Introduction to Part III

Sustainability in Poland

‘Think globally – act locally’ is one of the best-known principles of sustainable development and this principle has become widely accepted because the local scale is both closer to home and easier to understand. Our neighbourhoods are usually the places that we care about the most and that we want to see develop. We instinctively know what will benefit our local community and what will harm it. Despite the fact that principle ‘think globally – act locally’ was established by the environmental movement, it is now starting to be applied to various other areas of development. Fundamentally, the foundations of sustainable development are formed at the local level, in the same ways that democracy and civic society have been.

This has also been also been observed by the authors of a ‘Self-governance and local democracy’ report (Imiołczyk and Regulski, 2007). They identified that the growth in self-governance and local activism are two of the most promising aspects of such social development in Poland. In this these authors saw the potential for the further development of democracy, especially in light of the current lack of trust in politicians and political parties.

NGOs also contribute to local activism: whereby one in four NGOs focus primarily on local issues, while half run campaigns on the small scale of communities or districts (CBOS, 2009). Thus, the most active members of the community, i.e. those who work in NGOs, also prefer to work on a local scale. These workers see the potential and the consequences for improving quality of life.

In recent years there has been a movement towards transferring decision making powers on environmental protection and development into the hands of local government. In effect, the environmental aspects of sustainable development are now more contingent on the efficiency and knowledge of local politicians and activists than ever because the funding available to local governments has increased significantly. Furthermore, being able to utilise European funds opens up new possibilities for local communities, but this also poses its own challenges.

Both in Poland and abroad there have been many examples of projects, some with enormous budgets, which had negative side effects that greatly surpassed the intended positive impacts. For example, the negative changes in the Tisza river valley (see case study 2.C2) or the large-scale German programme of river regulation that resulted in increasing overall flood risks and causing a series of large floods in the 1990s. These and other examples show that absence of a systems approach, disregard for the principles of sustainable development, omitting stakeholder engagement process and forgoing the knowledge and experience of local residents can result in negative outcomes (see case study 1.C3).

On the other hand, there are many local communities that do have development plans that are largely based on the principles of sustainable development. Some put these principles at the heart of their local identity, and use them to distinguish themselves from other communities. Through the use of renewable energy, environmentally-sound technologies and advanced methods of social engagement these communities are able to raise funds for further development, attract tourists and the media while developing their local economy. Spanish ‘Sun-villages’ are a notable example of this, where residents have generated significant revenue from the sale of electricity from photovoltaic solar panels mounted on nearly all buildings. The large dissemination of PV panels in this case also served as a tourist attraction. Another example are ‘eco-villages’, which are also beginning to develop in Poland (see case study 15.C2). A notable example of these is Hostetin in the Czech Republic, where local residents have incorporated advanced environmental technologies, traditional food production methods, culture, and protection of their local heritage into social development.

However, examples such as these are rare, usually based on a unique idea by the local community, or one of their activists. Equally inspiring, and perhaps even more interesting due to their commonality are examples of societies that have successfully incorporated the principles of sustainable development into their daily lives. For example Enköping in Sweden, where for the comfort of local residents and in order to preserve environmental resources, the local government created an integrated waste management, sewage treatment and energy production facility (see subsection 12.3.2). This enabled this small town to achieve energy independence, which was significant in light of rising energy prices. Thus, solutions such as these are not only environmentally friendly but also help solve many issues related to waste and sewage management.

There are also a number of these types of initiatives in Poland. The bicycle project in Gdańsk is a prime example which consisted of building more than 10 km of bicycle paths and slowing down traffic on existing roads. Apart from the obvious improvements for cyclists it also reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved road safety and increased general mobility for the city’s residents. There are other, equally interesting examples of local initiatives found throughout this book, for example projects in the Barycz valley (case study 2.C1), refurbishment of the Turzyn Neighbourhood in Szczecin (6.C1) and the Siewierz eco-town (10.C2).

The value of developing locally, leads to close working between local authorities and the community (Bergier et al., 2009; Damurski et al., 2007) through support for their sustainable development efforts. It is in local governmental institutions where we particularly see, in addition to the private sector, the largest potential for practical implementation of sustainable development principles. This book reflects this approach, especially in part III and subsequently informs the debate with regards to local government employees, activists, NGOs promoting local sustainable development, and the building of self-sufficient and self-governing societies. Most of the chapters in this part of the book are similar in structure and describe the general challenges on certain issues, presenting a number of varied solutions and examples.

The part relating to local governments consists of five chapters, addressing issues in both urban and rural communities and districts. Chapter 9 describes local development strategies with universal application. The tools presented (especially Local Agenda 21) are particularly focused on engaging all stakeholders in local communities in the decision making process to build a more coherent vision of development.

Chapter 10 deals with sustainable urban planning and chapter 11 deals with transport solutions for cities. These problems relate particularly to cities but can easily be transferred to a rural context, especially urban planning with its close links to land use planning.

Chapter 12 is dedicated to municipal management relating to both urban and rural communes and evaluates aspects of sewage and waste management. Some of the solutions outlined (for example home sewage treatment plants) are more applicable in areas where buildings are scattered far apart, primarily due to the significant difficulties of building sewage systems in sparsely populated rural areas. Interestingly (especially for local government), studies have shown that municipal management is a key driver for not only environmental protection, but also for supporting local activism.

Closing the discussion on local initiatives, chapter 13 describes public-private partnerships, which again can be applied in both urban and rural areas. These partnerships can be implemented to improve the local economy and raise the quality of public services. We focus on how this form of joint-venture can be used to aid sustainable development and highlight that partnerships between the public and private sector have an important role in facilitating the cooperation between local authorities and residents.

In the preface to this book we noted that sustainable development concerns all areas of our lives, and all of its aspects are closely interrelated. For this reason the allocation of chapters into specific parts is arbitrary, and contents relating to local development can be found in all of the parts. This is evident in chapter 15, and in case study 15.C2 on thematic villages, which describes how combining implementation of local government projects with social activism is possible. As we note many times in part III, social engagement is essential for sustainable development (tool 1.T3). A mechanism with much untapped potential is green public procurement (tool 7.T2), still uncommon in Poland. Other chapters are particularly important for those whose work involves local decision making, including chapter 2 (systems thinking) and chapter 6 (construction and architecture).

With the rise in significance and activity of local governments in Poland there are many initiatives and projects under development, all of which could not fit into this book. Other opportunities for local authorities and communities also include:

  • EU funding, for example through the fourth priority axis of the Development Program of Rural Areas Operational Programme (previously called LEADER), directed at creating local activity groups, supporting their autonomy and stability;
  • numerous workshops focusing on creating and supporting local partnerships for social and economic development directed at local government employees, the private sector and NGOs; and
  • Schools for Eco-development programme, run by the Polish Environmental Partnership Foundation in Krakow.

Alongside these are many other programs and initiatives run by local governments, governmental institutions, foundations and other NGOs, which are too numerous to cover here.