Saturday, 12 May 2007

The future of cities

The Economist's special report on cities gives me much to consider. One the one hand, here we are, living within the city limits of a medium-sized nation's capital. On the other, Poland is a nation of 38.2 million - yet only one in 20 of the population lives in the capital. London is home to one in eight UK citizens (one in five if you take the entire metropolitan area). Will Warsaw grow? Undoubtedly so. How quickly? In what direction? Hard to say.

Will Warsaw 'go centrifugal' (as the Economist article Et in suburbia ego suggests), sprawling out for scores of miles in all direction, while the centre whithers? I don't think so. The central social dividing line in Poland is not race or class, but urban/rural. Poles consider urban living sophisticated. The village, which in the UK is the nation's repository of tradition and values, is in Poland equated with mud and boorishness. The village is where Brits want to retire to, it's where Poles want to escape from. Modern, newly-rich Poland would rather live in newly-built swanky uptown apartment with underground parking, security and fitness centre, and not having to worry about lengthy commutes.

Where does this leave the city's periphery? Until recently, prices of apartments in central Warsaw were shooting up at unprecendented rates (100% in 18 months not uncommon), while prices of edge-of-town villas stagnated. Now, as apartment prices become increasingly unaffordable even to the newly-affluent, home-buyers are starting to look at the suburbs.

The drawbacks are the commuting (two hours a day) and lack of town drains (we spend around 40 quid a month having our septic tank emptied). The pluses of living away from the city centre are evident in the photos. But Jeziorki is not a suburb in the usual British or American sense. There's no shops, pubs or restaurants within walking distance. We have to drive a six kilometre round trip to the shop to buy fresh bread and morning papers. This makes Jeziorki more of a village than a suburb.

Below: What better place to grow up? (our son Eddie, right, with friend Wojtek)

Most Poles live in apartments in towns and cities while having their own 'dzialka' (dacha) in the country where they can relax at weekends. Some will be posh, most basic - indeed there are quite a few around Jeziorki, where city folk have their little plots, wooden shacks and grow things, grill barbeques or just chill out. My guess is that over the coming years, as land prices rise, more and more of the dzialki will be sold and turned into building plots for suburban housing.

I recently re-watched John Betjeman's Metro-Land, his televisual poem about London's extended suburbia opened up by the Metropolitan Railway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His observations about the furthest reaches of Metroland ring true with early 21st century Jeziorki: "Grass triumphs. And I must say, I'm rather glad".


Neighbour said...

Hi, you can buy your morning bread and newspapers at the corner of Buszycka and Karczunkowska, a 10-15 minutes walk from your home, if I guessed right ;-)

All the best,

Michael Dembinski said...

Since Max's supermarket in Dawidy Bankowe stopped carrying newspapers, I've moved my Saturday show to Tomasz's place on the corner of Buszycka and Karczunkowska. For fresh bread, kaszanka and a Gazeta Wyborcza - all you need for a weekend breakfast.