As former mayor of Denver, Wellington Webb once said:
“The 19th century was a century of empires. The 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities”
A lot of our Smarter Cities messages focus on the massive growth in cities. There are statistics like:
- In 2007, over half the world’s population lived in cities, and by 2050, that number will be 70%
- and 30 people each minute migrate into cities from the countryside in India
- and “to keep pace with the rural-to-city migration trends (and natural population growth in urban areas), the world will have to build one city of 1 million people every five days for the next 42 years“.
While it is true that the migration to cities is happening at an unprecedented rate, there is also an opposing phenomenon. Some cities are experiencing declining populations. This is the situation we are finding here in Poland.
Many of the cities we are working with are actually on the decline, even though the Polish economy was the only growth economy in Europe in 2009. The issue is that the cities are associated with the stigma of an older economy, based on mining and steel production. Many of their younger generation want to move away to cities more associated with the “new” economy. The industrial-heritage cities lack many of the amenities that attract the younger generation to want to stay and work there. As a result, the younger generation is choosing not to stay, and there is a significant skills gap. Poland has the most significant such skills gap in all of Europe, primarily in skilled trades.
Katowice is experiencing this phenomenon, though in truth the positives far outweigh the negatives. In fact, Katowice and Upper Silesia are undergoing amazing levels of growth and investment, but the history and psyche of the region is so entrenched in the historical industrial perception, that very few residents actually recognize what their city really has to offer.
Katowice does have its issues… its infrastructure is a bit old, particularly its public transportation, there is not enough collaboration between business, government, and academia to drive the right kinds of skills investment, and it lacks some of the historical beauty of many other European cities. However, it does have an enviable location in Poland, with a sizable hard-working population, proximity to beautiful mountains, and easy access to several very large European cities. It also has the best roads in Poland, excellent local universities (including the best medical school in Poland), and some very impressive basic architecture. It has also seen some great recent investment from the EU and some major international companies.
So, why do the citizens act surprised when you mention its strengths?
Well, part of the reason is the history and relatively humble culture of the people of Silesia, but also it is the fact that Katowice and the surrounding cities have only ever known an industrial identity. Much like Pittsburgh or Cleveland in the U.S., these cities need to progress beyond their heritage and embrace a new economy, while not losing their identity.
It is a difficult challenge, and one with which we’re trying to assist.