Throwing the baby out with the bathwater – exclusive spatial planning in Poland

By Jakub Lewandowski

A big flood of 1997 showed the dominance of defence-based measures in Poland – the heritage of the communist system.Summarizing reports concluded that hydrotechnical approaches – inadequate in terms of minimizing flood hazards – needed to be assisted by other non-technical strategies (Supreme Audit Office Report, 1998). As a consequence, the ‘1997 Millennium flood’, as it was later called, triggered the reconstruction of the Polish crisis management system (see previous STAR-FLOOD column) and now – due to the flood of 2010 – spatial planning is currently emerging as an additional way of reducing flood losses, at least theoretically. But is there a possibility to consider spatial planning instruments in Poland as effective without embedding them into a social context (such as deficiency of housing, local development demand, expectation of help to the victims by the state), in the first place?

Jakub_Lewandowski_compressedEU principles and local interests

Although Polish law hierarchically distributes duties and competences of land use planning among 3 levels of governance (the central administration, regional authorities and local authorities), the Local Land Management Plans (MPZP) are the only acts of spatial management that are acts of local rights. So although both spatial plans and strategies prepared on the central or regional administration level have a broader scope, they are merely suggestions that local planners can take under consideration or not. Thus MPZP resolutions are derived from the municipal principles of sovereignty and self-governance. Such plans determine where construction may take place, what may be built, the size of the structure and what it may be used for and these are obligatory to obey. In other words, MPZP are approved at the local level and they are treated as local development stimulation instruments. And in fact they are but in their own – local – way. As a consequence, to bring just one example, MPZP carry capacity of 300 million people that could live in Poland, if only housing market could handle these demands.

The Planning and Spatial Development Act, or PSD Act (2003) regulates spatial policy in Poland, and combines two basic drivers that should stimulate excercising this act. Although the EU principle of ‘sustainable development’ and Polish principle of ‘policy of local economic growth’ are explicitly mentioned in the Act, at the same time, for example during one of the interviews carried out for the STAR-FLOOD project, it was argued that, in spite of the PSD Act, flood losses continue to increase due to (among others) ‘ineffective’ and ‘insufficient’ spatial planning enforcement. This is why these two drivers are treated as contradictory and will be difficult to be used in a balanced way.

Drawing areas as anepistemological problem – who creates reality?

40% of the flood prone areas in Poland are delineated in spatial planning documents, while 25% of the area of Poland covered by land-use plans is seen as too low. One advice then would be to map the flood risk territory, forbid construction there, and cover everything with land-use plans. Although at first sight, such advice seems to be ‘rational’ and ‘correct’, at the same time it is being provided in modernistic terms of progress – land-use plans as indicator of succesive flood risk management as they are perceived in Poland (Analiza stanu… 2012) – rather than based on a reflexive conclusion of the social context in which land-use plans will function. But is ‘too low’ even a problem and is it addressed correctly?

Dividing this jigsaw into smaller puzzles like ‘map’, ‘area’ and ‘risk’ can bring some insight into the rather commonly shared view of spatial planning (and maps in particular) as a means of flood risk management. A ‘flood prone area’ in this view is the size of area that can be temporarily covered with water. Mapping flood risk zones and putting them on maps leaving behind some social issues such as aversion to change place of living, cities located completely in flood prone areas, agriculture lobby with interests to runoff as much water as possible) seems to be an excluding process. A quite simple question could be asked, for example: „where is the social awareness of flood risk?” There is an interesting epistemological issue behind the thinking that hydrological data is easier (more ‘naturally’?) represented by lines or areas than information about cultural dimensions such as uncertainty-avoiding indicators, expectancy towards recovery funds, effectiveness ofoperations connected with crisis management phases, etc. If any of the above is depicted in spatial planning or flood risk maps, it is, at best, somehow placed on top of the base map, while the hydrological issues remain the most important.

As a result the following can be said: both maps prepared by spatial planners andflood risk maps are – as long as they exclude social issues mentioned above– less the representation of territory and more the creation of it (Latour 2010). Both planning representatives are seen (and see themselves) as deistic social engineers who look on the role of maps as mimetic (in sense of being the most ‘accurate’) rather than like on tools for navigational purposes. Physical and human geography are thus converged into one, with dominance of the first. But there is no reason – at least in Polish context – to treat ‘subjectively’ (socially?) perceived risk with less attention than ‘objective’ risk represented by lines. Especially since some researches show that Poles who live near rivers are not more aware of flood risk (Biwańczak 2009) which can serve as a argument that even drawing the best hydrological maps is clueless without taking into account other social factors.

Top-down spatial planning strategy –one sollution for various problems

Insufficient data, EU – local context tensions, modernisation expectances, epistemological issues, exclusion of social factors and top-down type of spatial management bring the question whether risk maps ‘represent’ territory, or ‘create’ one? Polish spatial management practice (that we elaborate on in our two case studies of Poznań and Słubice where natural flood plain areas being covered with new construction sites) shows that it is the latter. One can argue that spatial planning in Poland is ‘ineffective’ because of weak law (or rather Polish incoherent excercising of it) but in my opinion additional can be said: the easiest solutions to the problem (EU proposal to prepare hydrologically based flood risk maps without embedding social matters into them) are not always the best. Thus flood risk maps, which role is to deal with social vulnerability to floods, would not be effective as they were meant to be. Dealing with social matters using technical tools have showed little effect, at least at this stage. Maybe Flood Risk Management Plans will be prepared in a broader, holistic scope and have more triggering effect in terms of minimizing flood losses – and we will further investigate this in our Polish case studies during the remainder of STAR-FLOOD.



Analiza stanu i uwarunkowań prac planistycznych w gminach na koniec 2010 roku, Ministry of Transport, Building and Maritime, Warsaw 2012

Iwańczak B, Percepcja powodzi w gminie Łomianki, Warszawa 2009

Linnerooth-Bayer, J., Vari, A. (2004)A model-based stakeholder approach for designing disaster insurance, The Role of Local Governments in Reducing the Risk of Disasters, K. Demeter, A. Guner, N.E. Erkan (Eds) Background material for the workshop. The World Bank Institute, Washington, DC, USA, pp.159-185.

November V., Camacho- Hübner E., Latour B., Entering a risky territory: space in the age of digital navigation, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28(4) 581 – 599

Supreme Audit Office Report, Informacja o wynikach kontroli stanu zabezpieczenia przeciwpowodziowego kraju oraz przebiegu działań ratowniczych w czasie powodzi na terenach południowej i zachodniej Polski w lipcu 1997 r., Warsaw 1998