How to retro-fit a post-Soviet city
| July 21, 2017
As any visitor to the former Soviet Union will notice, every city touched by the Soviet authorities has an unmistakable flavor.
The Soviets did not seek to incrementally change cities but to entirely reinvent them, making for dramatic transformations. The period of wild, laissez faire urbanism that followed independence in the 1990s injected chaos into the Soviet blueprint, leaving a further layer of challenges for planners today.
In the popular imagination, Soviet cities were all about bombast — vast windswept plazas ready for the next military parade. But in today's era of "human scale" cities, what do we do with them now? How do we build some kind of intimacy into these monolithic spaces? How to find that elusive human scale amid the Stalinist skyscrapers and parade grounds?
Building 'liveable' cities
These cities — from Kiev to Almaty — inherited not only an instinctive blueprint for the city, but also a common set of challenges. Since independence, they have dealt with those in different ways. However, today many of these cities are named among the least "liveable" cities in the world.
In the Economist Intelligence Unit's liveability rankings from 2015, few post-communist cities scrape into the top 100, and they score particularly poorly on infrastructure. Uzbekistan's Tashkent, once the urban jewel of post-Soviet Eurasia, now comes in at 116th and scores level with Libya's Tripoli on infrastructure.
This is in part due to the lawless nature of the 1990s, when infrastructure was left to languish. Only recently have many of these cities began to turn their attention to bringing some coherence to urban spaces again.
The Soviet blueprint
Among the primary goals of the Soviet authorities was uniformity. Hence the oceans of drab post-war kruschevki buildings on the outskirts of the cities, constructed rapidly to house a burgeoning post-war population.
So much so that a popular Soviet-era comedy film called "Irony of Fate" sees an inebriated Zhenya boarding the wrong plane to travel home, landing mistakenly in Leningrad but finding that there is an identical apartment at the same address as his Moscow flat, where his key even fits the lock.
These uniform neighborhoods, while often well-connected to metro lines, create challenges for creative placemaking in suburbs outside the center. The Soviet blueprint, and the Soviet enthusiasm for "perekhods" (or pedestrian underpasses) also infuriate urban planners for the problems they create for pedestrians, especially those with mobility problems.
However, some cities are beginning to fight back and are starting to put the pedestrian first. The mayor of Kiev has opened up the major artery Khreshchatyk street as a pedestrian zone on weekends.
In fact, the spatial structure of post-Soviet cities, with their expansive boulevards, actually gives them an advantage in fitting pedestrianized areas and bicycle lanes — especially when compared to cities like London, where a medieval pattern of narrow streets in many locations means space can be at a premium.
Moscow's urban makeover
For all its fame of intimidating plazas and grandiose boulevards, Moscow is the city that has received most attention from progressive "new urbanists." Although the urban movement is in its infancy, an enthusiastic mayor, help from a Danish superstar planner and the launch of the Moscow Urban Forum are starting to bring change.
Moscow's grand urban vision of a "city for the people" was announced in 2012. Flagship initiatives include a new "pathless" Zaryadye park based on principles of wild urbanism, and a plan to transform the fringes of the city to create a more "polycentric" city (essentially, making the suburbs places that people might plausibly like to spend time in).
One Moscow-based cycling activist, after launching a crowd-sourced map of where Muscovites want to see bicycle infrastructure, now has the ear of Moscow's Department of Transport. The city has now launched its own bike sharing scheme VELOBIKE, with 4,000 docks.
Post-Soviet cities on a human scale
Large-scale Soviet architecture was designed by Joseph Stalin and other leaders to make people feel small, to atomize them rather than bring them together. These cities are full of architectural treasures like Moscow's constructivist Dom Melnikov and Minsk's modernist icons. But they lack the holy grail of liveability.
The good news is that, with some exceptions, the Soviet emphasis on rebuilding the suburbs often left the center of cities alone — nothing like Corbusier's plan for Paris was ever undertaken. So many handsome neighborhoods remain, such as Baku's late-19th century street patterns in Azerbaijan.
Moscow is leading the way with attempts to weave a new urban fabric in post-Soviet cities, on a more human scale. While there will be errors along the way and tricky issues of equity to navigate, the city's political will is a promising example for the rest.
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