The battle for Moscow

Public infatuation with urban planning in Moscow has exhausted itself through disappointment. Could city-focused activism become the field of real political struggle in Russia? 

Petr V. Ivanov
5 December 2016

August 2016: demolition of an illegally constructed trade pavilion next to Moscow metro station 1905 Street. (c) Maxim Blinov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

This text originally appeared in Raznoglasiya, a Colta.ru project.

In Russia, urban space only became a real subject of public discussion comparatively recently. This happened at the start of the decade, when key elements in Russia’s urbanism debate — the Strelka Institute, The Village online platform, bloggers Ilya Varlamov and Maksim Katz with their “Urban projects”, the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism, the Moscow Urban Planning Forum, the “Do It Yourself” Festival and the Partizaning urban re-planning movement, and other media and institutions after them — introduced the uninitiated but fashion-conscious reader to the unfamiliar concepts of “urban planning”, “urban planners”  and “urban environment”.

Russia’s “Fair elections” protest movement of 2011-2012 played an important role in focusing public attention on the city: one of the protests’ slogans was “The city belongs to us!”, and one of its leaders, anti-corruption blogger Aleksey Navalny, appealed to protesters to stand for election as town and city councillors. Indeed, the protest wave was a catalyst for independent councillors in many districts of Moscow and created a new type of civil society actors — urban activists.

A whole bundle of phenomena began to emerge, yet to be fully thought through — the all-purpose “hipster” tag that became attached to them hasn’t helped the process of understanding. Public speakers, in newspaper articles and in the prelude to their lectures, started to be defined as “urbanists”. Everyone suddenly began discussing the quality of the urban environment and their desires, requirements and expert opinions on the planning of cycle lanes, how many benches were needed on streets and in general, and how our cities could become “European”.

The people at the centre of this debate, to whom Moscow’s city authorities increasingly looked for guidance, contributed to the discussions by providing new concepts and foreign experts — the Danish urban design specialist Jan Geyl, the Colombian politician and urban planning consultant Enrique Peñalosa and the Serbian-born American public transport expert Vukan Vuchic, not to mention the unseen presence of the American urban studies guru Richard Florida.

Few saw the influence of ideology behind the race for a pleasant urban environment — there was little discussion of such things

Few saw the influence of ideology behind the race for a pleasant urban environment — there was little discussion of such things as ideology. The minor attempts to raise this dramatic aspect were doomed to be dismissed as irrelevant to the new reality of proactive measures designed to trigger a hyper-leap into a shining future of the Comfortable City. It seemed that the faith and knowledge of experts and activists, in combination with city authorities’ concern for public welfare, would result in a rejection of all ideological controversies and lead us to new principles for urban living.

That, of course, didn’t happen.

Urban planning according to Terry Pratchett

In parallel with the delight over the redesign of Gorky Park, the rise of neighbourhood dinners and the appearance of pedestrian zones in central Moscow, Muscovites began to refer to new concepts such as “city planning conflict”, “radial highway expansion” and “Pyotr Biryukov” (Moscow’s deputy mayor for utilities and beautification).

It turned out that as well as the smiling city culture minister Sergey Kapkov with his electric car (resigned 2015), Moscow’s city government could also boast the services of economic manager Pyotr Biryukov, who carpet bombed the city with beautification, and the fiendish Marat Khusnullin, deputy mayor for urban development and construction, whose development ambitions are unacquainted with the term “urban planning”. These two figures, who are really in charge for most parts of city’s physical space, have been in no hurry to change their practices according to public discussions on the urban environment.

Thus, individual reserves of the “new Russian urbanism” have sprung up — in the central administrative district, naturally — and some of them have actually been attractive.

It was clear from the start that behind the declared goal of a city planned on a human scale was, if we are honest, neoliberal ideology

But it was clear from the start that it was neoliberalism that stood behind the declared goal of a city planned in a human’s scale. Gorky Park in its new form, praised in unison by the city’s media, is too noisy and full of activity for elderly visitors and too orientated towards more wealthy Muscovites, especially its creative class. Pedestrian zones have also been controversial innovations, since they are based on the city authorities’ (very clumsy) understanding of pedestrian infrastructure, with planning insensitive to detail and indifferent to their present and future function.   


After the redesign: view from the roof of the main Gorky Park entrance. A. Savin / Wikimedia Commons / WikiPhotoSpace. One of the characters in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is Death. Death lives in his own world, but observes the world of the living with interest and even occasionally tries to recreate it, so that his granddaughter Susan will feel at home. So, for example, Death has a bathroom with beautiful, but solid, towels and piping made out of solid metal, without a hole in the middle to let water through. Death’s bathroom is a perfect metaphor for the city that Moscow’s city government has built for its residents.

The features and elements of the urban environment that popular blogger Ilya Varlamov raves about in his reports from European and American cities are not only, and not so much, are products of advanced urban design, but are products of the democratic process, a system of checks and balances, scientific analysis, public discussion and long term planning.

The democratic process does not, of course, protect us from architectural and planning mistakes, but it allows them to be acknowledged

The democratic process does not, of course, protect us from architectural and planning mistakes, but it allows them to be acknowledged. In Moscow, even the minimal democratic process that previously existed has been grounded in the last few years and replaced by the technology of pseudo-engagement.     

Municipalities and the institution of public hearings have been dismantled before our very eyes. Instead, we have “Active Citizen” website and a “Youth Parliament” platform that supposedly provide means for participation in decision-making and other aspects of urban life, but in fact replace residents’ engagement and means of expressing their wills with game imitatative participation in acclamations.

The 2013 Moscow mayoral and 2016 city Duma elections have demoralised the opposition (despite Aleksey Navalny coming second in the mayoral race): the result didn’t correspond with their efforts and expectations during the campaigns. Social security authorities, administrative pressure and local government voter-mercenaries annulated their energy and commitments.

The voter base of the 2011-2012 protests was virtually enchanted with a fantasy of hipster urbanism. An Emerald Dream of them “living in Europe” right here and now.

Meanwhile, funding for our health system was cut, schools were merged and the publicly financed “Zhilishnik” Housing Management Company enthusiastically turned whole districts into deserts, ignoring the directives of the city’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection on limiting the mowing of vegetation. The neoliberal policy of cutting public budgets and transferring more costs to residents was rolled out with ever-greater intensity.    

Goodbye parks

And now, in 2016, Moscow’s public space has been reborn — not as a realm governed by positive or indifferent consensus, but as a battlefield.

Urban planning conflicts have affected almost every district of the city. Protests over the felling of trees in Dubki Park and a church being built in Torfyanka Park; a planned six lane motorway that would dispatch and pollute the Ramenki neighbourhood; the destruction of the Kuskovo and Druzhby parks and the felling of trees in the square in front of the “Sputnik” hotel; housing development on experiment fields Timeryazov Agricultural University (which are the part of worldwide century-long agricultural selection element!); the demolition of the iconic Constructivist Taganskaya Telephone Exchange — these are only a few of the hundreds of planning conflicts where local people got together, attended rallies and formed cross-district coalitions.


April 2016: demolition of Taganskaya telephone exchange. (c) Kirill Kalinnikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.At the rallies there were loud calls for people to run for election to local councils, so that there would be at least one real councillor in each district, and possibly a whole council-full.

Speakers at the rallies also emphasised the fact that these are not isolated issues of urban conflicts that need resolving solely in their uniqueness, but these are the symptoms of a systemic dysfunction in Moscow’s planning regulations and legislation, which gave the unlimited power to Marat Khusnullin’s Urban Planning and Land Commission.

There was also a common environmental thread running through the protests, with speakers citing Article 42 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees Russian citizens the right to a congenial environment. And while in the early days of new Russian urbanism urban activists were sceptical about “tree-huggers”, now we all realise that the urban space and nature are not only not mutually exclusive, but are organically interwoven realities.

But while there were flashfires of planning conflicts all over the Moscow, while residents resisted attacks from both construction bulldozers and grunts from the “patriotic” Officers of Russia organisation with police officers standing calm and grinning sadistically, the established art expert Grigory Revzin was writing in his articles (link in Russian) about how Muscovites, like sheep, will move of their own accord towards the newly restored streets of the central district.

These streets, as Rezvin explained, are now designed by leading specialists and according to all the laws of urban planning. I.e. according to the standard laid down by the Strelka Institute soon after the works were done, and according to the wishes of their residents, who were socially surveyed during the works were carried out.

The state understands the complex situation of its creative class, and offers it a contract that is more about buying its loyalty than its services

Meanwhile, Marat Khusnullin’s bodyguards threw Aleksandra Parushinа, a municipal councillor, out of the Moscow Urban Planning Forum after she attempted to ask a question about the destruction of the Kuskovo and Luzhniki parks. And everyone was made to undestand that the Forum is not the place for discussions.

The limits of non-democratic planning

These days, Moscow’s population is more or less used to being ironically amazed at the number of festivals taking place in various parts of the central district and filling the streets and squares with more and more extraordinary small architectural forms.

“Urban population” is, in fact, not a very exact term — it’s more a question of the people who became involved in the city planning process in the early 2010s. For most Muscovites, there was nothing scandalous about the sculptures in the temporay “Urbantino” park on Bolotnaya Square over the summer.

These festivals, which took place in the pedestrian zones created for the creative class, were aimed not at hipsters, but at those who had previously been ignored by the Moscow authorities’ policy — the lower income residents living on the outskirts of town, who only rarely come into the centre and who are not quite against seeing some “drive” there. Meanwhile, the city authorities have, conducted a much more devious trap for the creative class.

A crisis requires you to publicly approve of any decisions taken by the party and government

The point is that the creative class feels best in stable, growing economies. Their work does not involve producing basic necessities — they become vulnerable in times of economic crisis. The demand for their work falls, they are paid less for their projects, and that money goes to less highly qualified creatives, who agree to work in poorer conditions. We’re talking, of course, about the commercial sector.

In the Russian economy, the most stable customer in times of crisis is the state. But the state understands the dramatic situation of its creative class, and offers it a contract that is more about buying its loyalty than its services. If in the pre-crisis years it was possible to take on state-funded commissions and criticise the pervading state of affairs at the same time, but the current economic and political crisis requires you to publicly approve of any decisions taken by the party and government.

And this is precisely where the idea that urban planning is in favour of whatever good and against whatever bad falls apart, and the real ideological and political nature of urban processes is revealed. Can any planner who observes the hundreds of planning conflicts around the capital say that Sergey Sobyanin’s election as Moscow mayor in 2010 brought an end to infill development?  

Can a planner attend Moscow Urban Forum, where everything you could hear is praise for Sobyanin? Over this last summer, the very term “urbanist” became a dirty word, concoction of a lack of professionalism, bad taste and complete insensitivity to reality. The only way to rehabilitate the word would be for its professional community to accept and raise civic responsibility. But planners have not yet managed to come together as a professional community, while theirs pledge to be loyal to those in power gets in the way of their accepting their civil responsibility. 

These two trends — on the one hand, demands for a democratic urban planning process from the residents of threatened neighbourhoods, and on the other, the impervious resolve of the neoliberal alliance of government, business and the loyal creative class — create the political arena in which the new discourse about urban development will emerge.

It’s not easy to see how this process will unfold. But I foresee a major role of self-organisation:  the involvement of professionals in activist projects to develop insurgent plans for local districts and the creation of trade unions for planners; alliance of local initiative groups into a Moscow-wide coalition that could create a platform for mutual aid and sharing of skills between activists and professionals; public education in urban planning, local and municipal government and the urban environment.

The forthcoming municipal elections could give such a coalition a real chance to get a huge number of independent members into district councils, where they could start building democracy from the bottom up. And with democracy, a demand for real professionals.

Many of these processes are already unfolding, albeit in still uncertain formats or only at the level of discussion, intention or desire. But the main thing is to realise that the era of hipster planning and an apolitical happiness at the fact that you have heard about “right to the city” drom Henri Lefebvre’s book has gone forever.

It’s time for us to stand for the right to city in ideological and political struggle. It’s time to reclaim the city back for ourselves.          

Translated by Liz Barnes.

How does the Russian state's optimisation agenda mask itself as urban reconstruction policy? Read Anastasiya Ovsyannikova on Moscow's authoritarian future here

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