The past thirty years have brought profound changes in many places in Poland. A city that did great in improving living standards, achieving sustainable development goals, and managing its lands is Rzeszów. In this interview, Adrian Kolano asks Konrad Fijołek, the mayor of Rzeszów, about his accomplishments and plans.
AK: Back in 2020, Rzeszów came second on the list of Poland’s top sustainable local governments. Could you please tell us more about the municipal agenda for sustainable development? What are you particularly proud of and what are areas for improvement?
KF: Rzeszów is now seeing dynamic growth, which makes me personally satisfied. But what pushes the city forward is its economy. If the city offers jobs, people want to stay in Rzeszów for longer. Rzeszów is a city of innovation, where the aerospace and IT industries are developing rapidly. It is home to Poland’s aviation industry as it hosts manufacturers such as MTU, Borg Warner, Pratt & Whitney, EME Aero, Collins Aerospace, and Phoenix Contact, among others. In consequence, thousands of new jobs were created, attracting people from all over the country who settle in Rzeszów. When mentioning the strategy for development and the economic potential, we cannot neglect efforts to invest in human capital. And we keep spending more on this. More nurseries, kindergartens, and schools have been built in the past years. Later this year, we are planning to commission a primary school and nursery unit along with a sports arena in Drabinianka, a district of Rzeszów. We will soon begin to extend school buildings in Staromieście and Matysówka and build a sports center featuring sanitary facilities and pitches in School Complex No. 1. A new swimming pool will be opened at Matuszczaka Street later this year. The venue is also designed as an Olympic training center, also for Stal Rzeszów divers. The municipal budget, whose proposal I had submitted and that got unanimous approval, includes some investment projects in all districts of Rzeszów. What is important for city residents is an overpass that links Wyspiańskiego Street and Hoffmanowej Street. We will soon commission the Podkarpacie Athletics Center, the Rzeszów Communication Center, and an aquapark.
But investing in human capital means spending money on education. Smart solutions at schools involve teaching materials, broadband Internet, digital whiteboards, 3D printers, and new sports facilities. In addition, the schools in Rzeszów use a unified modern electronic gradebook, an element of a complex education management system. With their equipment, schools are also ready for online learning––a crucial feature as the pandemic swept the country––because educational facilities in Rzeszów were one of the few in Poland to be prepared for online instruction when lockdown policies were imposed. We inked a deal with Microsoft that allowed teachers and students in all state schools in the city to use Office 365 in the educational process. They all have free access to the software that can be installed on five computers, five tablets, and five smartphones. The young and teachers alike are thus able to use Microsoft cloud solutions at school and home or elsewhere.
The academic center in Rzeszów is also seeing constant and dynamic growth. Each year brings new, much-awaited faculties. It is crucial to adapt the university offer to what the job market needs. New faculties and curricula address its demands while fitting into innovation efforts in the Podkarpacie region. Rzeszów is home to the biggest number of university students per 1,000 residents than anywhere else in the European Union.
But what occupies a crucial role for any city is its social initiatives. Rzeszów residents take part in some area management projects, implement innovation, and advise on how to make their daily life more comfortable.
What I am particularly fond of is what people engage actively in city life. Our information policy is designed to make anyone aware of what is going––on both traditional or social media––on and let them participate and decide. We hold public consultations to decide where to locate new parks and pedestrian streets or how to revamp the city to make it more comfortable for residents. We want all social groups to decide about the city. We have established the Social Council for Sport, the Council on Older Persons, the Economic Council, and the Council for Culture, or the Council on Women. The city has appointed the Ombudsman for Persons with Disabilities. We throw support for local NGOs, too. We are constantly in talks with residents because they live here and they should make relevant decisions about their neighborhood. The Urban Lab Rzeszów is where representatives of social groups meet to discuss further actions. People choose where they want new pocket parks, usually a few hundred meters away from where they live. There were four new ones last year while others will join this spring. Residents tell us where to build new playgrounds and what to amend to make the city a better place to live. We are now constructing a playground dedicated to children with disabilities by the Wisłok river. Both beautiful and functional, the facility is what the people asked for. We spare no efforts to make Rzeszów more resident-friendly.
A thing that yet gives us sleepless nights is the care of the environment. We do not remain idle in this respect, though. We seek to oust all black-smoke-belching stoves by replacing them with gas-fired heaters. We are involved in a flurry of educational campaigns and we are in cooperation with such environmental associations as Ekoskop or Strażnicy Drzew.
AK: This January 19 marked 668 years since Rzeszów was founded. Is Rzeszów––a city priding itself on a long and outstanding history and the capital of innovation––proud of anything more than other cities of Central and Eastern Europe?
Poland’s capital of innovation, Rzeszów keeps introducing some novelties in the economy, culture, education, and elsewhere to make life easier. We pride ourselves on a digital urban greenness and an air quality monitoring system alike.
Our newest innovation is a vacant parking spot detection system, which is the most modern facility of that kind in Poland. The system involves cameras installed around the parking lot. It encompasses a neural network equipped with image-processing devices to collect information on parking lot usage. Drivers learn about vacant parking spots either from boards or their smartphones. In addition to being a safe and fully-monitored parking lot, it is a facility for drivers who no longer waste their time looking for vacant spots as their smartphones guide them towards a nearby one. It is an eco-friendly solution as it reduces pollution downtown.
Another smart solution is Rzeszowskie Piwnice, or a cultural venue we commissioned at the end of last year. It is a tech-studded underground route that invites tourists to take part in a marvelous adventure.
We have a years-long track record in adopting modern solutions, also for public transportation. We have built high-standard roads equipped with bike planes. Through tech-studded solutions, we avoid traffic congestion. As in many modern cities, we seek to put in practice what is known as the reverse traffic pyramid, or an approach that gives the priority to bikes, scooters, carsharing schemes, then public transport, followed by cars. We pride ourselves on a fleet of modern, environmental, and sustainable buses. They feature an array of smart solutions, too. We were the first Polish city to offer a new smart contactless ticket system, or Mass Transit Transaction (MTT). Passengers use contactless payment (credit card, smartphone, or smartwatch) and the system enables them to know the exact amount being charged at the moment and find the best tariff. Bus stops all over the city are air-conditioned in the summer while solar-powered and heated in the winter.
The train station in Rzeszów is the first-ever carbon-neutral station in Poland. Electrical energy from solar power is later returned to the grid when demand is high. Traffic management is fully automatic, while AI-based algorithms are used to issue parket ticket invoices for buses at the station and bus bays.
AK: In 2020, the city had the highest birth rate in Poland. Rzeszów, which the Financial Times put on its list of the cities of the future, now has access to outstanding human capital and superb business opportunities. What are your views on Rzeszów being a resident-friendly city? What do you consider essential for its future?
A people-friendly city is what I have dreamt of and what I have been working for years on. But what is most important for residents and what makes them want to live here is a proper quality of life that focuses on their health, comfort, and leisure. Any city should be green and friendly and offer leisure areas to its residents just around the corner. I mean pocket parks within a 10-minute walk or benches where the elderly could sit down and have some rest while on their way to the park. I mean playgrounds, also those dedicated to children with disabilities. I mean venues where local artists could display their works or where people could dance or attend concerts in their neighborhood. These places create local communities. So that we know and befriend our neighbors and we feel at home where we live––both safely and comfortably. So that all residents––whether they be young or elderly––find a way to spend free time and never feel alone. Because spending money on culture is actually preparing the basics for the city’s further development. The “Atrakcje na Wakacje” program we ran last year offered nearly 300 pastimes to flatter all tastes. And we keep doing this all year round. Despite the sweeping pandemic, we suggest a number of leisure activities.
AK: Green areas have always been part of sustainable development solutions and Rzeszów was known as one of Poland’s greenest cities. What do you think about the future of green areas by the Wisłok river that have seen dynamic shifts in these past years?
We are sparing no efforts to build leisure areas by the Wisłok river. We have thus drafted a land development plan for these areas that provides for some extra street furniture and urban green spaces. We are now in talks with real estate developers to acquire some of these lands. In addition, we are now drafting a land use plan for Rzeszów, including the areas adjacent to the Wisłok river.
Those will include bike paths and running routes along with some crossings to reach leisure facilities by the Wisłok river, commissioned by the city hall and leased to businesses seeking to offer sports and leisure amenities or provide food services. We also need areas untouched by humans. In Rzeszów, there is a nature reserve known as Lisia Góra that we need to take care of soon. As spring is coming, we are getting back to work. We will be sowing more and more wildflower meadows––as we did last year. This year’s budget includes money to build new running routes. We will soon commission the playground dedicated to children with disabilities. We have made plans to use the area by Konfederatów Mound. With its total area of 58 ha, it will host leisure and green areas. Works will take place between March 4 and 24. The public debate is scheduled for March 23.