Photo: Shehryar Khan/Shutterstock

Oddly Enough, Moscow Is Becoming ‘European’

by Dan Peleschuk Feb 9, 2015

Scan the headlines these days, and it might seem like Russia’s doing everything it can — banning food imports, demonizing liberal values — to distance itself from the West.

The funny thing is, its capital is actually starting to look a lot more European.

Young families stroll through freshly laid pedestrian zones. Hip urbanites enjoy summertime tapas at sidewalk cafes. Fixed-gear bicycles are no longer a totally strange sight.

Amid punishing sanctions and the threat of a new Cold War, Moscow is taking pages from Europe’s urban design playbook and undergoing a major facelift aimed at improving quality of life — even if it doesn’t quite gel with the geopolitics.

Observers say this sprawling post-communist metropolis of around 12 million, with its smattering of freshly manicured parks and pedestrian walkways, is beginning to embrace the value of public space.

“For now, Moscow is advancing very quickly,” said Alexey Krasheninnikov, a professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute.

By most standards, Russia’s capital has drastically shape-shifted during the past century or so.

From a Tsarist hub dotted with charming imperial architecture and golden-domed churches, Moscow transformed throughout the Soviet era into a concrete megalopolis where hulking buildings anchored wide boulevards.

Then, says Krasheninnikov, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave way to a flood of private development in the capital, much of it poorly regulated by the authorities. This led to a staggering imbalance: while today central Moscow is home to most of the city’s business, the vast majority of its residents live outside the center.

That, in turn, has produced mind-numbing traffic, crippling pollution and a generally unpleasant environment.

But in recent years, city authorities under a revamped technocratic leadership have begun sprucing up public spaces here with an eye toward transforming Moscow’s often jarring landscape.

They even recruited prominent Danish urban planner Jan Gehl — a major proponent of bike lanes and pedestrian areas — to gauge the city’s needs, and from the looks of it, they listened to him.

Sleek pedestrian walkways have sprouted in central Moscow, as have bike lanes and newly fashioned streets featuring narrower roads and more sidewalk space. The city has become just a bit greener.

Officials have also embraced the internet: Residents can visit an online portal to log complaints on everything from crumbling steps outside their front doors to lurid billboards sullying their neighborhoods.

Grigoriy Revzin, a prominent architectural critic, says the city’s urban policy has been guided by European trends toward functional design that emerged after the 2008 financial crisis, a notion first promoted here by a new breed of urban planners.

“That’s when it turned out that the main things … are not the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and not Lord Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ in London — but parks, beaches, landscapes, bicycles and so on,” he wrote last month in the Kommersant business daily.

Revzin hails a new crowdsourcing initiative called “What Moscow Wants” as a further embodiment of that pragmatic spirit.

Led by manager Olga Polishuk, the project has taken a democratic approach to city planning by having collected anonymous proposals from residents across the Russian capital on ways to improve public spaces.

From the original pool of ideas, organizers teamed up with architects to develop 84 projects, which range from ultra-modern pedestrian bridges to quirky urban gardens.

Now they’re hoping to convince the local government to bring them to fruition.

Polishuk, digital director of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow, which has played an important role in Moscow’s urban redevelopment, said she was partially inspired by the fact that city planners were “not asking people what they really want.”

“We understand that people, actually, are the most important part of all of these processes — they’re actually somebody who you’re working for,” she said.

The project is hoping to build upon the example of places like Gorky Park, the expansive riverside common in central Moscow that’s become the shining standard for the city’s redevelopment of public space.

Where rickety, Soviet-era amusement rides once creaked overhead, hip new cafes have arrived, with beanbags for seating scattered across the lawns. Gourmet food stands and smoothie kiosks abound.

Polishuk says the park — which the Strelka Institute helped renovate — “became a symbol of changing” for Russia’s approach to its public spaces, and she hopes it’ll serve as an example for other cities here.

Moscow’s latest enhancement came this summer, when several downtown streets were torn up and laid with new asphalt, sweeping sidewalks and elegant fixtures. Now, they put the pedestrian first and provide this former Soviet stronghold with an air of Paris or Vienna.

City planners even admitted during the development stage that they were looking to Amsterdam as a model.

“You really kind of feel like you’re not in Moscow,” said Polishuk, referring to one of those redeveloped streets in her neighborhood.

All this, however, fits strangely with what some observers say is Russia’s increasingly isolationist policies abroad.

As the Kremlin locks horns with the West over Ukraine, officials here have trumpeted the virtues of a unique Russian identity at odds with liberal European values.

The patriotic masses — Putin’s conservative support base — are caught up in an anti-Western frenzy, while state television regularly pumps out allegations that a “fifth column” of liberal conspirators is aiming to topple the existing order.

When officials here banned many Western food imports last month, they promoted a spirit of defiant self-reliance.

It’s a strange paradox, but not illogical: Critics say the tough talk is aimed at the conservative, often rural majority, while the urban splendors of Moscow are meant to keep the discontented minority — that is, the liberal-minded city folk — at bay.

According to urban designer Yuriy Milevskiy, they amount to a “political project” aiming to show well-traveled Muscovites that, “‘Look, we’re together with the world.’”

He also suggests such surface-level improvements help mask corruption in other major projects, some of which — like new highways — actually do little to alleviate some of the city’s more pressing problems.

If there is a strategy, it’s at least partly worked.

The urban middle-class that once fueled the anti-Kremlin street protests of 2011-2012 appears to have lost most of its interest in politics. It helps that their leading activists have been either hounded or defanged by authorities.

Oleg Kozyrev, an opposition activist and blogger, says it’s difficult to tell whether Moscow’s facelift is sincerely for the good of the people, or aimed at placating the masses.

But pointing to Gorky Park, he said there is an implicit trade-off involved.

“It’s a genuinely great place for people to relax on a Sunday,” he said, “then come back on Monday for an unsanctioned march and face a jail term for however many years.”

By Dan Peleschuk, GlobalPost
This article is syndicated from GlobalPost.

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