Under the Charm of Urbanism

Alexander Alexeyev

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Russia is in the grip of a push for urbanism that has spawned many ideas and projects to improve its cities. However, the most prominent of them are merely imitative in nature, failing to change long-established approaches to the transformation of the urban environment in the interests of the wider public. At the same time, the country is still waiting to nurture a new generation of professional urbanists who can offer intelligent and systemic solutions to urban problems, as well as officials and a civil society that can stimulate demand for a new look at urban development.

In recent years, new trends in urban planning have been gaining traction in Russia. Jane Jacobs’ books have been translated into Russian, and foreign gurus like Ian Gale and Vukan Vuchic are frequent visitors to the country. The ambitious-sounding term ‘master plan’ is attached to more and more projects and a dense web of cycle paths seems to be on the verge of becoming a reality. But what has this new movement truly delivered? Are Russian cities becoming any easier to live in?

Of course, Russia has its own history of urbanism and its own philosophies of urban development. Perhaps the most striking and best-known example comes from Vyacheslav Glazichev, who started as an architect and design theorist in the 1960s before undertaking urban development projects in the 1980s and setting up closer interaction between city residents and government authorities.

However, the real call to change Russia’s urban environment took shape in the second half of the 2000s. According to Svyat Murunov, an urbanist and expert on urban development, it came from the emerging ‘creative class’ – a young and active part of society who had a different perception of the city and demanded a new, higher quality of life.

The first introductory foray into the subject of urban development has made an impact. Most importantly, perhaps, the topic has hit the big time. “These days, even on mainstream state TV channels you regularly hear the words ‘urban development’, ‘urban planning’, and ‘public space’. In 2007, we almost never heard them in the media,” said Varvara Melnikova, Director of the Strelka Institute of Urban Development in Moscow.

According to the architect Daniyar Yusupov, co-founder of the U:lab.spb urbanist group and lecturer at the Saint Petersburg State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering, it is important that interest in the topic has maintained and even increased over recent years. Right now, urban studies in Russia is undergoing an expansion, broaching new fields of activity and exploring greater specialization and research.

Some changes are already visible in our urban environment. “Although most of the town-planning measures initiated by authorities and developers are trapped in some parallel reality unrelated to new urban development solutions, there are spaces and projects in some cities with a new urbanist quality,” says Anton Finogenov, head of the Urbanika Institute of Spatial Planning. “The concept of ‘the urban environment’ no longer stumps city authorities or developers.” In other words, the main consequence of Russia’s new urbanism movement is that city residents, municipal authorities, and developers have become aware of it. Of course, how well they understand it is a whole other question.

The urbanism of hipsters

Authorities in several cities were quick to jump on the bandwagon and begin to actively exploit this emerging demand for change. But in practice, this has led to the emergence of numerous imitative projects that have reduced the massive and complex issue of improving the urban environment to a set of primitive solutions like building cycle paths. In some places, these innovations seem to be quite successful; in others, they face misunderstanding and protest, sometimes bordering on vandalism. The unfortunate experience of the city of Perm saw several high-profile initiatives to develop the city – often created by external experts such as Marat Ghelman’s cultural projects or the Dutch KCAP Studio’s master plan – be poorly received and remain misunderstood.

But even Moscow’s ‘benchmark’ initiatives, such as the reconstruction of Gorky Park or the Krymskaya Embankment, however pleasant they may seem, do not really solve the main problem: they do not change our approach to transforming the environment – a process that, according to urban ideals, should be driven by the local community. Most of these changes are still instigated by either city authorities – who seek new opportunities for leisure – or local businesses trying to offer their services in response to a growing demand. The residents remain passive consumers.

This urbanism has become synonymous with a certain fashionable lifestyle and a desire to make things ‘look like Europe’. It is also associated with a lack of understanding that the essence of successful urban projects is not in copying external attributes from elsewhere, but in changing the fundamental approach to design.

“The issues that the ‘bicyclisation’ of the city can solve are not only limited to transport problems,” says Daniyar Yusupov. “This also addresses issues of social control over the security of urban environments (it is unlikely that you would be attacked near a well-lit cycle path, where a witness may show up at any time), developing small businesses (bicycle shops, bike repair workshops, a variety of companies, delivery services), promoting healthier lifestyles, and so forth.”

As well as missed opportunities, imitations also end up swallowing far too much of the city’s budget. The benefits of the best urban solutions come from their success in having a great effect simultaneously in many areas at a modest cost.

According to Svyat Murunov, today, interesting (not ‘imitative’) urban initiatives cannot be found in Moscow, where underdeveloped local communities and a shortage of significant resources from the government and businesses thwart their progress. Instead we should look to striking regional examples. These include the TEXTIL cultural center in Yaroslavl; the Aktivatsiya Goup projects and the Kurbanistika festival in Vologda; the work of the ‘City Parks’ Kazan Association; the O’Gorod Festival in Nizhny Novgorod; the Living Cities Forum in Izhevsk; and many other projects in Novosibirsk, Ufa, Kaliningrad, Krasnodar, Perm, and other cities.

A key disadvantage of these urban communities, says Svyat Muranov, is that they are relatively recent. Most only emerged in the last 10 years. Their most enthusiastic advocates, the so-called ‘hipster generation’, are inspired by what they see on the Internet, or while traveling in Europe. However, they do not currently have sufficient influence to form effective horizontal social groupings.

Scattergun approach

So why are there no high-quality projects? Often the problem is the lack of an overall development strategy that understands the proper place for several complementary initiatives. As a result, you end up with an isolated pedestrian street or a park. Maybe it makes life a little better for city residents, but it ultimately turns out to be unnecessarily expensive and proves to be a development dead end.

“We are not even attempting to address systemic issues yet; we are mainly trying to patch up holes,” complains Daniyar Yusupov. “There are also problems with implementing a multidisciplinary approach. Even when this approach is intended from the outset, professionals tend to work exclusively in their own fields. As a result these separate strands are poorly integrated and have little influence over one another.”

There are also many issues with legislation. Russian law lays down various standards for issues like social infrastructure, isolation, fire safety, and landscaping. Traditionally, many of these were rigid and prescriptive. But they come from a different era and aim to solve a different set of problems. Today they are a serious obstacle to modern development projects in a dense urban environment. At the same time, there is a fear that any change will only make things worse; without stringent requirements there is a danger that any scheme can go ahead unchallenged.

Another problem with redeveloping old industrial areas is the often complex ownership of the property currently on site. Developers are rarely interested in uniting the interests of several different property owners, but it can be expensive or even impossible to buy all of them out.

Officials tend to follow their own budget-driven agendas. Ordinary urban improvement schemes are often seen as a safer bet than embarking on complex and sometimes unpredictable new ones. The fragmentation of different departments also hampers the implementation of complex projects. In small towns, where big problems need to be solved with little money, local authorities are far more interested in cooperation and developing dialogs with urban communities.

Developers are guided primarily by profits. Red tape, corruption, and complex loan procedures already make all Russian projects expensive and challenging. Until recently, housing shortages meant that developers could enjoy high demand for almost any project, irrespective of merit. This was obviously not conducive to any imaginative approach to the urban environment. However, the crisis in the real estate sector and the transition to a buyer’s market is sure to boost demand for high-quality urban development consulting services.

Passion vs profession

Professional urban planners – those who have the necessary knowledge to transform the urban environment based on new principles – are few and far between in Russia. Even so, several notable educational projects have emerged, each of which aims to produce experts with new thinking. In particular, there is the Urban Studies program at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (the so-called ‘Shaninkа’), the Graduate School of Urban Studies at the Higher School of Economics, the Arrow Institute, and the New Leaders of Territorial Development program at the MARSH Architectural School. In St. Petersburg, Master’s programs are offered at the Sreda Institute and the Institute for Urban Design, and at the Saint Petersburg State University of Information Technologies.

Modern Moscow urbanism has become synonymous with a certain fashionable lifestyle. It is also associated with a lack of understanding that the essence of successful urban projects is not in copying external attributes from elsewhere, but in changing the fundamental approach to design

However, according to Svyat Murunov, many of these programs suffer from their reliance on Western experiences. Those conditions are difficult to translate into a Russian context because of weak urban communities and the need to nurture real clients who will call for these changes.

However, the pioneers of urban education are already modifying their programs. For instance, the Arrow Institute has announced changes to its curriculum: five years ago the institution was aiming to merely develop basic skills and concepts; today, it expects incoming students to arrive with some elementary skills and knowledge. ‘Shaninka’ intends to place greater emphasis on social engineering and an interdisciplinary approach.

Meanwhile, the demand for people with urban education is gradually increasing. “These professionals are now in demand among businesses like real estate developers and consulting firms, as well as in municipal government institutions,” says Varvara Melnikova.

Nevertheless, for most it is still a hobby or a reflection of civil activism. “People find it hard to get out of the vicious circle that demands a quality education and a career in that profession,” says Anton Finogenov. “We are seeing an influx of new professionals in the urban development sector, but their abilities are still limited because new educational programs are still being developed.”

Even in universities with long-established urban studies departments, little has changed in the educational process. “At the end of the day, city planning and urbanism are different fields,” said Melnikova. “Training in urbanism requires a different approach because it is a multidisciplinary subject and courses must reflect that.”

Where there are changes, they are usually the result of individual initiatives by teachers. Colleagues and management may not be hostile to these innovations, but they rarely offer much support.

Demand for change

The market for new urban development services is still taking shape in Russia. According to Anton Finogenov, leading developers have shown an interest in new forms of landscaping and public spaces for their projects. There are an increasing number of mid-rise developments with proportionately people-oriented residential solutions, and integrated development plans are on the drawing board.

There is also interest from government authorities, municipal administrations, and city mayors. But, often this interest does not fit into any formal structure; there are neither workable specifications nor real funding for them. Requests also come from corporations whose businesses are related to single-industry towns. They are looking for ways to stop the exodus of the population and regenerate public life in these communities, making them more attractive to residents.

For professional urbanists, the main income stream comes from work with corporate clients. In their spare time, they help develop urban communities, which, as a rule, have no significant access to funding. However, these are the very communities that can generate a real demand for cultural policies, an educational environment, public spaces, urban events, and a new urban economy. To improve the quality of life in Russian cities, these are the groups that need to join the process of transforming the urban environment – and the sooner, the better.

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