Federation for
Housing and

Wroclaw Part 1: Unknown but certainly not uninteresting

All we know is still infinitely less than all that still remains unknown - William Harvey

The name Breslau rang a bell. Vratislavia, Vretslav, Wroclaw, Preslau, Vraclav, Vratislavia, Vraclav and Vroclav did not. They are all different names for one and the same city, the city currently named Wroclaw. The number of different names the city has had in history underscores a rich and sometimes troubled past. As one might imagine, this makes Wroclaw an ideal destination for an International Federation for Housing and Planning professional visit. Professor Izabela Mironowicz and her PhD students Kasia Piskorek and Janek Barski organised this great trip including plenty of opportunities to meet with local planning profesionals.

The fully packed two and a half day programme felt like a master class in both Polish urban planning in general and the history of Wroclaw and the region of Lower Silesia. To start with the latter, a city which was founded on the crossing of the Amber Road – running from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea – and the medieval Via Regia road has quite some history. All the different states it has been part of have left both beautiful heritage and ugly scars.

From the first second I was struck by the beautifully preserved medieval city centre. Even though car use has skyrocketed in the past 20 years there were so many signs of successful gentrification. I saw lofts that wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s Meatpacking district or Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg. Perhaps there was even more space reserved for pedestrians in these streets. But looking at the beautiful inner courtyards  I was struck by the fact that most public space is occupied by cars.

Also  on the strategic level of urban planning the site visits and, above all, the meetings with leading practitioners provided beautiful insights. The 2012 European soccer championship has been used as a catalyst not only to build a new stadium for the local soccer club and motorway bypass, but also to build a whole new airport terminal as well. It was unfortunate to see that the stadium has not (yet) invigorated the surrounding area. Most of the planned developments were cancelled because of the real estate crisis, which has given the surroundings a rather desolate character. Why is it that so many politicians and planners all over the world still like new sport venues so much?

Another urban initiative was introduced by Maciej Litwin, incentive manager of the European Institute of Technology+. He told us a story about the role of semantics in creating a common goal in urban planning. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso set the creation of a European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) as one of the priorities of the commission in order to strengthen the position of Europe as a knowledge-based economy. Inspiration for which comes, not entirely surprisingly, from the success story of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. In the translations in all European languages it could be interpreted in multiple ways, such as the creation of a network of universities or the exchange of “brains”. In Wroclaw people got enthusiastic about the idea to create an EIT+. The implicit strategy has been to refrain from strictly defining this EIT+, so that everybody can envision their own idea and group around one concept. Ultimately the EIT+ will be a new campus combining the best of several universities in the cities and enriching an undiscovered part of the city. Whether it will work as a catalyst to the city’s economy remains to be seen, but it sure has been an interesting urban planning strategy.

First of all, the fact that it started off using an initiative and the words of the European Union is in itself something special for someone like me coming from an increasingly euro sceptical country. Secondly, they have created a coalition of the willing by successfully creating a narrative. And thirdly, they have been able to do this without (and probably because of the lack of) a clear definition.   

These were just some of the stories, insights and experiences I had in Wroclaw. All in all it has been a truly inspiring and insightful IFHP professional visit. I would recommend every urbanist and tourist to visit this city that is amazing in so many ways. And only our ancestors will be able to judge if the Euro 2012 stadium and the adjacent Motorway bypass will be considered beautiful heritage or an ugly scar.