Poland needs to develop its small and medium-sized cities

The real differences in economic development are not between western and eastern Poland but between 200 small and medium-sized cities, where life conditions are sometimes worse than in the villages.

The division into western and eastern Poland (Poland A and Poland B) also cannot be overlooked. These names are disliked and unfair, but unfortunately so far it has been impossible to level out the differences between eastern and western Poland. The voivodeships in eastern Poland are clearly poorer than the national average GDP per capita (EUR10,416 at the end of 2015). In the Lubelskie Voivodeship it was EUR7,266, in the Podkarpackie Voivodeship EUR7,376, in the Warmińsko-Mazurskie Voivodeship EUR7,449, in the Podlaskie Voivodeship EUR7,541, and in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship EUR7,608.

For comparison – the GDP per capita is as much as EUR16,703 in the Mazowieckie Voivodeship (which has over 22 per cent of the share in Poland’s total GDP), and in the Dolnośląskie Voivodeship it’s EUR11,662, in the Wielkopolskie Voivodeship EUR11,187, and EUR10,839 in the Śląskie Voivodeship.

Even if the advantage of the Mazowieckie Voivodeship is in part a statistical effect resulting from the location of the headquarters of many companies in Warsaw, where profits from across the country are sent, there is no denying that four voivodeships pull the average GDP up, and five eastern voivodeships drag it down.

The sources of this diversification lie not at the level of voivodeships, but in the medium-sized towns. In towns that do not have the status of cities with county rights, income per capita in 2013 was only EUR700.48 , whereas even in rural communities it was EUR767.30, and in cities with county rights it amounted to EUR1,232.

“The model of poor villages and rich cities has long been a thing of the past. In Poland, the real division runs between cities with county status and the rest,” believes the former Deputy Finance Minister Wojciech Misiąg, a professor at the University of Information Technology and Management in Rzeszów.

He explains that Poland has approximately 800 towns, including 700 small towns, and there are 66 towns with county status, which are mostly large, because most of them were the capitals of the former voivodeships (in 1999 Poland reformed regional and local administrative structures and reduced the number of voievodships from 49 to 16).

“There are exceptions such as Sopot (northern Poland), which is small but is situated between Gdynia and Gdańsk and has the status of a county city,” says Professor Misiąg.

In the “Strategy for Responsible Development” Poland’s government points out that insufficient development of cities is a factor in economic inequality. Simply put, the lack of major cities in large areas of eastern and northwestern Poland inhibits the development of these regions.

The strategy places particular emphasis on 204 medium-sized towns, that is, ones that were not the capitals of former voivodeships, but on the other hand have over 20,000 inhabitants. Experts also indicate the need to strengthen regional centers, such as cities with over 100,000 residents which are not voivodeship capitals, e.g. Radom, Częstochowa, Włocławek, Wałbrzych, Słupsk and Grudziądz.

“If we asked five different experts to determine the areas requiring support, we would probably get five different answers, but the number of approximately 200 marginalized towns throughout the country seems very likely, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if it was even a bit higher,” says Wojciech Misiąg.

Marginalization not limited to the East

The “Strategy for Responsible Development” includes a slide in which 14 socially and/or economically marginalized areas are marked on the map. Interestingly, they are not exclusively situated in eastern Poland. A large area of the Zachodniopomorskie Voivodeship to the east of Szczecin was marked with number 1. On the map there are also areas on the border of the Kujawsko-Pomorskie Voivodeship and the Warmińsko-Mazurskie Voivodeship, as well as parts of the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, Łódzkie Voivodeship, the Małopolskie Voivodeship and the area surrounding Kłodzko.

Of course the areas of eastern Poland were also included. One of the larger marginalized areas was marked on the eastern part of the Warmińsko-Mazurskie Voivodeship and the northern part of the Podlaskie Voivodeship. There is also the border of Mazowieckie Voivodeship and Podlaskie Voivodeship, the surroundings of Łuków, and there is a significant portion of the Lublin Voivodeship, Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, the eastern part of the Podkarpackie Voivodeship and the southern part of the border between the Podkarpackie Voivodeship and the Małopolskie Voivodeship.

Socio-economic problems are therefore concentrated not only in the east, but are more broadly spread out across the country, particularly in places where there is a large distance from the voivodeship’s capital and there is a clear outflow of industry and population.

The question remains of what should be done – whether Poland should support the poorer areas at the expense of the richer ones, or on the contrary, promote migration to the more developed areas, which are more efficient and generate the larger part of the GDP.

“Resources supporting urbanization should in the first place be directed to those cities where industrialization is occurring endogenously, although it is slower than the potential, e.g. due to infrastructure bottlenecks and institutional shortcomings. Not every medium-sized town has such characteristics,” wrote Maciej Bukowski, PhD, in the analysis “Pros and Cons of the Strategy for Responsible Development”.

In his opinion in eastern and northwestern Poland it would be important to strengthen Lublin, Rzeszów, Kielce, Białystok, Słupsk and Bydgoszcz along with Toruń. This cannot be done, however, without the simultaneous rapid economic development of the major cities: Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk, Poznań, Kraków, Wrocław and the cities in Silesia.

“The metropolitan areas drive the development of the slightly smaller cities, and subsequently that of the medium-sized towns,” believes Bukowski.

Professor Misiąg sees things differently. “I can’t imagine Poland being focused on development only in the largest urban centers. If we don’t ensure balanced development, we will have sprawling mega-cities and depopulated areas without strong agriculture. You also cannot repeat the model of development of Warsaw in the Masurian lake district. In rural areas we have to invest differently, e.g. in tourism and regional products,” he believes.

Poland should merge communes and counties

Almost all experts in the field of local government agree on one thing – reducing the number of voivodeships from 16 to, for example, 12 would not make a huge difference, but Poland certainly doesn’t need as many as 2,478 communes and 314 counties.

Przemysław Śleszyński, professor at the Institute of Geography and Spatial Management of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the author of the map of 14 marginalized areas that was included in the “Strategy for Responsible Development”, proposed merging about 300 “ring” rural communes, located next to larger cities, with their urban counterparts.

“We don’t need counties either. Some of their functions have been taken over by the county-cities anyway, and others are the tasks of the central government,” adds Professor Wojciech Misiąg.

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