May 7, 2024

“Are we living in no man's land?” Property conflicts in a village turned part of the capital of Poland

Author: Julia Kunikowska

Ursynów is one of the youngest districts of Warsaw, eagerly described by journalists, sociologists, historians, cultural scientists and urban researchers. The first housing estate of the new district was a kind of playground for urban planners who, during the 1970s, demonstrated their skills acquired not only in Poland, but also in the West. Judged by contemporary standards, Ursynów was a modern and exceptionally well-planned housing estate. It continued to grow southwards, and the successive new subdistricts, including Natolin and Kabaty, tell the story of urbanisation in socialist and post-socialist Poland.

Meanwhile, the area where this major urbanisation process took place had not been a ‘no man’s land’ before. Instead, Ursynów developed by absorbing former villages whose history goes back as far as the 14th century. When the construction of the district began, people still lived in the former villages. They were the owners of the fields on which the modern blocks of flats were built. How have they been compensated for their property? How did the local land conflicts play out in communist Poland, and how do they play out today, under capitalism? And why are the accounts of those who lived on the land rarely included in discussions over Ursynów’s past? To answer these questions, I will refer to the example of one of the former villages absorbed by the Ursynów district, called Wolica, which is the subject of my doctoral thesis.

Wolica’s rural past and the turbulent 1970s

Wolica is located on the Warsaw escarpment (steep slope) separating the higher lands of the Mazovian Plain from the lowlands along the Vistula river. Today, it lies on the border of two districts of Warsaw, Ursynów and Wilanów. The history of Wolica dates back as far as the 14th century. Until the mid-20th century, Wolica was inhabited mainly by the descendants of two families, the Sakowski and the Chodzeń families, who had lived there for several hundred years. The village was incorporated into the city of Warsaw in 1951, but until the 1990s it remained essentially homogeneous, both at the level of spatial and social development. Today, it is a kind of micro-space, both city and country-like. Roadside crosses and wooden houses are reminders of Wolica's rural past.

Most of the inhabitants of Wolica were farmers. They made their living by selling crops at the markets in and near Warsaw. As the village’s land was very fertile, various vegetables were grown there. On the experimental fields of the Warsaw College of Agriculture (SGGW) south of the village, even watermelons thrived. In 1971, the Communist government of Poland enacted the Act on the Regulation of Farm Ownership, which officially granted ownership to anyone who had owned land for a minimum of five years, legalising previous informal divisions. Joy over the enfranchisement granted by the Communists was short-lived for Wolica’s farmers, however. It turned out that formal enfranchisement was only a step towards their expropriation.

In the early 1970s, Wolica residents received letters informing them about decisions to expropriate their plots of land for the construction of a new housing estate. They were allowed to keep their houses and backyards only. Landed property, passed down from generation to generation, was taken over by the State Treasury, depriving families not only of their source of income, but also of their pride in carrying on the agrarian tradition of their ancestors. The state provided landowners with financial compensation, but the compensation was bafflingly low. The Wolica farmers received less than 3 zloty per square meter of expropriated land, while one kilo of sugar cost about 10 zloty at the time. After the fall of communism, some Wolica residents were recompensated fairly for the land taken in the 1970s. Others, now in their 80s and 90s, are still waiting for the court’s verdict.

The 1974 expropriation was motivated by the construction of prefabricated housing estates—more precisely, the next stages of Ursynów Południowy (Ursynów South), which was completed in the middle of the 1980s. In the early 1980s, there was a plan to force the Wolica residents to leave the area, which had become highly attractive in the course of the expansion of the city. To make them leave unofficially, the municipality did not issue permits for the construction of new houses. Residents were only allowed to renovate old houses. Living conditions in Wolica did not meet the standards of the socialist capital. Even in the 1980s, some inhabitants had no running water and no central heating. They had to draw water from wells and heat their homes with tiled or coal stoves. Behind their homes, on land that had, until recently, belonged to their families, modern prefabricated blocks of flats were springing up, equipped with central heating and other amenities. The vision of living in such a block was tempting, which is why some residents decided to sell the last scraps of land and move ‘into the city’. But not all of them did.

After the expropriations—general and local plans

The plans of the eviction of Wolica residents did not come into effect due to the fall of the communist regime in 1989, but they were revisited in the early 1990s. Under the new political conditions, residents were able to form a committee to prevent their land from being taken away. Their cause was supported by Lech Królikowski, the new, democratically elected mayor of the Mokotów municipality, to which Wolica now belonged. The threat of expropriation was thus averted.

However, this was not the end of the committee's activities. Wolica residents pushed for the creation of a local spatial development plan. The aim was to create a plan not drawn up top-down by the municipality officials, but, rather, by the residents. Numerous consultations took place and various changes to the existing land use were proposed, leaving private property in the hands of Wolica's residents, so that they could subdivide and—if they ever wanted to—sell the remaining private plots. The plan was drawn up by a planner hired for the purpose. While the residents’ proposals were largely accepted by the municipality, tensions arose between the municipality and the voivodeship office, the regional level of state administration. When the completed plan was presented to the latter, it was immediately rejected. In 1992, a top-down general plan for the whole city of Warsaw was created that failed to take into account the requests and proposals by Wolica residents. Later, in 1998, a local spatial development plan for the former village was enacted, but none of the previous suggestions were included.

Contemporary property conflicts in former Wolica

In spite of spatial planning procedures, conflicts related to ownership and property in Wolica continue until today. This is due to the fact that the former village lies on the border of two Warsaw districts, Ursynów and Wilanów. Whereas the land located in Ursynów had been contested during the socialist regime, conflicts over the former village pasture, now within the borders of Wilanów, began in capitalist Poland. The pasture communal land on which a local shepherd grazed cows that belonged to the farmers. This land was officially divided into smaller plots in the 1960s. After the 1970s expropriations, Wolica residents stopped raising cows, so the land was not used anymore and became overgrown.

In a 2006 local development plan, the pasture was assigned to a new area called Wilanów Zachodni II (Wilanów West II), designated for “extensive single-family residential development”. Around 2010, construction work around the pasture began. This part of Wilanów, called Miasteczko Wilanów (‘Small-Town Wilanów’), became the epicentre of developer-built housing construction for the growing Warsaw middle class. As Miasteczko Wilanów’s area grew denser and denser, residents of the new blocks around the pasture began to complain that the overgrown area was unsuitable for walking, especially with children. These complaints found consideration in a new planning proposal that was consulted with the public in 2023. In line with an earlier resolution passed by the Wilanów District Council in 2014, the pasture was to be used for public green areas, possibly a park. This meant that the landowners, the inhabitants of Wolica, would be expropriated again. Naturally, they would be given money for the land, but the price for a square meter of land destined for public green areas is much lower than that of land for development purposes.

Moreover, opposition among local property owners was triggered by the draft’s premise that Warsaw did not need new housing. People felt that they would be deprived of the capability of deciding about their land’s future once again. Many Wolica residents suggest that under the noble aim of creating green areas, the city officials would be given the right (or even priority) to change the purpose of the land use from green areas to building purposes later on.  This right of disposal entails notable material aspects, since the value of the land is artificially lowered to the disadvantage of its original owners, who receive low compensation for expropriation, while the city, when changing the plan before selling or leasing land to developers, may substantially raise prices for the very same land. And so history would repeat itself, but in a new, capitalist setting. At the present moment, due to changes to legal regulations, the work on the respective planning draft has been abandoned in favour of creating a new general plan.

Neither the new, middle-class residents of Miasteczko Wilanów, nor most of the people living in the Ursynów blocks from the socialist era are aware that their homes were built on land that previously belonged to someone else. Yet, living in Ursynów in a block of flats myself, I would argue that the knowledge of the district’s past is a relevant layer that influences my, but also other Varsovians’, identity. According to a 2015 survey, 40% of Varsovians were not born in Warsaw, and it is clear that not all newcomers who have settled here have a bent for local history. Still, understanding the processes behind land-related conflicts not only in Ursynów, but also in Warsaw and elsewhere, helps to understand the mechanisms by which the communist regime ruled and by which the current capitalist regime rules. The knowledge about past and present conflicts over landed property is inconvenient, because it is much easier to assume that the settlement, which now houses thousands of people, was built on ‘no man's land’. But this knowledge is essential for understanding one’s embeddedness in social interconnections based not only on individual and present experiences, but also rooted in collective experiences of the past.

It seems that only in the first years after the system change of 1989, when municipal governments were taken over by former civil society activists such as Lech Królikowski, the mayor of the Mokotów municipality, local government really took into account suggestions by the Wolica residents. What does that say about previous and subsequent local government policies and their ability to search for fair solutions that consider the interests of the municipality, its residents and the landowners? More property-related conflicts are to be expected in Wolica once the new general plan is published.