A part of Poland’s history is that of divisions and partitions. Some less formal splits continue today – in the political and cultural sphere, economically, and between town cities and the countryside.

There are considerable differences between urban and rural areas in Poland, with a visible lack of common structures and instruments bridging the gap. The further you move from the urban centre of a region, the clearer those differences become. On top of that, the late-18th-century partitions, which eliminated Poland for more than a century, still have influence on the functioning of parts of the country today.

These splits create problems. They hold back the development of human capital and social trust that, according to the social psychologist Prof. Janusz Czapliński, are essential to create an equal standard of living for Polish citizens. Exclusively local development does not help to span the divide – something that has been a challenge for Poland’s use of European Union funding in rural areas, which has tended to favour the development of only local goals rather than focus on stimulating wider cooperation.

As the capital, Warsaw has a unique potential compared to other Polish cities. However the wider Mazovia region, with Warsaw at its centre has also some contrasts. Were it not for the presence of Warsaw, the Mazovia region would be ranked one of the poorest in the country. Statistically the province is now divided into two units: Warsaw and its surrounding counties, and the rest of the region. This division is also helpful: it facilitates better cooperation between Warsaw and its immediate surroundings. On the other hand the rest of the region may continue to get sufficient funds for its development, also via a more intense cooperation with Warsaw. Such cooperation is built on the combination of potential on both sides, to the benefit of both.

“Exclusively local development does not help to span the rural-urban divide”

Warsaw is cooperating with the neighbouring communes as one of the five strategic goals set in Poland’s 2020 regional development strategy. Simultaneously, in Warsaw’s own 2030 strategy we put a strong emphasis on the idea of an open city. We want Warsaw’s diversity to lay the foundations for the creation and development of new ideas – attracting and uniting people rather than dividing them.

And urban-rural cooperation is bearing fruit. In areas considered less attractive for tourism and agriculture new businesses have emerged to cater for visiting families and school groups from cities nearby. These include stud farms and thematic villages, with themes ranging from the history of bread-making or mushroom-picking, to the art of illusion, hobbits, magical gardens, labyrinths and fairy tales. Rural carpenters’ workshops are now serving urban customers looking for custom-built furniture.

In 2015, an average apartment in Warsaw measured under 58.8 square metres. In this context, customised furniture became one of the means which allowed new owners to optimise their use of space.

There is also a rising interest in purchasing fresh organic produce directly from ‘friendly farmers’. In Warsaw we have invested in the renovation of city market places. We have removed the market fee imposed on merchants to make this form of trade even more attractive to farmers and small producers from rural areas. As a result, prices have fallen even as the quality of organic food has increased.

“We want Warsaw’s diversity to lay the foundations for the creation and development of new ideas”

These examples highlight the benefits of cooperation. Partnerships need to be based on and embrace the different strengths of the different regions. Warsaw puts this idea into practice with the use of EU instruments, such as Integrated Territorial Investments (ITIs), created as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) launched by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Recently, 40 communes in Greater Warsaw (known as the Warsaw Functional Area) formed a partnership to use the ITIs. As many as 26 of these communes are rural or urban-rural. Each commune shares responsibility for its development.

The voice of the representative of Warsaw, a metropolis of two million people, is equal to that of the representative of Jaktorów, a rural commune of 11,000. The set-up fosters long-term cooperation and a sense of partnership.

We support polycentric development in the Warsaw Functional Area and acknowledge the importance of regional cooperation to boost sustainable development. This approach is especially crucial in the field of a coherent transport infrastructure – for example, cycle paths and car parks for park-and-ride schemes – where the gap between rural and urban areas is most visible. For urban-rural cooperation to be profitable for both sides, it has to be well balanced, drawing on the potentials of different territories and understanding the various challenges each faces.

On one hand, large cities such as Warsaw benefit as centres of development that attract resources and human capital. On the other hand, they face challenges related to their scale. In order to function properly they need support that is proportional to these challenges.

Through innovative and proactive measures, Poland is addressing its rural-urban divide. But we must also ensure that cities such as Warsaw have the financial support and legal mechanisms they need to develop and to thrive in the years to come.