How Katowice, Poland went from coal town to cultural and conference center

Host of this year’s World Urban Forum, the Polish city has successfully transformed from coal and steel industries to a modern city based on technology and culture.

“When I arrived in Katowice in 1991, it was one of the most polluted cities in Europe,” recalls Jean-Christophe Adrian, then UN Habitat project manager for the Sustainable Cities Program. “The whole city was a dark gray color, black from the smoke. One of the rivers was only 15% water, the rest was chemicals. However, it still looked like a vibrant city with its mining culture.

Katowice, a city in southern Poland and one of the most populated urban areas in Europe, has undergone huge changes over the past decades. Its transformation from a mining town to an international conference center has been so successful that it was chosen to host the UN climate conference COP24 in 2018 and the UN Habitat World Urban Forum in 2022.

At the end of June this year, at the opening of the World Urban Forum in the Spodek Arena, a mixed-use complex right next to the conference center, Mayor Marcin Krupa expressed hope that “soon many more post- industries will turn to Katowice”. Indeed, more than 16,000 participants flocked to the city for the event to discuss the implementation of the New urban agenda, the United Nations framework for sustainable housing and urban development. The result: The Declared Actions of Katowice, a document that reaffirms the importance of urgent action in cities around the world to achieve the UN General Assembly goal. Sustainable Development Goal The 11 ambitious goals for sustainable cities and communities by 2030.

It is worth taking a closer look at the successful urban transformation of the host city of this mega-event. Katowice is only 157 years old, young by European standards. It is the capital of Upper Silesia, an agglomeration of more than a dozen towns with 2.3 million inhabitants. For decades the predominant industry in Katowice was the production of coal and metals such as steel and zinc. But when the mines were closed one by one in the 1990s, around 70% of the jobs were lost. Economic declines and rising rates of homelessness and drug use followed. “It was a very difficult time for the city,” recalls resident Krzysztof Smętkiewicz. Back then, he says, almost every family in Katowice had strong ties to heavy industry.

According to the city’s mayor, Katowice has now overcome its two biggest challenges: unemployment and environmental pollution.

“We have transformed the labor market from heavy industry and replaced coal mining with business, with new technologies, with the entertainment industry and with the cultural industry,” says Krupa. The key to this transformation was the construction of the city’s conference center, the Silesian Museum and the buildings of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. The three institutions are within walking distance of each other, occupying the land of a former coal mine.

“The biggest challenge was to leave no one behind, not to make people unemployed or homeless; and Katowice handled this process quite easily,” says Krupa. Today, the new Gaming and Technology Hub flagship project is just one of many initiatives that firmly place Katowice among Poland’s leading industrial, commercial and financial hubs. Unemployment rates are low at just 1.5%. Salaries are among the highest in Poland.

For decades Katowice has struggled with the environmental impacts of heavy industry on the region. In the post-mining landscape, pollution from coal mining and other heavy industries was extreme. Katowice’s air quality and soil pollution levels are consistently higher than many other European cities: in 2018, Katowice was the 6th most polluted city on the continent. But thanks to technologies such as anti-smog dronesthe city is working hard to improve the situation.

“The cleaning of the city is about 90% done,” says Krupa. “There is still work to be done, but the heaviest workload is behind us.” Today, 42% of Katowice’s urban area is covered with forests and green spaces.

Jean-Christophe Adrian, former director of UN-Habitat, emphasizes the importance of a learning process through many small pilot projects. “There was no point working only with the city council,” he says. “We had to work on the scale of the entire urban agglomeration, because the smoke does not stop at the limits of a city. The polluted river water will always flow to the next town.

By establishing a formal municipal union, using a cross-sector approach to environmental and political challenges, and learning to involve residents, Katowice slowly began its ascent.

“Urban transformation is more than introducing the right technological solutions,” says Raf Tuts, a renowned urban expert who is deputy executive director of UN-Habitat and leads its global solutions division. “You also need social transformation, such as the repurposing of former workers’ housing estates into versatile and vibrant communities.”

The famous district of Nikiszowiec is a good example. This settlement was built at the beginning of the 20th century by the local metallurgical company. Today, the former miners’ apartments have become popular real estate. They are located near a large park and have green courtyards and infrastructure such as a school, a kindergarten and a hospital.

But of course, not everything is rosy in Katowice. When the city’s newest conference center was built, local residents weren’t convinced. Approval rates were as low as 1% at first. People wanted public amenities rather than an international meeting center. However, residents say that the persistence of the municipality’s cultural committee, supported by UN-Habitat, the European Union and UNESCO, has won over many residents. “Citizens will always ask what’s in it for us,” says Krupa. “We showed them the economic benefits, increased jobs, better public transportation and an increased city budget.”

Smętkiewicz, who lives in Katowice and works as a tourist guide, says he appreciates the city’s participatory budget. Every year, 20 million złoty (4.3 million USD) are available for projects that citizens can propose. The money is then distributed among the projects that have obtained the most votes from the inhabitants. Smętkiewicz highlights the enthusiastic work of municipal officials who wanted Katowice to win the title of European Capital of Culture: Their ambitious campaign from 2010 had a snowball effect. “We didn’t get the title, but it created great energy among young people and inspired many cultural projects,” he said. In 2015 Katowice was recognized as the European Capital of Culture and a Creative City by UNESCO.

The city still suffers from high traffic volumes passing on highways with brutalist architecture close to the city center, flanked by 15-storey residential buildings à la Le-Corbusier and some Soviet superblocks, which make navigation difficult for pedestrians. The path from downtown to the conference center passes under busy highways and shows how a city can be adapted to be more pedestrian friendly. “Katowice is very livable and has a good scale, apart from these highways,” says Smętkiewicz.

But some say the surrounding areas have had to pay the price for the cultural transformation of the local capital.

“Katowice gets all the funds and drains the local cultural economy into small towns,” says Martin Sliwa, who lives in Chorzow, a medium-sized town near Katowice. “Our cities are no more than the bedroom of Katowice.”

Sliwa also notes that Katowice has a strong labor market. Like many towns in Poland, it struggles to keep its young people, but events like the Intel Extreme Masters, an esports tournament, and the growing number of IT and gaming jobs make it more attractive to stay.

Yet Katowice shows how intentional urban development efforts can transform a city 180 degrees in just 20 to 30 years, which in terms of urban development is a very short period.

“If we as a post-industrial city and a black hole can do it, all other cities can,” says Smętkiewicz.

Culture-based development has been key to this transformation, agree Tuts and Adrian. So has support and consultations with stakeholders within the city itself. “If I had any advice for other cities, it would be to talk with all stakeholders to slowly change mindsets, allow for an exchange and learn from each other,” says Adrian.

The next steps in the city’s urban development include a focus on the 15-minute city, elements of which were visible at the WUF conference with its 11 different areas, all within 15-minute walk and well integrated into the city through to informative, participative and musical information. elements.

“It’s better to invest in culture to show people that the city is changing a lot,” Krupa said. “Look at the difference. We used to have a coal mine here, and now it’s a concert hall.

Laura is an urban journalist specializing in sustainable and user-friendly solutions. She lives in London and reports from cities around the world.
Follow her on Instagram @parcitypatory.

Helen D. Jessen