Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Marcin Żebrowski

20.01.2021, Nayla Saniour

Marcin Żebrowski is an urban designer who studied city planning in Warsaw, Poland, before discovering his interest in the Scandinavian perspective on urban design and planning. He pursued a Master’s degree in Sustainable Urban Design in Lund, Sweden, and currently works in Copenhagen, Denmark, next to carrying his own podcast about urbanism. # MOVING AWAY FROM DULL URBAN PLANNING My love for cities kicked off during a hitchhiking trip from Warsaw all the way to Barcelona when I was 19 years old, and during which I came across many cities across Germany, France and Spain. I then studied spatial planning at the [University of Warsaw]( Although I did enjoy my time there, urbanism was taught in a rigid top-down approach taking a traditional city council’s perspective. I found it quite dull: it was more about filling forms and approving building licences than working creatively with other people. # NEW EDUCATIONAL HORIZONS During my undergraduate studies, I went for an Erasmus exchange to Sweden to expand my horizon. Their approach was strikingly contrasting to what I had learned before, it was much more focused on dialogue with people and teamwork in the process. You called all the professors by their names, even the most senior ones. As ordinary as it seems, this was unfamiliar to me. In Poland, hierarchy and politeness are very important. This whole atmosphere made me fall in love with Sweden and later come back for my Master’s studies. # LIVABLE STREET PROJECT After my bachelor’s degree, a group of friends and I went to Katowice, a city in southern Poland, for a workshop where we participated in closing off a street for a day. When it ended, the organizers told us that it was our turn now to replicate this “[livable street](” in our hometowns. So we did: we assembled a group of young designers, urbanists, architects and sociologists. What ensued was a 5-month process of discussions and workshops with one of the streets in Warsaw. This culminated in one weekend where we closed the street to cars and installed small interventions: grass rolls, wooden pallet benches, trees in pots and ping-pong tables. {{Pic1: Photo by Paulina Czyżewska}} # TACTICAL URBANISM, THE GOOD AND THE BAD With this project, many residents who didn’t know each other became close neighbors. They saw that a street doesn’t need to be a loud place only for cars. Our biggest achievement was that the neighbors truly felt responsible for the street. For example, they would water the plants or collect the rubbish themselves. Of course, there always are opponents and critics to such interventions. The car owners were obviously furious that we were closing the street. Of course, we allowed the residents to park their cars, but any change is always met with resistance. There are also some success stories: one man who was initially very opposed to the project ended up helping us wholeheartedly once he understood its value, literally taking a hammer and building the benches. # PARTICIPATION AS THE CORE OF DESIGN I believe criticism is not only normal, it is also necessary: we need to have a dialogue in and about the space. We as designers, architects and planners often don't take into consideration what people might want. We come up with a vision, get the clients’ money, and then “bam” - something gets built! I believe that talking with the inhabitants of the city is actually the most important part in the design process. # SHARING SKILLS IS CARING I knew I wanted to work in urban design and be in Sweden, so I applied for the [Sustainable Urban Design Master]( at [Lund University]( There, unlike in Poland, it was not a theoretical approach anymore. I learnt how to use design software, propose a vision and communicate with the stakeholders. Every semester we would work on a new project in a city that we would visit: recycling in Amsterdam, sustainable urban landscape in Switzerland, and urban dynamics in China. But I learned the most just by being with my classmates and working together in the studio. In many architecture schools people don’t necessarily help each other because it is very competitive. But in Scandinavia the culture is different: everyone shares their skills because it is for the common good. # JOYS AND CHALLENGES OF A COLLECTIVE Together with nine of my classmates, we formed a collective we called [Urban 10](, for us to participate in projects outside of the school context. In the summer that followed the end of the Master’s, we participated in the [Europan]( biennial competition and got a prize! We were also awarded another special mention in the [Non Architecture]( competition. Being in a collective is often a trade off between people’s availability. We were a diverse group and it was interesting to see how we all had different working cultures. It was also a challenge to keep it together during that post-master summer, since many moved countries for jobs. Lately, most of our work is being done online through video conference meetings. {{Pic2: Photo by Teresa Arana Aristi}} # FINDING WORK-LIFE BALANCE After the Master’s, I took an internship at architecture and urban design firm [Urban Power]( in Copenhagen. The office was quite small and the workload high. I put together study booklets, built physical models and drew urban scale diagrams - some typical internship tasks. I was learning a lot, but I was also working quite late hours. Adding to work exhaustion and a standard low internship pay, I had little time to socialize, and the weather was depressing - Copenhagen is very rainy and grey. It was a hard phase for me, I was overwhelmed and filled with doubts. I realized I needed to create a better work-life balance for myself. I started reading about self-development, built new habits and routines. I learnt how to take care of my physical and mental health, which is really important, especially when the bad weather approaches! # BIKING FOR THE MONEY - AND FOR INSPIRATION When my first internship ended in March 2020, the pandemic had just started. I knew I would still be living in Copenhagen, but I also needed to find a job quickly to have an income. So I started working as a bike courier delivering food. Biking gave me time to reflect about what was happening around me. From an urbanist’s perspective, during the pandemic, the city was a living laboratory, an ongoing experiment where people were trying to adjust. This was when the idea of making a podcast about urbanism started flourishing. I felt like I could use that kind of platform to spread knowledge about urbanism, a topic that is often unknown to people outside the field. # PODCASTING AND NETWORKING I found that my podcast (which I called [Urbcast]( is a great way to meet new people. I simply reach out to those that work on urbanism or architecture projects that I would like to know more about. One of the guests I interviewed was a friend of mine who works for the Warsaw City Council, who told me how the pandemic would change transportation. I interviewed many people from different cities across Poland and in addition to having guests, I also recorded some solo episodes. For example, I looked into the bodegas of Copenhagen, those traditional, inexpensive bars where locals socialize, and how the closing of those bodegas during the pandemic affected people and increased loneliness in the city. {{Pic3: Photo by Alice Lemaire}} # BUILDING A PERSONAL BRAND Through the podcast, I had the opportunity to develop my own personal brand, the way I wanted people to perceive me. I wanted the podcast to express my own views and experiences and to encapsulate my character and observations. I started receiving messages from people I did not know telling me they appreciated my work, which felt very empowering. The first season of the podcast was in Polish, but starting January 2021 it will be bilingual as I will start recording it in English to reach a bigger audience. # WORK IN SCANDINAVIA I am currently an intern at [Henning Larsen](, an architecture and urban design firm. There is a very flat hierarchy in the office, something that seems to be typical in Scandinavia: you work with your bosses closely as a team. Even if you have an idea that might not be aligned with the partners, team leaders or more experienced architects, they are always open to dialogue.