy!”
Poland’s “urban movements”
What are today called Poland’s “urban movements” (ruchy miejskie) have their roots in 2006-2007 but became more visible in 2011, when a congress of all urban movements in Poland took place in Poznan (urban activism is as developed in other cities of Poland as in the capital, Warsaw). In one of the early victories, inhabitants of the Rataje neighbourhood in Poznan forced the mayor to give up the construction of a commercial residential complex in an area where people wanted to have green space. In the most notorious case, in 2014, inhabitants of Krakow rejected in a referendum the organisation of the 2022 winter Olympic Games in their city following a grassroots campaign.
It was last year too that the strength of the urban movements became clear during the campaigns for local elections taking place in November. Candidates of the urban movements were present in mainstream media and their proposals became topics of wide debate, some of them (such as better biking infrastructure) being gradually incorporated in the platforms of big parties.
Candidates representing the Covenant of Urban Movements (Porozumienie Ruchow Miejskich, the pre-electoral alliance grouping movements from various cities) made it to local and neighbourhood councils in seven cities, including Warsaw, and even won a mayoral seat in Gorzow Wielkopolksi and a vice-mayor position in Poznan.
In the most notorious case, in 2014, inhabitants of Krakow rejected in a referendum the organisation of the 2022 winter Olympic Games in their city following a grassroots campaign.
According to Ewa Sufin-Jacquemart from the Polish Green Party, activism around city issues was a response to a mix of neoliberal policies promoted by all post-socialist governments in Poland and massive investments in infrastructure funded with EU money ever since Poland joined the block in 2004. Poland is a notoriously “good student” of the EU when it comes to absorbing funds, having made use of around 80 billion euros from the EU Budget over the last ten years.
“There was construction going on everywhere in Polish cities, roads, gated residential areas, while all urban planning dating from the communist period was eliminated,” says Sufin-Jacquemart. “Less and less public space was available for people and public services were being privatised. Living in the city meant that you have to pay for everything.”
“The city movements happened due to the generational change,” says sociologist Maciej Gdula from Warsaw University. “The young are not limited by the ideology of keeping up with the West and with indispensable, bitter reforms.”
“But the rise of the middle class is also an important reason behind city movements,” adds Gdula. “I would link their popularity not only with the increase in the number of people belonging to the middle class, but also with a specific articulation of the middle class culture – leaders of city movements speak about order in the public space and quality of public services.
Beyond the middle class
Despite their success, urban movements have been criticised for not going far enough. For one, being driven by this class, they fail to tackle issues that are burning for the poor living in cities. For another, they do not address the structural causes of problems, such as indiscriminate privatisation or austerity politics (importantly, before the local elections, the urban movements from Porozumienie declared themselves non-ideological, including both left and right-wingers in their ranks). For the critics, these shortcomings limit the support for and the impact of urban movements.
According to city gardener Iza Kaszynska, some of the most important problems affecting Polish people today are precarious labour contracts (Poland has the largest proportion in the EU of working people on precarious contracts without stability and benefits, around 30 percent) and unaffordable housing.
“The fact that urban dwellers spend their entire salaries on rents or credits, or that they do not have access to affordable public services, which makes them live precarious lives in the city, should be a major issue for urban movements,” says Kaszynska.
“A lot of the urban activism is made by the middle class who do not have these problems with housing or precarious contracts, or do not want to openly identify with this type of precarious situation even if they are in it,” agrees Jakub Zaczek, an activist who is working both against eviction of people from reprivatised homes and against precarious working contracts.
“At the beginnings of urban activism in Warsaw and other cities, we made what I call an intellectual mistake or omission,” explains Joanna Erbel. “Our main issue, especially in Warsaw, was public space because we thought it equals the public sphere and that, if you take people out of the public space, you exclude them. But that was just the beginning and it is not enough. Many of us have since turned our attention from issues of public space to issues of the common good, we started looking at housing for example.”
Indeed, an impressive movement against the reprivatisation of public buildings and eviction of people living in them, which gripped many Polish cities over the last years, does seem to point to a way in which activism could move beyond public space issues to root causes of city life problems while building broad alliances on the way.
“The young are not limited by the ideology of keeping up with the West and with indispensable, bitter reforms.”
According to Jakub Zaczek, the reprivatisation of public buildings in Poland, which has been taking place since 1989, is a highly abusive process, not only because those claiming buildings often falsify their rights to the property with authorities turning a blind eye, but also because Polish authorities are not forced by law to offer alternative housing to those kicked out.
Interestingly, reprivatisations in Warsaw in particular offer an occasion to question what is often a dogma in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe, that private property is the core building block of a fair, free and democratic society. Notoriously, Warsaw was virtually effaced at the end of World War II, and the reconstruction of its building stock was done with huge reliance on volunteer efforts by citizens. These same people were then given the right to live as tenants of the city in the new buildings which became property of the socialist state. And they (or their heirs) are being evicted today in the name of a pre-war order.
The lack of any protection for the evicted tenants adds insult to injury. Social and communal housing (these are two categories of housing offered by the state for less privileged people, with social being cheaper to rent and having worse conditions than communal) are very hard to access in Poland because of the limited stock, high rents relative to incomes, and tough criteria for accessing this kind of accommodation.
Until recently, a legislative gap made it impossible for those knowing they would be evicted to apply for social housing until the moment they were effectively out of their old homes. In practice, this meant people were pushed into homelessness by state policies.
In this context, tenants supported by activists (often from small leftist and anarchist groups such as Syrena squat in Warsaw or Zaczek’s Committee for the Defense of Tenants – Komitet Obrony Lokatorow) started resisting evictions. In response, they were often harassed by the new owners of buildings, including via making the building uninhabitable. In an infamous case that became a symbol for the movement, the body of a tenants’ rights activist, Jolanta Brzeska, was found in 2011 charred in a forest near Warsaw.
The tenants movement, driven by the vulnerable people evicted from their homes and supported by radical activists, enjoys the sympathy and sometimes support of city movements. Reprivatisations affect not only people but also green areas or buildings of historical value, which the urban middle classes are concerned about. Importantly, the movement makes the link between a destroyed green area or an evicted family and the wild reprivatisation strategies of city authorities and the lack of social support for the evicted and for poor families who cannot afford rent in general.
The left is up for grabs
In Poland, a new generation has grown and started having an impact on politics. To be sure, activism in the cities goes way beyond the urban movements and some of the initiatives, among them food or biking cooperatives or squats, are explicitly trying to propose alternatives to a capitalist system they consider abusive.
Yet this fresh activist energy for the moment lacks a strong expression in electoral politics (Porozumienie is non-ideological and only interested in the local elections). As in most other Central and Eastern European countries, in Poland too, the left is discredited and the main political parties have a right-wing agenda, no matter what labels they carry.
Poland’s main center-left party (the former communists in the Democratic Left Alliance, SLD) hardly reaches 10 percent of voters’ preferences these days and is rejected by the new left activists for implementing neo-liberal measures in the past.
Activism in the cities goes way beyond the urban movements and some of the initiatives […] are explicitly trying to propose alternatives to a capitalist system they consider abusive.
Potentially the best political expression of Poland’s new left is the Polish Green Party, which has been steadily growing over the past year, but still got below 3 percent at the Warsaw mayoral elections via its candidate Joanna Erbel. According to Ewa Sufin-Jacquemart, it is a struggle to compromise between the needs of ecologists, feminists, socialists and other progressives, all of whom see little chance of party representation outside of the Greens.
The Greens are now collecting signatures to put forward a candidate in this year’s presidential elections. Their proposal is Anna Grodzka, a transgender parliamentarian known for her work against evictions, for fairer taxation and for the environment.
“The labels of green and left that the Green Party carries now are not acceptable for those in Poland who would benefit from leftist policies,” comments activist Michal Augustyn, who created a popular non-monetary exchange system, Wymiennik. In coal-reliant Poland, environmentalists are as marginal as the left, in large part because of systematic pro-coal and anti-green propaganda of all parties in power since 1989.
“I think in Poland there is potential for a party which addresses the questions and demands of the working class together with the problems of the middle class,” comments sociologist Maciej Gdula. “The potential is considerable and there are real social forces that can be organised. The obstacles are the lack of leadership and the rather stable economic situation in Poland.”
“Maybe in Poland it is not yet the time for a big social movement such as the ones which stand at the basis of Syriza’s or Podemos’ popularity, but it is definitely the time to start such a movement,” says Michal Augustyn. “The middle class in Poland will soon start shrinking, like elsewhere in Europe, so it is important not to build political ghettos around those lifestyle issues but go out and create coalitions with those less fortunate, by listening to them, amplifying their voices and practicing solidarity.”