In the entire urban-greenery discussion today, there are only two questions, perhaps, that really matter: (a) How green is your city? (b) Why, whatever it is you’re doing to preserve and promote greenery, it is probably not enough?

Like many historic cities worldwide, Kraków is undergoing a true renaissance of activity in great many areas and ways. The city’s growth, quite naturally, impacts its architectural landscape as well as the actual density of housing and business infrastructure. This trend is also reflected in the unprecedented development of suburban areas on all sides of the city.

In other words, you don’t need an urban architecture expert to notice the large number of office buildings that have either been built in the last decade or are currently under construction, counting in hundreds of thousands of square meters of new office space.

With growing prices of property and land, and less and less space available for new building projects in city centres, it is far too probable that concrete will continue to win in the uneven battle with greenery, unless structural solutions are put in place and the city is clear about where it is heading, at least when it comes to environmental impact. This is why it is extremely important that (both modern and historic) cities should approach the concept of balancing environmental sustainability and growth with utmost seriousness and attention. In doing so, they may also score a lot of points for the city in question, even as an international brand. And if the brand we are talking about has environmental issues on top of the list of its image-and-quality-of-life risks, then failing to explore environmental innovations might just be dangerously close to ill-advised, incompetent and, worst of all, irresponsible .

Kraków (view from Krzemionki/Podgórze, south of the city)

Two Words: Creativity And Responsibility

There are many unexplored creative ways in which cities can successfully raise awareness about the importance of greenery in an urban setting, not to mention promoting environmentally-friendly building projects. Towards that goal, some cities incentivise and promote roof gardens, others applaud greenery on building facades and balconies, others still bet on developing the so-called pocket gardens, in an attempt not to condemn its inhabitants to the claustrophobia of feeling surrounded by glass and concrete alone. Planting more trees and covering rooftops with lawns and shrubbery are rather intuitive solutions, however, hardly what one would describe as genuine environmental innovation.

If only as little as 1% of the creative energy spent on developing new smartphone models every few months by the likes of Apple, Samsung or Huawei was given to green innovations, contemporary cities would look and feel very different. Meanwhile, as things stand, for too many metropolises, come winter months, and many panoramas and urban landscapes tread dangerously close to dictionary definitions of ‘bleak’ and ‘gloomy’.

And then, there are projects like this one, the famous-turned-notorious London Garden Bridge, a very costly failure, also from the taxpayer’s perspective, as explained in the BBC News article (read the link above).

How Green Is Kraków…And Why Is It Not Enough?

Two days after the OWHC World Congress held in June, Denis Ricard, Secretary General of the Organization of World Heritage Cities observed that Kraków is probably the only historic city in the world with a ring garden surrounding the entire historic centre. This is what he had in mind (watch the video):

The Green Stats

Kraków boasts as many as 47 parks (472 hectares) and 276 nature monuments. Key green statistics also include:

  • 5 nature reserves (48 hectares)
  • 3 landscape parks (4,753 hectares)
  • 3 “Natura 2000” Areas (384 hectares)
  • 7,23 hectares of greenery per 1000 inhabitants
  • 16% of total city area classified as “protected areas”
  • 17% of total city area classified as “open space reserves”
  • 7% of total city area classified as “forests” (1381 hectares)
  • 385 hectares of water (rivers/reservoirs)
  • 5533 hectares of “green areas”
  • 140 km of bike paths

Is it enough? The obvious answer is “Definitely NOT!”

While the city has been increasingly active in both protecting its green patches of land and identifying new spaces for parks and pocket gardens, true environmental innovation is still lacking, at least the kind that turns heads and makes others acknowledge your innovative approach. It all depends, of course, on how you define environmental innovation, i.e. how important you consider environment (= quality of life) to be in the first place and, last but not least, how high you are prepared to raise the bar for your city.

Few Cities Understand The (Marketing) Power of Greenery

And Kraków is not one of those cities, not yet at least, even though it is coming closer and closer to understanding the hidden potential of greenery and environmental innovation, albeit with too small steps at a time and a mindset of a best-practice follower rather than a trend-setter.

Zakrzówek / Skałki Twardowskiego (Kraków, Poland, 2,5km from the Wawel Castle)

The photo above shows a place known as Zakrzówek, aka Skałki Twardowskiego. Much could be written about this site. Suffice it to say at this point, however, that if I were to identify Kraków’s TOP 5 unique characteristics, this (somewhat unobvious) place would definitely be included, especially if you look at it through the prism of its creative development potential and the role it could play in raising environmental awareness, not what it is (or stands for) today. Ironically enough, what it stands for today is in many ways representative of where the city stands in its green-thinking efforts and how dynamically things are about to change.

Bridging the Gaps

Having mentioned the London Garden Bridge project, building a similar garden bridge in Kraków (at a fraction of the cost, by the way) would no doubt become a much-needed stimulus for the city’s key quality-of-life topics, such as air quality in winter, not to mention some of the much-welcome consequences in the area of thought leadership, both on a national and an international scale. As such, paired with a smart education campaign, a simple initiative like that might prove to have a larger impact on environmental awareness in Poland than many of the costly infrastructure projects in the field combined.

Zakrzówek / Skałki Twardowskiego (Kraków, Poland, 2,5km from the Wawel Castle)

Looking at the overall trends of growth and development in Kraków, one conclusion appears to be undeniable: creating a quality-of-life strategy around environmental awareness and green thinking should definitely become a priority for Kraków. It should span great many projects under one, consistent, city-storytelling narrative, with a clearly defined vision driving the process. The fact alone that Kraków boasts a place as beautiful and unique as Zakrzówek, in such a proximity to its historic centre, translates to a lot of (so far untapped) creative opportunities.

Storytelling Is Not Easy

Despite the existence of hundreds of agencies boasting city-marketing skills, few (if any) cities in Poland can boast a truly impressive storytelling strategy, which is one way of saying that either the agencies in question are not good enough or the cities themselves are failing to recognise the hidden potential of great storytelling. My educated guess would be it’s a bit of both.

Strategic storytelling is a rare form of art, and a truly multi-dimensional one. It requires skills and competences associated not only with marketing and PR, but, more importantly, strategic thinking, creative arts, lobbying, fundraising and, at the end of the day, undeniably, team-building, communication and media relations. Needless to say, without (enough) leadership skills, things just don’t and won’t happen.