Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It could make the city bigger than New York—and smash its liberal vote.
If the Polish government gets its way, Warsaw could, at the stroke of a pen, become one of the largest cities in Europe. The government’s plan would see the nation’s capital gobble up 32 suburban and ex-urban municipalities, gaining over 900 square miles of territory and well over a million more residents. That would make Warsaw slightly larger (if far less populous) than New York City.
The government says this expansion would give residents of Warsaw’s wider metro area better access to central-city resources such as education and health care, as well as making transit planning more streamlined and efficient. The idea of an expanding metropolis might be inspiring to some, but the Warsaw city government’s reaction to the plan is striking. They hate it—indeed, they actually fear it.
That’s because they see the plan as a straightforward power grab by Poland’s national government, which is currently led by a different party from the one that has governed Warsaw since 2006. This Monday, Warsaw’s Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz called a citywide referendum on the plan for March 26. A resounding no vote would be non-binding but nonetheless difficult for the national government to overlook. The battle reflects an ongoing political stand-off both between national and local authorities—a struggle that may sound familiar to North American readers.
The two sides in this fight are as follows. On one side is the economically protectionist, socially conservative Law and Justice party, which currently leads Poland’s national government. On the other is the economically and (relatively) socially liberal Civic Platform, which governs Warsaw and ruled the whole country in coalition from 2007 to 2015. Law and Justice have gained popularity by appealing to the many Poles who have not benefited from post-Communist economic liberal policies, notably outside Poland’s major cities and in its poorer east. They have also alarmed many with legislation apparently designed to suppress the right to demonstrate, to curb the powers of the constitutional court and the independence of state media, as well as trying (but failing) to all but ban abortion.
Civic Platform have largely held on to power in Poland’s cities and wealthier west, but have lost favor elsewhere as the proponents of a self-styled economic golden age that proved to be less gilded for those citizens facing very low wages and galloping inequality. The situation isn’t exactly the same as the one in the U.S. of course—but the faultlines outlined here may ring something of a bell.
Warsaw has become a pawn in this struggle, with its Civic Platform council alleging that national government is trying to erode Civic Platform’s remnant power—not by persuading voters but by border gerrymandering that will erode their majority by simply redrawing frontiers.
It has to be said that they have a point. There’s no particular evidence, or precedent, to suggest that Warsaw would function better as a larger unit. And other cities that have attempted such urban-suburban mergers have shown mixed results: When Toronto, Ontario amalgamated with six other municipalities in 1998, for example, the savings promised by the scheme’s proponents failed to materialize, while residents in the city’s extension areas have complained of a decline in services. More infamously, the re-drawn political lines fueled the ascendence of Rob Ford, a suburban ward councilor who became mayor of the supersized Toronto in 2010, before embarking on scandal-plagued administration that pitted his suburban power base against city-dwellers.
In Warsaw, meanwhile, some of the area slated for amalgamation into the city doesn’t even count as suburban: It includes including large tracts of farmland and forest. Despite its commuter population, the region’s layout and density are hardly city-like.
Mayor Gronkiewicz-Waltz claimed last month that the plans would purposefully skew boundaries against her party by allotting a far greater proportion of council seats to the amalgamated municipalities than their population merits, giving them dominance over a relatively under-represented city population. In an emotional speech in the council chamber, she asked opponents [using a quote from lyricist Wojciech Młynarski], “What is there left for you to screw up, Gentlemen? What is there left?”
This hardly bodes well for democratic representation for the city, regardless of which party gains power.
Calling a referendum will make it more difficult for central government to push changes, given that Civic Forum’s comfortable majority makes the likelihood of a strong majority against expansion. However, in an eleventh-hour plot twist that recalls state-versus-city stand-offs in the U.S., the governor of Mazovia, the province that surrounds Warsaw, is now trying to block the vote.
The referendum may still take place, but Varsovians fearing an ultimate takeover of their city by some Rob Ford-type city-crushing suburban despot might take little comfort from another key feature of Toronto’s expansion. Just like Warsaw, Toronto also staged its own referendum on the issue in 1997—and three quarters of its citizens voted against expansion. That result, however, was totally ignored by lawmakers. In Warsaw, it seems that there’s still everything to play for.