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Wojciech Szczurek – Mayor of Europe - March 2023 - Green City

Wojciech Szczurek is Mayor of Europe for March 2023 in the Green City category. Image: City of Gdynia

The development of cities has to mean opening up to innovations, implementing solutions that protect nature and the climate

Wojciech Szczurek has been the mayor of Gdynia since 1998. A native from Gdynia, his entire professional career has been linked to the good fortune of this Polish port city. He started his local government activity preceded by civic activities (he co-founded the Citizens' Committee) in 1990 when he became a councillor of the Gdynia City Council. 

In the years 1991-1998 he was the Chairman of the City Council of Gdynia, and at the same time represented the city in the Local Government Assembly of the Gdańsk Province. In addition, he’s the President of the Council of the Gdańsk-Gdynia-Sopot Metropolitan Area Association, established in 2015.

Mr Mayor, this year marks a quarter-century of you being at the helm of Gdynia. How has the city transformed during that period?

The key to the city's development is to give its inhabitants a real space for co-decision and active problem-solving in local environments. For 25 years, it has been possible to build a community and a city where people live well, which is confirmed not only by hard data, external diagnoses and rankings, but by the inhabitants themselves.

Gdynia is a forerunner of new trends in the approach to city management. Local ideas are set as a model for many solutions that make everyday life better and more comfortable. We have the cleanest air, high-quality public spaces accessible to all, ecological public transport, an excellent level of cultural and sporting events, and business here is thriving.

Gdynia was the first city in Poland, and in this part of Europe, to be awarded the ISO 37100 public service quality certification, and now takes pride in its highest ISO 37120 platinum certification. The fDi Magazine, which is part of the Financial Times, has awarded Gdynia the title of "Polish City of the Future" three times in a row, in terms of its economic potential and for its overall performance.

Our city is the Polish leader in removing barriers for people with disabilities, having been honoured with the Access City Award that rewards the accessibility of European cities for all, regardless of physical fitness, age or mobility. In 2022 UNICEF awarded Gdynia the title of a Child-Friendly City. In every aspect of the city's functioning, we have been consistently developing the idea of a smart city, where technology serves the people and helps in sustainable development.

What are the main environmental challenges facing a port city such as yours?

When in 1990 democratic local government was developing in Poland, Gdynia – similarly to other Polish cities – was facing serious environmental issues that stemmed from the infamous legacy of the Communist era in this matter. We started to cure this situation as fast as we could, together with other surrounding communes.

Here are some of the historical milestones:

  • in 1993 the existing mechanical sewage treatment plant was equipped with a biological part, and today the processes carried out in the treatment plant allow the sewage to meet the requirements of EU directives;
  • quality of water in Gdynia bathing areas meets the Blue Flag requirements;
  • we started the process of replacing coal stoves using the city budget in Gdynia in 1997, i.e. 4 years before the adoption of the Environmental Protection Law and 7 years before Poland's accession to the EU;
  • as the first and only in Poland, together with Gdańsk and Sopot, we established in 1991 a Foundation, which to this day provides air quality monitoring carried out through an accredited laboratory, and the air quality is among the cleanest in the country;
  • we systematically increase the amount of greenery in the city through the pocket parks and by creating the Central Park, which is currently being completed;
  • we are expanding the network of bus lanes, increasing the number of zero-emission buses and maintaining a network of electric trolleybuses.

All of the above-mentioned activities and many others have one common goal: transforming Gdynia into a modern city, friendly to live in all its dimensions relating to family, work, health and environment.

Today, like most conscious cities in the world, we take up the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and ultimately - by 2050 - we aim for the goal of zero emissions.

One of the challenges of a port city is maritime transport, as its decarbonisation is crucial for reaching carbon neutrality. The ambitious plans of Gdynia Harbour, together with energy-related issues in the city make us believe that this challenge will be a huge opportunity for our city in the Baltic Sea region.

Does Gdynia have the ambition to spearhead the transformation and regeneration of European port cities? What is the Gdynia Declaration adopted by the European Alliance Group from the Committee of the Regions?

The Gdynia Declaration is an initiative primarily aimed at supporting the regeneration of port cities. The problems of ports and cities fall within the competence of regional and national authorities.

However, the need to balance the development of these cities requires innovative solutions that take into account economic, social and environmental aspects in line with the rules of integrated city development in the EU. The demands formulated in the declaration confirm the continued need to co-create the EU policy for the regeneration of port cities and to turn policy into reality.

Gdynia has been supporting transformation for years. We have established contacts and experience exchanges with other conurbations that are carrying out projects for regeneration of waterfronts, that is, seafront districts.

In Gdynia, we have a unique place – several dozen hectares of post-industrial land on the Bay of Gdansk that is being transformed into the representative city centre that Gdynia deserves: Sea City. There are few places in the world where it is still possible to carry out an investment of such a scale at the point where land and sea meet.

Today, Sea City is a huge construction site where private investors are implementing their projects. A hotel, an office building, a modern marina and residential buildings have already been built, and more public buildings and conference centres are under construction.

Districts with such unique values should be developed in a way that they make residential, service, and other functions accessible for everyone. It was at Gdynia's initiative that the Waterfront Cities Network was first informally established, which has been transformed into the ULI Europe Waterfront Cities Council, whose members (among others) include Liverpool, Stockholm, Belfast, Glasgow, Rotterdam, Tallinn and Amsterdam.

We have created conditions for experience exchanges and harmonious cooperation among port cities.

Gdynia is one of the signatories to the Green City Accord movement. What does that mean for your city in terms of green policies?

The decision to join the Green City Accord was very easy. We joined the project almost 2 years after the adoption of the city's climate change adaptation plan, at a time when we were working at full speed on the strategic noise map, heat loss maps and the carbon footprint of the city of Gdynia (we calculate it basing on the "Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories” developed by the World Resources Institute, C40 Cities and ICLEI).

Therefore, Gdynia's access to the Green City Accord - a European initiative obliging cities to improve the condition of the environment in terms of care for air quality, water, circularity, combating noise and supporting biodiversity, was unanimously supported by the entire Gdynia City Council.

Thanks to participation in the project, we established contacts, among others, with Oslo, Lahti, Zaragoza, Braga and Cesena, as well as with Opole, the second Polish signatory of this initiative.

The ideas accompanying the Green City Accord are one of the priorities of city management for us. Today, the development of cities has to mean opening up to innovations, and implementing solutions that protect nature and the climate. Taking care of the environment, especially in urban areas, is one of the greatest challenges facing our and future generations.

We also noticed years ago that development must go hand in hand with ecology. In Gdynia, we pay attention to how to conduct urban activities and investments, and how to design new spaces with the local environment in mind.

We thermo-modernize our buildings, we support and promote renewable energy sources, and we educate all groups (including decision-makers, teachers and all citizens). We are not afraid of an innovative approach that positively affects our environment.

We look at different aspects of the municipality – buildings, education, energy, events, circularity - and make efforts to make these areas as green as possible. It is quite a challenging task, as it requires raising the awareness of many groups of interest in order to involve them in these processes.

What kind of transformative projects do you have in the works in partnership with ICLEI?

Activities undertaken by Gdynia in the field of broadly understood environmental protection activities, including adaptation and mitigation activities, are in line with the idea of the European Green Deal and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This fact was another point in favour of joining the Green City Accord.

Since November 2022 we have been preparing Gdynia’s decarbonisation strategy based on the guidelines of the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, (another initiative bringing together municipalities, cities and regions, supporting them in their path to zero emissions).

At this point, it should be emphasized that on 4 November 2022, the City of Gdynia published the city's carbon footprint for 2020, and I publicly declared that by 2030 we will reduce CO2 emissions by 43% compared to 2020. It is prepared on the basis of the guidelines contained in “Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories” developed by the World Resources Institute, C40 Cities and ICLEI with broad participation of internal and external stakeholders. By the end of 2023, the SECAP (Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan) will indicate ambitious actions that will lead to the achievement of the reduction target.

Author: Vincent Iolov

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