Warsaw – dramatically shaped by history
I arrived in Warsaw in the Autumn of 2009. Until then I had lived all my life in Gaia, Portugal. Warsaw is cut through by very long avenues constantly crossed by trams, buses, and many cars. When leaving the central station, the first thing one sees is an enormous building from the past: the Palace of Culture and Science, a gift from Stalin, which remains the tallest and most controversial building in town. It was built in an area which before was made up of several streets. Even now, some streets hold the same name on opposite sides of the palace. About 80% of the central district was destroyed by the Nazis during the occupation, first in retaliation against the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, and later against the Polish Resistance Uprising. The lack of old buildings in the centre tells those stories. The Palace and the block buildings around remind us of the Socialist times, and the modern skyscrapers hosting Coca-Cola signs and shopping malls show that those times are long past. The city is rich in parks and you can find nice cafes scattered through its diverse districts. It was in this Warsaw full of contrasts and (in)visible history that I first became fascinated by cities.
Utrecht – Practical and dynamic
After living in Warsaw, I moved to Utrecht, for my Masters. Utrecht is much smaller than Warsaw or Porto, and is incredibly neat, as if straight from a postcard. It is rare to see a building that needs renovation here. It feels as if nothing in the landscape is there by chance – everything is part of a master plan. But it is a rather nice master plan! There are several parks and many spots to sit by the canals, and a vibrant life, with many cafes and recurring cultural events. In Utrecht, particularly in spring, life seems easy, when half of the city sits in the parks having barbecues and enjoying the sun.
While public transportation is more expensive than in Warsaw, there is a good free alternative: the excellent infrastructure for cycling, and the incredible absence of hills makes rainy-windy-weather your only possible excuse for not taking the bike (for me… not for the Dutch).
The closeness of many Dutch cities (Utrecht, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, de Hague) is remarkable, both geographically and in terms of transportation infrastructure, which makes inter-city commuting a general practice. Seeing how the flatness has allowed for the cycling lifestyle and the development of the railway network, made me realize how the geography of cities and countries can deeply influence their societies.
Gaia – the rural and the urban
When I go back home, in what used to be a normal landscape for me, I can now see peculiarities and hidden potentials, especially by noticing everything that is different compared to Utrecht and Warsaw.
I used to live in Gaia, on the other side of the
river from Porto. Gaia is a city of 300 000 inhabitants, but
50 years ago it comprised only small villages surrounded by
agricultural estates. As Porto’s population grew, people began
crossing the river in search of affordable housing . Without a
clear plan of what and how to build, Gaia went through an intense
and somewhat spontaneous urbanization process. Porto, whose
population has decreased to 230 000 inhabitants is still the centre
of universities, research and cultural life.
You can see this history in the public transport network. The ease of having good public transport available is something I got used to when living in Warsaw and the Netherlands. In Gaia small private companies provide mainly routes from Gaia to Porto, but there is a lack of direct connections for places lying off that main axis.
Both Porto and Gaia, are landscape-rich cities, with hills that roll down to the banks of the Douro river and to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. There are long stretches of beach by the coast, and even some by the riverside. Public green spaces are not abound. There is, however, a strong mix of the urban and rural domains. Espigueiros – an old type of granary built to keep rodents away from cereals, are often found around old agricultural fields. These fields can be useful in future policies of local food production, and the rich and diverse landscape can be better exploited when easily accessed by citizens and tourists through a well-connected public transport network.
Photo taken by A.Ribeiro. A beach in Gaia.