The rise of Poland’s urban movement


Poland’s recent local elections went
according to the usual script: The ruling coalition of the Civic Platform and
Polish People’s Party retained their control over major cities. But there was
one political surprise in the final results. The urban movement, which ran for
the first time in elections as a nationwide coalition of city activists, won
the mayor’s seat in Gorzow Wielkopolski, in western Poland, and a number of
city council seats in big cities like Warsaw, Poznan and Torun.

Although a
newcomer to the electoral race, the urban movement dictated the direction of
most election campaigns. Their demands ended up in the electoral programmes of
mainstream political parties, which scrambled to attract grassroot activists on
their lists to capture the youth leftist vote.

So what is this
new political force and can it permanently transform Polish local and state

We, the

In late 2007, a
group of residents of the Rataje district in Poznan, in western Poland,
organised to defend their right to have a say in the planning of their
neighbourhood. The mayor of Poznan and the city council, had proposed to
transform the derelict post-industrial zone of the neighbourhood into a new
residential and commercial area. Local residents, on the other hand, insisted
on building a park and a recreational area. They mobilised the community,
organised protests, wrote petitions and publicised the issue in the media.

The negative
publicity made the situation uncomfortable enough for local officials to
concede to public pressure and withdraw their commercial development proposal.
This was the first sign that a new social force was emerging with the potential
to affect urban policies in Poland through civic engagement.

activities began to surface in other Polish cities around that time. Activists
from Sopot in northern Poland started calling for participatory budgeting
following the model of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

In Lodz, in
central Poland, an informal group of active citizens organised themselves
around the issue of cleanliness of public spaces. Gradually, these groups
merged into a movement calling for citizen participation in the transformation
of the post-industrial area of the city, just like in Poznan. Lodz used to be
an important industrial centre up until 1989 when its textile industry
collapsed and many industrial buildings lay abandoned and derelict.

In Warsaw,
urban activists organised demonstrations for the preservation of green areas in
the centre of the Polish capital; against hikes in public transport fees, and
against privatisation of municipal buildings.

In the last few
years, groups like Right to the City, Inhabitants’ Forum, and the Housing
Movement have emerged in almost every Polish town bringing together individuals
of various ages, social, and cultural backgrounds. These groups were involved
in a variety of campaigns to reassert residents’ rights to their neighbourhoods
and towns: from writing petitions, to organising protests, pickets and
demonstrations, to occupying vacant buildings, setting up squats and blocking

Their political
appetite grew with time. In 2010, Poznan activists formed: “We, the
Inhabitants of Poznan,” social electoral committee to contest local
elections. They received almost 10 percent of the votes, but with an electoral
law favouring big political parties, they failed to get a seat on the council.

This electoral
experience facilitated the launching, in 2011, of an informal coalition – the
Urban Movements Congress – comprising urban activist groups from all over

The congress
was tasked with formulating a programme to provide a common foundation around
which urban activists would build their campaigns in local communities.

The programme
was focused on three main pillars: policies to stem and reverse the growth of
socioeconomic inequalities and exclusion; sustainable environment-conscious
urban development in the interest of all residents; and promotion of direct
democracy practices such as social consultations, participatory budgeting and

Urban victories

After the
founding of the congress, the urban movements grew in strength and impact.

On the national
level, the congress managed to pressure the Ministry of Regional Development to
include some of its policies in its 2012 National Urban Policy (NUP) programme.

On the local
level, urban activists managed to reap a number of victories.

In 2011, after
much “harassment” from activists, the mayor of Sopot agreed to
implement participatory budgeting in the city. Residents now can decide on how
to spend 5 million zlotys (about $1.6m) or one percent of the municipal budget.

Other mayors
soon followed suit. In Lodz, residents decide on how to spend 40 million zlotys
($13m). The mayor of Lodz also invited local activists to advise the city
council’s Revitalisation Bureau on specific policies for the socioeconomic
development of the city.

The reason why
Lodz became more accepting of the urban movement’s demands was because its
previous mayor was removed in a popular referendum in January 2010. The mayors
of Czestochowa, Olsztyn, Elblag, Bytom and Ostroda were also removed in the
same manner for introducing policies regarding privatisation and commercial
development which went against the will of their electorates.

The same fate
threatened the mayor of Warsaw, but the low turnout at the referendum saved
her. After surviving in her post, she quickly implemented some of the urban
movement’s demands.

But the most
spectacular achievement of the Polish urban movement in recent months was
putting Krakow’s candidacy to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to a

After it was
announced in November 2013 that local authorities had decided to put forward
Krakow’s candidacy for the Olympics, activists launched a campaign called
Krakow Against Games, which aimed to inform people of the negative consequences
of hosting big sporting event.

authorities caved in under popular pressure and put the decision to a
referendum, with the condition that it has at least a 30 percent turnout.
Knowing that the 2010 EU elections had only a 26 percent turnout, they combined
the referendum with the 2014 EU elections.

To the
displeasure of local authorities, some 36 percent of Krakow’s citizens voted and 70
percent of those said no to the games.

Victory of the
Krakow Against Games campaign showed that referendums can be an important tool
in bringing local policies in line with residents’ will and that urban
activists have considerable social support.

The Krakow
victory gave impetus to the formation by of nationwide coalition of 12
sociopolitical entities affiliated with the Urban Movements Congress to contest
the 2014 local elections. The results of the election demonstrated that the
movement can translate its grassroot support into electoral victories.

With the 2015
parliamentary and presidential elections approaching, the coalition is hopeful
that it will have an even larger political impact in the coming year.

The urban
movement has a long way to go in order to occupy a permanent place on Poland’s
political map, but its public presence, successful campaigns and increasing
social support show that there is a definite shift in Polish people’s
sociopolitical attitudes. There is clearly growing support for sustainable and
environment-conscious development which aims to level out inequalities and
exclusion and usher in effective practices of direct democracy.

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