The urban environment: a total lack of everything. Is the game worth the candle?

The urban environment: a total lack of everything. Is the game worth the candle?
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If formerly there was just housing construction, now we have the creation of the urban environment. This is quite a different level of urban development policy.  

The 21st century is a time of cities. 80% of the world’s GDP is created in them, and the 600 largest metropolises, where a fifth of all mankind lives, provide 60% of the planet’s GDP. So, the countries which will manage to make urban life comfortable will get great benefits from this. The participants of the all-Russia “Urban environment improvement is the national development priority” forum tried to answer the challenge of the century.


Great migration

Russian cities are gradually getting rid of their dull Soviet heritage. The Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at the forum, voiced the following figures: since 2000, 900m sq. meters of housing and 1 bln sq. meters of other real estate have been built. In 2015, Russia surpassed the volumes of housing put into operation in the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic – 1917 – 1991, ed. note], and now 40m Russians live in houses built during the last 15 years.

But problems still exist. A large number of Russian cities do not meet modern requirements for the urban environment.  Their improvement is often financed from leftovers from the budget. Attention is paid to central city areas, not to residential ones, and only have recently municipal authorities started to pay more attention to the outskirts

The most complicated situation, according to the Prime Minister, is in mono-towns, with almost 10% of the population of the country.

The urban environment: a total lack of everything. Is the game worth the candle?  

It is good in Moscow

Moscow is the brightest example of urban space alteration. As the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, said at the forum, the city inherited an unenviable heritage from the Soviet period: a total lack of everything.

The capital experiences shortages of public transport, and in the trade and services spheres. The tough 1990s added to the chaotic development of the city, transport flaws, uncontrolled growth of trade and advertising, etc, and space for the city’s inhabitants contracted considerably.

The urban environment’s improvements were started from a simple but important thing: Moscow’s yards. 600,000 parking spaces appeared in them (totaling 1m round the city).

Then authorities improved the parks, and Muscovites saw that they had changed.

Visits to parks grew from 13m to 60m a year. In spite of free entrance, parks began to pay for themselves.  

The next stage was street landscaping, and for the first time corresponding standards were developed.  

According to Sobyanin, the issue of street advertising became very acute: it was abundant, and one could not see a street for the ad banners. The city authorities waged a real war (and won it) against the advertising business.  

The same warfare was undertaken against stationary trade buildings which were dangerous to people’s lives and to the city’s infrastructure.

Further combat took place in the sphere of parking arrangements. Cars had occupied all the best places in the city. A whole system, including marking, parking payment and car towing, was created.

A city cannot be considered improved if its houses’ facades are poor. 40% of all historic buildings, including architectural monuments, needed repair or restoration. According to Sergei Sobianin, this is now 15%.

Many streets and squares have changed, some of them most unexpectedly.

— When I was shown the reconstruction project of Triumfalnaya Square, I doubted very much the wisdom of the swing installation. It did not seem serious. But now they are very popular with Muscovites, the Moscow Mayor said.   From his standpoint, the result of all these changes is that a different atmosphere has come about in the city, one more conducive to daily life.

The urban environment: a total lack of everything. Is the game worth the candle?  

Ambitions are more important than the budget

It is not only Moscow that is changing. The Mayor of Kazan, Ilsur Metshin, confessed that 10 years ago the city of Kazan was gloomy, with a ruined center and obsolete engineering infrastructure.  

The changes in the city were based on three principles: great ambitions, partnerships with business, and the population’s involvement. As Ilsur Metshin confesses, when they started a project they did not even know if they would find money for its implementation. But money was found. The Universiade holding helped the municipal authorities to change the city. This became a great challenge for Kazan’s authorities.

New parks and squares were created according to the “Blossoming Kazan” program, and 6m flowers were planted annually. A number of urban construction projects were realized.  The citizens themselves were very active and helped the architects to look at the city’s spaces from a different point of view.  

At present, Kazan is one of the most beautiful and comfortable cities in Russia. How did they manage to do this?

— If the work is systematic, much may be done even with a modest budget, the Head of Tatarstan’s capital said.

The urban environment: a total lack of everything. Is the game worth the candle?  

Where there is youth, there is a future

We are used to appreciating the notion of the city’s environment aesthetically, as a place for comfortable living, but in the modern world the quality of life in cities is also important economically.   

Alexander Mamut, chair of supervisory board of the “Strelka” Institute for media, architecture and design, gave the example of the six or seven largest companies in the world in terms of capitalization being based on intellectual resources (the seventh one belongs to the oil sector). This means that the economy of the future is founded on human capital, which is found in cities, mainly in universities.  

The 30 best universities in Russia are situated in Moscow. It is important, keeping in mind the growing struggle for human resources, that most thriving are in large cities. There, the GDP per capita is higher than on average than around the country, and in Moscow it is over 1.7 times as much.  

People strive to live where it is more comfortable and where they can get better paid for their labour, especially young people, educated young people. And the future belongs to the cities where such young people choose to live.  


A city of great opportunities

In order not to lose out against worldwide competition, Russia will have to apply its energies. The Director General of the “Strelka” Consulting bureau, Denis Leontiev, divides the urban environment into three categories.

The first one is industrial, starting in the 1930s and reaching its apogee in the 1960s. The second category is that of a city of services, with greater attention paid to its central part. The third one is a city of opportunities, a trend which has been followed since the beginning of the 2000s.  The majority of Russian cities are still developing the industrial model, but it is necessary to develop also the models of the second and the third types.

How to alter the situation? Standard decisions may be made, but the unique city environment should be retained. There are 3,500 streets in Moscow, and analysis shows that they may be divided into 10 classes, which will become the foundation for reconstruction.

Two million people who live in Moscow regions cannot get to a park on foot. If the urban environment is changed, up to 1.5m people will be able to do so. There are lots of ways to improve the city.

The urban environment: a total lack of everything. Is the game worth the candle?  

Looking for a gimmick

The improvement of the city’s environment should become a priority Russian project. According to the RF Minister of Construction, Housing and Utilities, Mikhail Menn, the ministry is planning to prepare a set of standards by 2018.  This does not mean that all spheres will be forced into similar projects all round the country. This is not realistic. Instead it is about the creation of a package of minimal standards for the urban environment, meeting the requirements of the 21st century.

What will it look like? Each summer, lots of summer cafes and verandas have appeared in Moscow. They did not look attractive. The city authorities prepared minimal standards for such public places. They found a civilized look without losing their individuality.  

Concluding the forum, Dmitry Medvedev remarked that each city should strive to be attractive, and a gimmick may be found from anywhere which will transform any city environment.  

The urban environment: a total lack of everything. Is the game worth the candle?  

And behind the façade?

There is no doubt that city improvement is very important. However, no less important is the cost of the issue. Moscow (and Kazan, and Sochi) have become much more beautiful recently but it has cost a lot of money.

Meanwhile, Russia is not a very rich country, and is in the middle of a serious economic crisis. The city is becoming more attractive for tourists, but a great number of Muscovites live in small, uncomfortable flats with no chance of buying super-expensive Moscow housing.

When these people see what billions of roubles have been spent on, they are unsatisfied. Many of them think about how many houses could have been built for that money.

Besides, housing conditions in the country as a whole ought not to be forgotten.

The dilapidated housing and disaster fund has grown by 70% since the 1990s. The total area of hazardous housing to be redeveloped by 2017 was over 11m sq. meters in 2012.

The authorities are generous with the money for beautiful facades which often conceal an unattractive reality. We are not against the formation of an attractive modern urban environment, but to our mind, one should take Russian realities into account and look for a compromise between investing in improvements and resettling millions of Russians in comfortable housing.

Our cities might look more modest, but more people could have modern comforts in their lives. Such a game is really worth the candle.

Vladimir GURVICH