Joanna Kusiak – city researcher

Joanna Kusiak – city researcher
Joanna Kusiak

We have to change our approach towards ownership in the city, invent our own modernism.

A sociologist, city researcher at the King’s College of the University of Cambridge. She has recently published her book “Chaos Warsaw” (published by Bęc Zmiana). It is her Ph.D. which she took at the Darmstadt University of Technology. She plans to stay in Berlin until September, but since the beginning of the academic year, she moves to Cambridge. 


Is chaos in Warsaw the main reason of your moving out?

If we assume that one of the crucial elements of chaos is bad housing policy than you can say that indeed, chaos forced me to move out. I started my studies in Warsaw. For over 3 years I was a transient. I wanted to focus on scientific work and not necessarily be forced to juggle with other jobs at the same time. However, the scholarship barely covered my rent. I wrote the Ph.D. because of my (difficult) love for Warsaw. I wanted to understand why this city, on the one hand, is so magnificent and on the other, so difficult to live in.

What will you work on at Cambridge?

I will research relationships of ownership in the cities to understand how you can restore them to its tenants. I would like to show how the tenants’ movements use the law to fight against gentrification in Berlin. And with such good results. I myself have already won four lawsuits with the owner of a tenement house who wanted to increase my rent.  

You have experienced it yourself. What is the difference between the tenants here and in Berlin?

In Berlin, you don’t sign up for tenants’ association only when a conflict arises. Tenants’ associations are like trade unions – almost everyone who rents a flat joins one of these organizations. From your €80 fee which you pay annually, an insurance is covered in the case of a possible lawsuit. And there are plenty of progressive lawyers who deal with housing. A tenant as a weak link does not bear any personal risk fighting for his rights. Besides, each of us is a tenant: a businessman, academic professor, blue collar worker. Almost 90 % of people rent. 

Joanna Kusiak
I wrote the Ph.D. because of my (difficult) love for Warsaw. I wanted to understand why this city, on the one hand, is so magnificent and on the other, so difficult to live in.

What would be the realm of your studies?

How tricks in legal proceedings influence the city. Let me give you an example from my own life. My landlord replaced old windows in my apartment and wanted to raise my rent claiming that he had this way modernised the building. We proved at court that since our old windows had been falling apart, it wasn’t the case of modernisation, but just maintaining the state of a flat. All these kinds of fights are always about small definitions.

The notion of chaos, which you tackle in your book, is almost universal. You can add this word to almost every city name.

But here it functions differently. In Berlin, if you talk about chaos, it is only in the context of downward social energy. Here, chaos has a negative connotation and appears everywhere – in official documents, manifestations, hip-hop songs. For me, the popularity of this word is a symbol of our hopelessness. We are not happy with our urban space, but since we understand that this apparent chaos is somehow “organised” we cannot do anything about it.

As one of the sources of chaos, you imply the privatisation of public space. However, are there any examples of the European cities which are not bought out by developers?

In fact, there are! I lived for a half year in Vienna where 60% of apartments belong to the city council and non-commercial cooperatives which results in the affordable flat prices on the market. Here space is handed over to private hands. We were encouraged to act this way by the “Balcerowicz Plan” and World Bank. There is a whole chapter on Białołęka which is now portrayed as an example of a total spatial planning failure. However, at the beginning of the millennium, it was regarded as the best municipality in Poland. New housing estates were built and earned on themselves- it was a perfect example of a capitalist dream where city functioned as a well-oiled company.

Can we cease chaos? What can we do?

We have to change our approach towards ownership in the city. We have to somehow invent our own modernism. It was the last system which treated the city as an entity when it came to buildings, streets, people. We have to think how to come back to this, but at the same time, not repeat any fundamental mistakes of modernism. We cannot assume that market will put everything together.