Insight: What are thriving urban spaces? Reflections from the City Development Forum, Poznań, Poland

In mid-October this year (2023) I had the pleasure of visiting Poland’s former capital Poznań.
Insight: What are thriving urban spaces? Reflections from the City Development Forum, Poznań, Poland
UKCRIC Executive Manager (University of Birmingham)

In mid-October this year (2023) I had the pleasure of visiting Poland’s former capital Poznań. I am of that age when my mental image of Poland is of grey buildings and rain. What I found was a bright, bustling, safe and modern city full of fabulous historic and modern buildings and friendly, fashionable people. I felt very much at home, although I’ve yet to come across a marijuana vending machine in the UK.

I was in Poznań attending the City Development Forum held as part of the European Local Government Forum ‘Local Trends’. The City Development Forum is a multi-lingual event organised by the city with invited speakers on the theme of (this year) wellbeing. The forum was set within in the impressive grounds of the Poznań International Fair, a sprawling outdoor complex of exhibition and event buildings that felt like an open space, until you tried to leave by anything other than the official entrance.

I spoke about whether we seek happiness in our lives, or, rather contentment. How measurement can cause perverse effects and so metrics must be carefully selected and frequently reviewed, but if we don’t measure things (as some at the forum proposed) we can only make guesses about them. How little useful data we actually have in our data-rich world and how we tend to forget about the data we don’t have and prioritise the data we do. I also emphasised that urban spaces, systems and wellbeing are complicated, varied, variable and transient, and we should not shy away from the difficulties these characteristics pose for urban design. I spoke, amongst other things, about urban diagnostics and measurement systems including the work that the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Urban Wellbeing is doing with the Thriving Places Index, and how to plan for change using frameworks like UKCRIC’s Theory of Change for Infrastructure and Cities.

There were some familiar themes over the forum’s two days, some new twists on old favourites, and creative new ideas. Four of my favourite quotes from the forum precede my summary of the event.

  • “The end of the world as we know it won’t be dramatic, it will be a petering out.”
  • “The comfort of the past cannot be sustained. We must redefine comfort for the future.”
  • “When we order something we want a van to deliver it. When our neighbour orders something, the delivery van is a nuisance.”
  • “People are only teachers, researchers or civil servants if they can’t get a job elsewhere.” You may think this refers to competencies, but, in fact it refers to renumeration, with teachers, researchers and civil servants being perceived by the speaker as lower-paid jobs.

On day one the importance of education to underpin behaviour change appeared in a number of panel discussions. The underlying assumption that information leads to rational behaviour doesn’t hold, of course, and this was frustrating me until someone viewed it from the perspective of learning, not educating. The premise is that people’s behaviour changes when they value learning.

Day one included a session about the judicial system. The panel discussed the rise of national populism in Poland and elsewhere (Turkey, Hungary, the USA). The conference was held during the recent Polish parliamentary elections that overturned the incumbent populist rule, but the outcome wasn’t known at the time of this session and there was palpable uncertainty in the room. Voting turnout was high at 85%. Set against this background the panel explored the modernisation of Poland’s judiciary, where public trust is low – although perhaps not quite as low as is the trust in politicians, as one panellist pointed out. A practicing judge on the panel criticised politicians for seeking their own solutions to problems without consulting experts, and for listening to and propagating misinformation. Now that sounds familiar…

The following session focussed upon viewing places, including cities, as creatures, not things. Asking ‘who is this?’ and not ‘what is this?’, and designing for non-humans (e.g., dogs and cats). I must admit to an eye roll at this point. More resonant arguments for me included designing by omission and stepping back and giving room to those who have been ignored (including non-humans). There was an excellent panel discussion about designing for neurodiversity, an up-and-coming area of urban design. If you’re interested, Karolina Wiktor is establishing a foundation to explore this further.

The discussion moved on to the importance of useful spaces. In the past ‘useless’ spaces were allowed (think underpasses), but now and into the future all spaces need to be useful. Can past useless spaces become places where people can make meaningful social connections (e.g., skate parks, parks, play areas)? Traditionally, this has been achieved through public spaces, but public spaces are under threat and there are consequences to this that include a reduction in places for people to gather, demonstrate, protest and exercise democracy.

I was really pleased to meet Siân Moxon from the Rewild my Street project. This labour of love provides guidance for encouraging wildlife through adapting homes, gardens and streets to “stop cities going grey”. I was surprised to learn that there isn’t much research n gardens. The potential downside, of course, is ‘green gentrification’, where successful urban rewilding outprices incumbent communities and there is a loss of equity of access.

This was followed by an excellent series of presentations of ‘on the ground’ urban interventions. There was the repurposing of a disused German airport into community gardens that incorporated some pretty impressive citizen science through collaboration with local universities. We also heard from artist Radu Dumbrava, who spoke about murals for improving wellbeing. Interestingly, when asked about graffiti he advocated for murals to be professionally commissioned. There was also a microhub and cargo bike scheme that addressed the problem of ‘the last mile’ in a low-pollution, low-congestion way. I was interested to hear that over the last 25 years goods have moved from being delivered almost exclusively to businesses using in-house delivery services to being delivered to residences and businesses using 3rd party couriers. Finally, there was the excellent model of participatory budget setting from Rennes, France, where communities (inhabitants, associations, collectives) propose, debate and vote on projects. An impressive 5% of the annual budget (3.5M Euros every year) is set aside to fund the projects. In its 6th year, the latest round had 415 contributions, 230 participants and 108 projects put to a vote. One funded project is currently seeking (via petition) an EU decision on the dignified treatment of migrants in Europe.

Whilst in Poznań I also had the opportunity to meet with the Poznań University of Technology Departments of Architecture, Transport and Engineering, who are doing some very interesting research on urban design, wellbeing and sustainability. If you would like to know more about the University’s work or about the City Development Forum, drop me a line at