Volume 14 Number 3
Land Use and Democracy
01 June 2001
Joanna Giecewicz is an architect and teaches design in the department of architecture of the Warsaw Technical University. She has lived and worked in Vienna and the USA and is a fellow of regional studies at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning in the US.
My professional field of architecture and planning has given me a lively concern for land use and the environment. This inspired me to propose that this July's Caux Conference for Business and Industry at the MRA centre in Switzerland should include a forum on environment, ecology and sustainable development.
Half a century of so-called central planning has left post-communist countries like my own, Poland, with a negative legacy of costly, unusable industry, bad housing and weak, decrepit infrastructure. 'The land has suffered beyond imagination,' as a Czech architect wrote in 1995. But this mis-development has also left pockets of biodiversity, forgotten tracts of wilderness impossible to find in the west of Europe.
This seems to offer the sustainable development opportunity of one's dreams. Poland's post-1989 constitution describes sustainable development as a principle of economic development. Planning regulations are strongly oriented toward environmental protection. Environmental assessment procedures are part of the investment process.
We have information about the big development mistakes committed in the 1950s&endash;70s in the West. They were based on such misconceptions as 'all transport problems will be solved by private cars', 'all you can sell has to be sold', 'growth at any price'. Sadly, the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe are stepping in the same footprints. Nowadays western cities are working hard at maintaining natural reserves, cleaning up waterways and lakes and restoring to their natural condition rivers dammed in the beautiful 1960s.
SELLING OFF NATURE
In practice, land use policies in Poland are not as good as they look on paper. At the local level elected officials are usually in coalition with business and no one represents the interests of the community. The results are growth above all, selling what can be sold, proposals to organize the Winter Olympics in the tiny (in comparison to the Alps) national park of the Tatra Mountains and to construct new dams on the Vistula river. The World Wide Fund for Nature calls the Vistula 'the aging queen' and lists it as one of five great European rivers that should be preserved in the semi-natural state they still enjoy.
City and town governments are selling all the land they can to developers--sometimes getting rid of forest, meadows and fields. They are selling off 'ecological subdivisions' -- mostly on land that should be protected for the use of the community--and reducing existing parks and nature reserves on the grounds that they are 'an obstacle to development'. The Director of the Tatra National Park has been dubbed an 'enemy of progress and civilization' by the politicians, because he had the stamina to say 'no' to the idea of the Winter Olympics and constantly opposes further development of ski resorts there.
One dangerous aspect of all this is the attempt made to conceal information about proposed investment and to reduce public participation in the planning process to a purely theoretical possibility.
Public awareness of the problems is growing fast. Local politicians are perceived as representing the short-term business- oriented view. As a result there have been a number of organized protests by people who feel they are not informed, not consulted and have no positive legal way to express their point of view and participate in the process. These environmental activities are helping a civil society to develop--a concept that had really been destroyed by the communist regime.
I have been involved personally through sharing my knowledge with my students in the architecture department of the Warsaw Technical University, through writing in my local newspaper and through organizing protests.
The first of these related to the construction of a large private house on a beautiful riverside meadow. It was a wetland of exceptional natural value, which should have been reserved for public enjoyment and use. Three years of action by local people, and of appeals to every possible regional and national institution, ended in complete failure. The house has been finished and is a blight on that small river valley.
The second case concerned attempts to prevent housing development in an area where there were wells for drinking water. It followed much the same track as the protest against the house--three years of totally unsuccessful activities--but many more people were involved. On the way, however, we managed to stop a petrol station being constructed in our village.
Our community was founded 70 years ago as a kind of garden-, or rather forest-, city, close to the suburbs of Warsaw. Last summer we organized an exhibition of its history, and many people came to visit it. Preparing the exhibition brought the community together to discuss the events of the past, the problems of today and to plan for the future. This helped to build positive attitudes towards our own place.
When I began to think about the environmental forum in Caux, such words as stewardship, unselfish action, motivation, interactive insight came to mind. They define what is needed. The attitude of stewardship allows us to use the Earth's gifts without destroying them and to remember that we do not own them. That leads on to the idea of unselfish action, which is based on understanding that the Earth's riches exist for the common good and that it is our duty to use them sustainably.