A breath of new life
Located in central Poland, Lodz prospered off the back of a wave of dynamic, nineteenth century capitalism that ushered in wealth from the textile industry.
Between 1840 and 1900 the city built over 200 tenement houses each year. These large monolithic blocks designed to house factory workers still dominate a good portion of the city’s central area today, yet following the collapse of the textile industry towards the end of the twentieth century, most have fallen into disuse and disrepair.
This “resulted in enormous social and economic problems for the city,” according to Hanna Zdanowska, Mayor of Lodz, which is why, in the 1990s and early 2000s the city administration hatched a plan to revitalise its dilapidated centre.
People make a city
At first, the revitalisation project started off rather small. There were so many things that needed doing following years of neglect, and different building standards from the time of construction.
For example, “many of the houses were not connected to sewers and many people were living in a difficult social situation,” says Joanna Brzezińska, Acting Deputy Director of the city’s ‘Revitalisation Bureau’.
But the city administration had a trump card, despite Lodz being only “the third biggest city by population in Poland,” the administration is “the biggest landlord” in the country according to Brzezińska, and still manages around 40,000 communal flats, most in tenement houses. It started a small programme to turn around the fortunes of 100 of these buildings, and more recently was able to attract European funding to kickstart a 10-year revitalisation initiative, which is now approaching the halfway mark.
“Revitalisation is a complex and long process,” says Brzezińska. “It doesn’t happen just at one time.”
Of course, one key aspect of this plan is making the city a better place for its residents to live, work and relax. As Brzezińska says, “it cannot focus only on infrastructure, but must include environmental, economic and social factors.”
In fact, the plan that is now underway is tremendously ambitious. By demarcating five criteria on which to assess revitalisation needs (unemployment, poverty, crime, level of education and social capital, participation in cultural and public life) and mapping these out across the city, an area of 1,783 hectares, or roughly 6% of the city’s area has become a ‘Special Revitalisation Zone’.
The area, which is home to 152,292 people, is also benefitting from a recent change in the national law that allows for the simplification of several administrative procedures.
Serving community needs
Eight priority areas within the Special Revitalisation Zone are already gaining a new lease on life and starting to serve the needs of the local community once again.
For example, the municipality renovated two flats for the homeless to give them a chance to stand on their own feet, learn how to manage their budgets and re-integrate into society. It also equipped an education centre for visually impaired and blind children.
Small grants have also helped around 60 entrepreneurs set up new businesses, including Anna Bechereka, who left her corporate job to open an art and jewellery store that makes use of recycled materials. The expectation is that more than 600 people from the revitalisation area will eventually have the opportunity to start their own business.
While the focus on buildings takes account of measures such as establishing new areas of greenery and creating better energy efficiency, much of the revitalisation efforts are necessarily focussed on the socioeconomic aspects of revitalisation.
One project, entitled ‘remaking the streets’, sought to work with residents who will be affected by the revitalisation process in order to understand their needs.
Another example of this type of citizen-led revitalisation is the revivification of one of the old tenement houses into a ‘multi-generational’ house.
The idea was to resettle the house with a variety of people from different backgrounds and at different stages in their life. The renewed building now houses old and young residents, such as Mrs Ela, a senior lady who takes care of the garden, and two young couples.
Mirosław was one of the first residents to move in, in May 2019. This is his first flat in the process of becoming independent. “I know I can count on the neighbours here,” he says. “I’ve always been withdrawn on this ‘neighbourhood issue’, and here I’ve been more open to it. When Mrs Ela sometimes comes to me, we are able to exchange a few words with each other: ‘good morning’, ‘goodbye’, ‘what nice weather’, sometimes a few words about flowers, about plants, so to speak… I first of all learned how to communicate with the other person and that’s what made me feel better. I’m not hiding the fact that at first everyone here was a stranger to each other, but slowly, slowly it has changed, and now you can go and talk to everyone who lives here.”
Within the multi-generational house, there is a common space run by a local NGO, ‘Socially Engaged’, which helps residents form these bonds by running various workshops, such as a reading club, yoga or handicrafts sessions.
Areas hosts and lighthouse keepers
Of course, such a large scale revitalisation project can lead to major upheavals, not only in the physical space, but also in people’s lives. With this in mind, Lodz has developed a model to offer support to residents, especially during periods when their building is being renovated.
Brzezińska explains, “area hosts provide up-to-date information on revitalisation activities, coordinate from the administrative side the relocation process and diagnose residents’ problems.” Whereas, “lighthouse keepers are the ones working closely with residents to accompany them and support them in every step in the process of relocation.”
It’s usually the lighthouse keepers that residents get to know best, as they often help out with filling in paperwork, such as debt pay off schemes, or even packing clothes, and often keep in touch with the families afterwards.
This model, which focusses very much on the social aspect and the involvement of residents of the revitalisation process, is also the focus of an EU-funded project that Lodz is leading to share best practice with other cities in urban regeneration – the URBAN REGENERATION MIX Transfer network.
Another way that residents are kept informed is through the city’s website, which even offers visualisations of what finished projects are expected to look like.
“In many big cities in Western Europe, the core of the city not only attracts tourists, but is also vibrant and teaming with life,” comments Brzezińska, and that is the hope for Lodz too. A rejuvenated city centre bringing new jobs, homes and places to enjoy.