This article is part of our special report EU in my region.
Over the past decade, Katowice – capital of Poland’s Silesia region – has transformed from a coal and steel city into a booming centre of business and culture. Its Culture Zone hosts major European and international music, cultural and business events and boasts unique architectural pearls.
A stroll around the Zone offers plenty of top-notch amusement: from jazz and electro music to an unexpected combination of a symphony orchestra with, say, Czech folk singer Jaromír Nohavica at the breathtaking Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR) building,
Or you can drop by the underground Silesian Museum, which offers exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.
If you are a businessman, politician or a journalist, you will have heard of the European Economic Congress (EEC), now ten years old, which transforms Katowice into a political and business capital of Europe once a year.
Then there is the international climate summit COP24, which takes place this winter. Some find it paradoxical that this major environmental fête should be held for the fourth time in a country infamous for its smog levels and attachment to coal, not to mention that Katowice itself has been habitually associated with smokestacks rather than green transition.
The cost of the zone was €250 million, with the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund providing more than 50% of the amount
Culture Zone – a symbol of smart transformation
However, one of the aims of organising all those events here – in the heart of Silesia – is to alter this image and present Katowice as a model for a smart, green transformation.
Culture Zone, a modern conference and culture district fused with green areas (and a huge parking lot), is supposed to be the perfect showcase for this change, with the Spodek Sport and Show Arena, a real architectural pearl.
Spodek leads to the International Congress Centre, whose lawn-covered roof is a favourite photo venue for newlyweds, and to a stunning seat of the new Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR), and the underground Silesian Museum describing the region’s mining history.
Those buildings and institutions “influence the city’s recognisability, and as a result, they draw new investors, inhabitants, as well as guests that enjoy the Zone as a venue where they can rest and taste the culture,” Marcin Krupa, the mayor of Katowice, told EURACTIV.pl.
Beyond the Culture Zone and into the smog
However, the situation becomes less ideal when seen in a broader context.
While Katowice has been transformed beyond recognition, its levels of smog remain extremely high. It is among the 50 most polluted European cities, occupying 47th position, according to this year’s WHO ranking.
Six cities in the region are on the infamous WHO pollution list (and 36 of the 50 most polluted European cities are in Poland).
Katowice still lacks effective anti-smog regulation (a regional resolution was accepted last year, to no effect so far). But, indeed, the city is very green, at least on the surface – with over 50% of green areas within its limits.
Another problem is the depopulation of the city, including its centre. That means that the Culture Zone is primarily a showcase for visitors from other cities and abroad.
In between festivals, concerts and events like the European Economic Congress or international environmental conference COP24, this heart of Silesia becomes deserted.
NOSPR concerts are sold out half a year in advance. But good local restaurants are almost empty when there are no concerts. Local people simply don’t identify with the Culture Zone as their heart of the town. And it doesn’t keep them in the city, whose population has now declined to fewer than 300,000.
The area surrounding the Zone is also deserted, strewn with thousands of abandoned houses, many of them unrenovated despite their valuable modernist architecture.
A casual stroll around the downtown in the evening, beyond the animated Mariacka street and its nightlife, reveals a pervasive emptiness.
Katowice has always been an immigrant city, where people came to work in coal mines. There is little to keep them here now, but Marcin Krupa says that city hall is working hard to reverse these negative trends and is putting in place a policy of renovating old, empty buildings and transferring them to people.
But a different kind of debate is now raging among the city’s inhabitants, activists and local authorities, focusing on the plan for a new 5-hectare housing estate to be built behind the Silesian Museum with buildings of 12 and 18 stories.
According to the activists and some local politicians, it will cover up the Culture Zone and further separate it from the rest of the city.
“Katowice is a playground for developers,” commented Jarosław Makowski, a regional councillor.
All that glitters is not gold
The Culture Zone also has one Achilles’ heel of its own. The walls of the Silesian Museum are leaking. The problem was revealed in 2013 but has still not been solved by the construction company.
There’s an ongoing court case against the firm, which says today’s trouble is the result of the Museum’s management. The museum project cost more than €62 million, almost 70% of which came from the European Regional Development Fund.
The blame game will certainly feature in November’s regional elections.
Filip Springer, a Polish writer who travels around the country explaining and assessing Polish architecture, summed up the Culture Zone aptly:
“Contrary to the plans of the city authorities, they didn’t manage to transform this post-coal mine area into a new town centre. What has been created is a park of good architecture isolated from the downtown by expressways that will not live the life of the city”.
Little has changed since he wrote those words in ‘Księga zachwytów’ (‘A Book of Delights’) published in early 2016. It is up to the entrepreneurial municipal authorities now to think of how to make the city’s heart beat along with the rest of Katowice.