Revitalization of Public Spaces in Cittaslow Towns: Recent Urban Redevelopment in Central Europe

Polish National Network

Revitalization of cities varies depending on the scale of a city, type of challenges, and the socio-environmental context in each case. While revitalization projects carried out in globally known cities are well described, there is still a gap in characterizing revitalization processes that aim to improve quality of life in smaller units like medium-sized towns. This paper fills this gap by the insight from 82 revitalization projects implemented in 14 towns of Warmia and Mazury region (Poland) which are associated in the Cittaslow movement. The study combines a quantitative assessment of statistical data describing these projects with their qualitative evaluation based on interviews with local experts. The results of conducted analyses show that socio-economic development plays a major role as, despite projects which directly refer to the social domain, social elements were found also in projects initially categorized as those targeted to architectural and spatial domains. On the other hand, the authors observed that environmental and ecological as well as cultural issues are treated unevenly or marginally in projects compared to social ones. Interviews with experts show that the least importance was assigned to cultural and historical domain. The obtained results might constitute important knowledge to understand the background of current revitalization processes outside of global metropolises to improve future mechanisms supporting urban renewal.

The contemporary urban development process should focus not on “developing more”, but on “developing better”. However, to complex problems related to urban development planning, it is difficult to find solutions, which are correct or false, or answers on how the idealized planning should function [1]. Experience of recent decades in urbanization processes [2] shows that ignoring the issue of quality of urban development may influence many aspects of life like poverty [3], crime [4], public health [5], socialization [6], and many others. That leads to demographic changes which are caused by migrations [7] and as a result influence the development of unsustainable urban forms like low-density urban sprawl in suburban zones [8]. Of course, the problem of urban sprawl mainly affects large cities. However, the effects of this process may affect small towns located in areas near large agglomerations [9]. On the other hand, in small towns in the provinces, one can observe the phenomenon of migration of people to large cities. In order to reverse these ineffective processes, urban renewal became a direction of development policies in many municipalities [10]. In its original meaning, renewal is a process that is intended to improve the condition of the urban environment by introducing direct changes to the housing structure of cities and poor neighborhoods. Improvement of living conditions and better aesthetics of the surroundings are to change the way residents think about space and care for the place where they live [11,12].

Urban regeneration is a process of transforming the economic and social conditions of a place. It requires action at the level of introducing a coordinated small town development policy and cooperation between the public and private sectors, as well as involving the local community in these activities. Regeneration refers to interventions and changes to maximize the outcomes of increasing social, cultural, environmental, and economic outcomes [13].

City revitalization in this context is defined as a response to the stimuli arising from the forces of disinvestment and deterioration (i.e., decline), including interracial demographic shifts, metropolitan suburbanization, intraregional economic competition, and economic globalization [14]. The revitalization of small towns is a process aimed at “revitalizing” them, which takes into account changes in space and the environment concerning the improvement of socio-economic conditions. Revitalization affects especially poor, marginalized places and places in need of intervention [15].

In recent years there is an increasing interest in the role of communities in urban revitalization. The concept of community action and its spatial dimension is understood as the action of a collective of individuals toward a common goal of improvement of the living conditions within their residence or environments [16]. However, there is no one general approach to revitalize a city or town, as every community has got its characteristics and different factors should be taken into account, so the practices of community actions are difficult to use as replicable models [16].

Revitalization projects all around the world differ as other issues have to be solved among cities, they vary according to natural conditions, available financial sources, and kinds of human activity that should be stimulated [15,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24]. Due to their scale, some mega-projects like Big Dig from Boston (MA, USA) [25], Green Carpet from Maastricht (Netherlands) [26], waterfront regeneration in Malmö (Sweden) [27], Huangpu river revitalization in Shanghai (China) [28] or High Line in New York (NY, USA) are well known [29]. However, not every revitalization project is so spectacular, which is in strong relationship with the investment activity of each city [30]. Smaller towns for example may implement different strategies that can be connected also with smaller public spaces in order to create an opportunity for a cozy atmosphere, friendly environment to slow down and step out from very dynamic daily routine. One of the best-known organizations gathering such towns is the Cittaslow network.

The Cittaslow movement was created in 1999 and its goal is to resist globalization and homogenization of towns by promoting cultural diversity, protecting the environment, promoting traditional local products, and striving to improve quality of life. Towns that want to become a member of the network need to have a population under 50,000 citizens (according to European standards classified as medium-sized town [31]) as well as support and implement the goals of Cittaslow [32]. Local policy assessments rely on six main criteria: environmental policies, the safeguarding of autochthonous production, infrastructure, technologies and facilities for urban quality, hospitality, and awareness of the aims, procedures, and programs of the Cittaslow initiative [33]. In order to guarantee high quality of life, public spaces in towns associated in Cittaslow are also being revitalized by local authorities, however, they require different approaches in revitalization projects to maintain their calm character [34,35,36,37,38,39,40].

According to information supported by the Cittaslow network, an example coordinated revitalization of Cittaslow towns was implemented in Poland in the mid-2010s [41]. As with every public investment, the revitalization of public spaces in Cittaslow towns depends on financial feasibility. The Regional Operational Programme of the Voivodeship of Warmia and Mazury 2014–2020 [42], supported by the European Union, among others, from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF), creates such financial framework for local and regional authorities. The region of Warmia and Mazury plays a key role in the Polish Cittaslow network [43,44,45,46,47], as 23 out of 32 associated towns are located in this voivodeship. To manage public investments in that area in an integrated approach, the Supra-Local Revitalization Program of the Network of Cittaslow Cities for 2014–2020 (SLRP) was adopted in 2015 [48,49]. Currently, once the time frame is almost finished it is possible to evaluate how Cittaslow municipalities used this opportunity and what are the findings for future revitalization of public spaces in this specific group of municipalities.

The research aimed to define the role of the revitalization program in transforming public spaces in Cittaslow towns in the region of Warmia and Mazury (Poland). The assessment of the sustainable development of the analyzed towns was of great importance in the research and took into account not only the economic and social aspects but also (which is very important in the 21st century) the ecological and environmental aspects. The ratio of the number of all revitalization projects to projects related to public spaces and architecture (including spaces and architecture of historical importance) was determined. The ratio of the revitalized area was also determined in relation to the groups of revitalization projects (S-space and SA-space and architecture) adopted for the research purposes. The results of an expert interview on the purposefulness and perception of the revitalized space were analyzed (also in terms of addressing the issue of environmental protection and ecology).

The conducted analyzes were to answer the main questions:

Did the membership in the Cittaslow town network and the inclusion of towns in the Supra-Local Revitalization Program (SLRP) increase the attractiveness of towns?

To what extent are the projects implemented under the SLRP directly related to the main goal of Cittaslow towns, i.e., sustainable development and respect for identity?

What was the main motivation for the revitalization of public spaces?

What is the perception of changes in urban space after revitalization?

Additionally, the authors tried to find an answer to the supplementary question:

Is the participation of towns in SLRP related to the increase in the number of projects based on pro-environmental, ecological, and cultural development, as well as their quality and effectiveness?

The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 includes literature review; Section 3 describes methods that were applied in the research and the materials that were used to perform the analyses; Section 4 contains results of the research presented in diagrams; discussion and conclusions of the obtained results are presented in Section 5 and Section 6.

by Agnieszka Jaszczak 1,*OrcID, Katarina Kristianova 2OrcID, Ewelina Pochodyła 3OrcID, Jan K. Kazak 4OrcID and Krzysztof Młynarczyk 1