As cities grow and compete for attention, domestically and abroad, questions inevitably arise as to how this growth can be managed and regulated by city strategists and supported by activists (if it’s not a contradiction in terms). Some even question whether it should be managed in the first place, implying that the less meddling, planning and bureaucracy on the part of public administration, the better.

Things are rarely as simple as that, however, especially when the task at hand is none other than sustainable growth of historical cities, which have traditionally been centres of culture and academia and have recently evolved in altogether new directions, sometimes more dynamically than anyone would have anticipated or imagined possible.

Experimenting with the new, inevitably means facing (often unexpected) challenges. Come 2020 and some historical cities are now famous for startups, some for R&D centres, others for business services and high-tech innovations, others still for niche products and services. As a general rule, however, cities with multiple universities and higher-education centres are what the corporate world has in mind every time it makes a reference to a talent pool. In case you haven’t noticed, objectifying metaphors are merely one symptom of a broader job-market phenomenon, but that’s a topic for an altogether different article, better still, a PhD dissertation, if anyone’s interested.

From a capital of culture to the top spot in business services

Kraków has long been the cultural capital of Poland. Over the past two decades or so, however, the city has undergone a massive transformation, the social and economic impact of which can only be likened to the construction of Nowa Huta, 70 years ago.

Over the last 10 years, in particular, Kraków has experienced a massive shift in its business landscape and international image as a business destination. In next to no time, one of Europe’s great cultural capitals (with the second-oldest university in Central Europe) has also become one of the world’s favourite destinations for (ever more) advanced business services.

Modern office spaces in Kraków: over 1 million square metres in total (2019)

From outsourcing to next-gen companies

What started as a simple labour-cost-to-human-capital calculation on the part of a handful of companies, keen to outsource some of the more mundane services in their portfolio (and optimise costs in the process), soon became a migration phenomenon the likes of which where nowhere to be found, not in Europe at least. Even though Kraków’s growth on this trajectory started comparatively late, the city was soon to surpass everyone’s expectations, and by everyone’s, I mean EVERYONE’S, including the city’s strategists.

According to ASPIRE Poland, a Kraków-based association (over 150 companies), the employment in the sector has grown from ca. 19,000 in 2011 to 90,000 in January 2020! ASPIRE’s mission is to be “the No.1 business association for technology and business services companies within CEE”, measured by the quality of services offered, members’ engagement and positive impact on the region’s economic and technological progress.

The (Un)usual dilemmas

With growth, comes the need for compromise. As more and more young people come to study at universities and work for companies based in Kraków, the impact on inner city traffic is tremendous. It’s especially visible in early February when students have a short break after exams and children with families are enjoying their mid-term winter holidays. During those two weeks, the experience of driving around the city is a breeze: you need more or less half the time to reach anywhere you want to reach by car.

City traffic, however, is merely one of many indicators of a broader and infinitely more complex evolution. Given the statistics listed above, revolution might be a better word. This includes the pressure to approve the construction of:

  • (more than a dozen) new office buildings in and around the historical city centre (every year),
  • the growing need for modern accommodation (massive new residential areas all over the city),
  • international schools and higher education available in English,
  • diverse cultural offer & entertainment (incl. over 100 festivals in the city!),
  • everyday services (administration)
  • environmentally-friendly and efficient public transport,
  • news platforms in English, etc.

Quality of life has a colour: it’s green!

In the face of the rising growth and development pressures, protecting the city’s green areas has no doubt grown in importance over the last few years. The city’s activists, journalists and concerned residents raise criticism every time a new construction project is given a green light. Ever more conferences are organised every year around topics linked to sustainable growth, environmental impact, industry 4.0, zero-waste economy, climate change, etc. Open Eyes Economy Summit (5th edition this year) is but one example.

But how green is the city, literally? Here’s a few stats to put things in perspective. According to this summary, issued by the city last year, Kraków has:

  • 47 parks (472 hectares)
  • 276 nature monuments
  • 5 nature reserves (48 hectares)
  • 3 landscape parks (4,753 hectares)
  • 3 Natura 2000 Areas (384 hectares)
  • 7,23 hectares of greenery per 1,000 inhabitants
  • 16% of total city area classified as protected areas
  • 17% of total city area classified as open space reserves (in Polish: tereny urządzone)
  • 7% of total city area classified as forests (1,381 hectares)
  • 385 hectares of water (rivers/reservoirs)
  • 5533 hectares of green areas
  • 140 km of bike paths
Kraków (panoramic view); the Old Town district in the top centre of the photo

Truly green cities are bold, not boring

By the looks of it, Kraków is no doubt a green city and keen to stay that way, maybe even significantly expand its green agenda in (hopefully not to distant) future, and do so in ways that others will be happy to describe as innovative and sustainable. One of the many relatively easy ways to embark on this road would be to institute a requirement which says that every new residential complex built in the city should have green roofs (with lawns and small gardens accessible to residents).

Creatively, there are lots and lots of interesting options and ideas possible. No need to reinvent the wheel, really. The city authorities have long debated the construction of a new footbridge over the Wisła river, for example. Who knows, maybe one day, Kraków will boast a footbridge which also happens to be a garden, with a small, but unique space to sit down and relax for a while, surrounded by greenery and beautiful views all around.

In short, where there is a will, there is a way.