#Watchdogs: It started with sending out an application and ended with replanting over 150 trees

An interview with Marzena Błaszczyk, member of the Board of the Citizens’ Network Watchdog Poland, Chair of the Board of the association MODrzew and Vice-Chair of the Voice of Pedestrians Association.

Martyna Bójko: Where did your social engagement start? What pushed you in that direction?

Marzena Błaszczyk: When I was on maternity leave, I had more time to look at my nearest area in Bydgoszcz. The state of the infrastructure and how the city looked in general was unsatisfactory. I lived in Katowice and Krakow before and some of the problems I saw in Bydgoszcz had already been solved in those cities.

For example, on my street, which is a fifteen-minute walk from the town square, there is no pavement. That’s why I became interested in the activities of the Voice of Pedestrians – an association that aims to improve traffic safety. At the time, the organisation was conducting a project to collect information about places that needed some kind of intervention, repair, and I reported the case of my street. And then I slowly got involved in the activities of the association.

Did you exercise the right to information?

Access to information for activists and social workers is an essential tool to learn about planned expenditures, renovations. It is also possible to learn about the content of applications for raising EU funds for these purposes – thanks to this we can see which assumptions, for example regarding accessibility, have been fulfilled.

But this is not the only Bydgoszcz association you are active in?

No, in 2019 the association MODrzew – Civic Monitoring of Trees was formed. It was established when the Bydgoszcz Civic Forum organised a meeting concerning trees. We have often seen that during new investments in Bydgoszcz many trees are cut down, greenery is removed from housing estates, etc. That’s why, together with a colleague from the Voice of Pedestrians association, we attended this meeting. Then there were others, with various experts, scientists, and officials, who told us what the care of greenery looks like in the city. We were hoping that the city would change its policy on greenery. Unfortunately, something happened that deprived us of our illusions – in Bydgoszcz there is a street called Czarna Droga, which runs along the railway tracks, and the houses were separated from these tracks by trees. And one morning the inhabitants were awakened by the sound of saws being used to cut down the trees. It was in 2019. Not much later, during the reconstruction of a heating network in one of the apartment complexes, the inhabitants found out that trees around their houses had been growing illegally for 50 years and were cut down without any notice in order to install a supposedly necessary heat pipeline. That’s why we founded the MODrzew association in January 2020 and have been working for greenery in the city ever since. The right to information, i.e., the Access to Public Information Act, but also the Act on Providing Information on the Environment and Environmental Protection, Public Participation in Environmental Protection and Environmental Impact Assessments, are the key tools we use here.

As I understand, when you started volunteering, access to information was one of the first tools you used to verify what city officials were saying?

Yes. Perhaps it’s because I had previous experience from my work when access to information was useful in verifying EU tenders. Then it was from the perspective of the company which was trying to obtain information out about the tender results. And by then I had already learned the effectiveness of this tool.

And how did you end up in the Citizens’ Network?

I ended up in the Network thanks to the Watchdog School in 2019. After completing the course, I applied for membership and my application was successful.

And soon after you became a member of the Board?

Yes, after one year I ran for the position of Board member.

It can be said that you’re now deeply involved in the subject of the right to information. How do you see it now, working in an organisation that upholds the right to information?

It is one of the basic human rights. Without the right to information, we have neither knowledge nor influence on anything, especially nowadays when on the one hand, we have an abundance of information but on the other, it is difficult to verify it. If we can’t confirm at the source, it is hard to make an informed decision about anything. And it’s not just about electing authorities, it’s about making everyday decisions. Whether we’re talking about choosing a school or kindergarten for our children, or influencing what grows behind our fence. Fortunately, more and more people know about the right to information and exercise it. And I’m not surprised at all, because this is something beautiful – we ask and get an answer, although of course sometimes the city office does not give it to us. It happened to us, as MODrzew, that we were refused the information about the felling of trees in a municipality neighbouring Bydgoszcz. It ended up before the Provincial Administrative Court. What touched us about this case was that along with the information that the office decided to share it with us after a year, we also received an apology from the mayor.

And what is the most common thing you ask now when exercising your right to information?

When it comes to MODrzew, we have two types of questions. The first is related to interventions at the request of inhabitants, who ask to know whether their community or cooperative has already sent an application concerning felling. While inhabitants should be notified about such an application being sent, this is not always the case. The second type of action is constant monitoring. Last year, we monitored tree cutting decisions issued for Bydgoszcz in 2019, and this year we are requesting this data for 2020. This is being funded by the Henryk Wujec Civic Fund. Last year, we managed to analyse all the decisions issued by the Marshal’s Office, the Provincial Monument Conservator, and consents for road investments issued by the President of Bydgoszcz, because cutting down and planting trees is also decided on this occasion. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we were unable to gather all the documents because the officials were working remotely and could not scan the documents – unfortunately, all the documentation concerning tree cutting is kept on paper.

In this monitoring, we wanted to obtain key information about the city’s trees – which species are being cut down, which are being planted, and where new trees are being planted to replace those cut down. For example, there were times when trees were cut down in the eastern part of town and planted in the western part because it was not possible to plant the trees there due to road construction or new buildings. Meanwhile, it is important to maintain this balance and try to plant new trees as close as possible to the place where trees were cut because of heat islands in the city, climate change, but above all to ensure access to greenery for inhabitants.

Recently we took part in consultations on the study of the local spatial development plan – it is one of the most important planning documents, which gives guidelines for the city authorities on how to shape the spatial policy.

Are you talking about the Voice of Pedestrians or MODrzew?

Both organisations participated in the consultations. The Voice of Pedestrians focused on issues important to pedestrians and cyclists, and there were a number of reports from inhabitants to MODrzew that areas that are currently neighbourhood parks, forest parks, or forests were designated as sites for multi-family buildings in the new study. Suddenly it turns out that these green spaces are diminishing dramatically.

But I understand that this is the consultation stage and inhabitants’ comments can be taken into account?

Yes, this is according to the Spatial Planning and Development Act and these consultations are obligatory. Now we are waiting for the Urban Planning Office to refer to the comments and see whether it will take any of them into account at all. Ultimately, a study is a document that the City Council adopts. Already at the stage of announcing the accession to the preparation of the study, inhabitants could submit their comments – what they would like to see in it and, unfortunately, most of these comments were not taken into account. That’s why we’re not counting on much success this time either.

But have you had any success? Did you acquire information that allowed you to influence the authorities’ decisions or did you prevent some bad decision?

In April 2020, we were approached by an inhabitant who alerted us to the fact that the registered office of the National Archive would be built on a green plot previously used for walking. She asked us to verify this information. This was a time of lockdown and we didn’t know if anyone in that archive would even pick up our application for information, so we called first. We sent the application, but this time we were invited by the archives to visit the plot. Indeed, an investment was planned on the plot – the construction of a new registered office. But the planned building was adapted to the greenery present on the plot. The original design was changed to save two century-old oak trees. We suggested that some of the trees that were going to be cut down should be replanted. We organised the action “Adopt a Tree”, in which the archive actively cooperated with us. Organisations dealing with hedgehogs and birds also got involved, as there were a lot of both on the plot.

In June 2020, our volunteers dug up 150 several-year-old trees and distributed them to inhabitants. And at the end of October 2020, we started collecting funds for the replanting of larger trees, as specialist equipment was needed for this. The oldest of the replanted trees, a midland hawthorn, was about 50 years old. These trees also went to Bydgoszcz inhabitants who wanted to plant them on their plots. Such trees need care, tending and watering.

The result was a great educational campaign, showing that a tree does not always have to be cut down, sometimes it can simply be replanted.

Yes, there was nothing to lose here, because what couldn’t be dug up was going to be cut down, so it was worth trying, although we knew that probably not all the trees would survive.

It’s important that the National Archive helped you in this matter.

Yes, we experienced the favour of a national institution that saw in us not people who wanted to cause them difficulties, but allies, and worked with us from the beginning to the end. Now we are all looking forward to the creation of this archive, and we are curious to see how the remaining trees on the plot will suit.

And have these replanted trees survived?

We are in contact with the inhabitants and as far as those trees from June are concerned, about half have survived. It wasn’t the best time to replant, but there was a lockdown before, then the hedgehogs were breeding and they couldn’t be disturbed. We also had to consider the bird breeding season.

After that optimistic story, tell us what you wish for the Network on its 18th anniversary.

A new act on access to public information!

Thank you for this conversation!


Support watchdog


Leave a Reply

Before sending a comment read "Rules for adding and publishing comments".

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *