In 2014, Foreign Affairs magazine declared Poland one of six “markets to watch.” The magazine praised the country’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of World War II and four decades of communism. Thanks to the aggressive market-oriented reforms that followed and its evolution into a major manufacturing center for Germany’s leading industries, Poland is now the sixth-largest economy in the European Union, having joined as a full member in 2004. The E.U. is pumping billions into rebuilding the country’s roads and rail lines and energy, waste, and water infrastructure.
Even though the economy is going strong and the real estate markets are awash in foreign capital, Polish cities are still trying to find their footing on the global stage, says ULI Poland chair John Bańka, a partner and head of development advisory services at Colliers International in Warsaw. Many cities are searching for ways to distinguish themselves as attractive places to live and work, appealing not only to foreign companies in search of cheap labor, but also to Poles themselves, many of whom have left home for higher-paying jobs in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
How Polish cities can set themselves apart for investors and an increasingly globalized workforce was the subject of ULI Poland’s First Annual Competitive Cities Conference, held in Warsaw in May. The daylong event attracted more than 150 property professionals and public sector leaders from throughout Europe, including the former mayors of Turin, Italy, and Barcelona, Spain, who discussed how they turned around their once-ailing cities.
Expanding ULI’s Brand in Central Europe
The conference proved to be a success for ULI Poland, a relatively new national council that formed two years ago. The conference was such a success that Bańka hopes to make it a yearly event with greater participation from planners and elected officials from local governments.
“Our goal was to draw attention to the ULI brand in Europe, to provide high-quality content and a forum for the exchange of ideas between the public and private sector,” said Bańka, a Chicago native who has spent his career in Poland. Particularly for the public sector in Poland, “there is a huge thirst for this type of information.”
The conference focused on identifying the main ingredients of competitive cities: sound urban planning and design; strong infrastructure, connectivity, and transit-oriented development; higher education and its role in developing a high-wage, innovation-based economy; effective branding and marketing of unique assets; and strong leadership and partnership between sectors.
Rosemary Feenan, JLL’s director of global research and a ULI trustee, delivered a keynote speech that included a description of her firm’s City Cobwebs, a tool that evaluates city competitiveness using a dozen distinct metrics ranging from investment volume to real estate transparency to the number of passengers who pass through a city’s airports.
A panel discussion featuring mayors of Poland’s major and midsized cities discussed strengths and weaknesses of each. “The majority of large Polish cities make a good impression [due to] the cultural similarity of Poland to other western European cities,” said ULI Poland executive committee member Robert Mandzunowski, who helped organize the conference. Yet, “smaller cities and very small towns are still on a path to discovering opportunities for development.”
Need for High-Value Job Creation to Stem Brain Drain
To both Bańka and Mandzunowski, creating stronger connections between higher education and knowledge-intensive industries will be critical to the maturation of Polish cities. Bańka admits that Poland is dealing with a brain drain of its talent: “There is a sense of frustration among young people not being able to pursue their dreams, and so a lot of them are immigrating.”
“Education and the ability to encourage school graduates to stay in the region and offer them programs of individual development will be of key importance,” adds Mandzunowski, who also urged Polish cities to pursue residential development near job centers to attract younger workers.
A Clear Vision through Planning
Another key to competitiveness is creating a transparent master-planning process in Polish cities so that development does not occur in the ad hoc fashion that has become the norm, according to Bańka. Poland has become a safe place for foreign investors to park their capital, yet few municipal governments are pursuing a “clear vision” for what sort of place they want their city to be, he explains.
In Warsaw, for example, an overdevelopment of office space has led to a “scramble for tenants.” Instead, thoughtful planning could lead to a greater balance and a mix of uses, including retail, open spaces, and housing. “We need products that will create lively downtowns and high streets,” Bańka says. “We need to improve the quality of life at the street level.”