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Moscow makes over its streets with people in mind

By Timothy Misir

MOSCOW, Russia — Tverskaya Ulitsa, an eight-lane thoroughfare in the heart of Moscow, is one of the city’s most historically significant roads.

Editors note: This article first appeared in Citiscope.org and is reprinted with permission.

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In medieval times, it connected Moscow with its rival city, Tver. In the imperial period, it was a prestigious boulevard where parades and festivals took place, and was home to nobility and wealthy Muscovites. Today, it’s the most expensive shopping street in Russia. The bulky buildings flanking both sides of the street, a mix of ornate 19-century styles and staid Stalinism, exude grandeur, luxury and victory.

This past summer, however, the street was hardly recognizable. It resembled more of an obstacle course, with pedestrians fighting for space along makeshift walkways, navigating around piles of paving stones, mounds of sand and barriers blocking off sections of the pavement.

The roadworks are part of the largest urban restoration project in the city’s history. The last time works of comparable scale were carried out in central Moscow was 70 years ago, when the city was rebuilding itself after World War II. Previous reconstructions of Tverskaya Ulitsa, which was known as Gorky Street from 1935 to 1990, aimed mostly at improving the traffic flow and increasing the speed of private automobiles.

This time is different. Tverskaya Ulitsa is among the first streets to be refurbished under the city’s Moya Ulitsa (“My Streets”) project. It’s an ambitious effort by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to transform streets currently overburdened with cars and make Moscow more livable and pedestrian-friendly like other European capitals.

The city government has set aside 120 billion rubles (almost US$2 billion) for the street beautification and reconstruction works. The transformations will continue during the warm months of each summer until 2018, with about 50 streets getting a facelift each year.

When reconstruction is complete, Tverskaya Ulitsa will look as it did many years ago, with the same trees and street lamps lining both sides of the road. Aerial utility lines have been placed underground; illegally built retail kiosks have been demolished, and there are no more cars parked on the narrow sidewalk. Pedestrian areas now boast outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots, benches, pocket parks and cycle paths.

At the Moscow Urban Forum in June, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (right), told Muscovites the benefits of street recontructions would be worth the hassle. (Moscow City Government)

At the Moscow Urban Forum in June, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (right), told Muscovites the benefits of street reconstructions would be worth the hassle. (Moscow City Government)

For a traffic-clogged city like Moscow, My Streets represents an extraordinary investment in the public realm, and a re-allocation of public space from cars to people. The sidewalks on Tverskaya Ulitsa are now two meters wider on both sides; while the street has the same number of traffic lanes, they are narrower and cars move slower. “We want to ensure that Muscovites have a safe, convenient, open city where you just want to walk the streets,” Mayor Sobyanin says.

Not everyone is happy. Locals are reacting with a mix of anger at all the construction and skepticism about the intentions. Preservation activists have reported that the roadworks have damaged several archaeological sites on Tverskaya Ulitsa, and that construction equipment has destroyed historical brickwork on Pushkin Square and in other parts of the city. Traffic on the Garden Ring, the circular road around central Moscow, slowed to a crawl during construction and taxis struggled to get their clients to their destinations on time.

“First they replaced bricks that were recently laid for new tiles, and now they’re digging up the asphalt that was only laid a few weeks ago,” says Alex Volkov, who lives in an apartment on the Garden Ring. “Either someone’s making a lot of money, or this is just so badly organized. Or both.”

“Participatory” planning

Mayor Sobyanin is pleading with residents to take the long view. “Nobody likes construction, and this is normal,” Sobyanin said at a press conference in June during the Moscow Urban Forum. “The public might be critical because of bad experiences in the past. But despite the discomfort it is causing, we have to do it at such a scale because otherwise, it would take too long.”

Sobyanin cited an improving relationship between city authorities and citizens as one of the reasons why the city could undertake such large-scale projects in so little time. Big construction projects like this in Moscow are often taken without any public consultation. This time, the city is using web voting to engage the public using an online platform called Aktivny Grazhdanin, or “Active Citizen.”

Through the platform, Muscovites are encouraged to vote for the order in which the streets are renovated and their design. They also receive rewards, such as parking credits, for completing surveys on the city’s public initiatives and development projects.

The app will “allow Muscovites to take part in governing their city,” the Moscow government said at its launch. While results are not binding, city officials have promised that public views expressed through Active Citizen will be “taken into consideration.”

So far, citizens have voted against the introduction of a speed limit on the Boulevard Ring and voted for the introduction of paid parking in the city center. They’ve also voted on the removal of street kiosks, and the design of street lamps, according to The Moscow Times. Although the newspaper also has pointed out that participation in the city of 12 million has been in the low hundreds of thousands.

That’s no surprise, considering the questions posed to citizens have had a very narrow scope so far. That’s yielded predictable answers, and usually the ones the city wanted in the first place. “At least it gives the us the impression we’re being consulted,” says Polina Malikova, a student who has used the app several times.

Revitalizing the city center

Adriaan Geuze, founder of the Dutch architectural bureau West8, says the My Streets program marks a true turning point for Moscow. “It’s very courageous that Moscow authorities are trying to stop the process of urban erosion by the dominance of traffic and are giving space to pedestrians,” Geuze says.

West8 was engaged to develop the concept for the first section of Tverskaya Ulitsa. The firm suggested bringing greenery back to the city’s main gateway, and to provide pedestrians with shade and a sense of seasonality by replanting the street’s iconic linden trees that were chopped down in the 1990s. Its plans also included installing protective irrigation systems that will improve the survival rate of the new trees; installing historic street lights; adding Wi-Fi access and USB charging stations and using custom paving materials and street furniture.

The Moscow city government engaged local architecture and urban planning consultancy Strelka KB to coordinate and supervise execution of the project, both along Tverskaya Ulitsa and other streets. For the Garden Ring, the smallest of the city’s three concentric ring roads, Strelka identified problems such as the high speeds of cars at certain sections, which contributed to noise pollution and discomfort for pedestrians.

Pedestrians can use smartphones to view a 360-degree panaroma of how the streets will look after reconstruction. (Moscow City Government)

Pedestrians can use smartphones to view a 360-degree panorama of how the streets will look after reconstruction. (Moscow City Government)

“We want to turn it into a city street, and make it a part of the city, rather than an excluded area like it is now,” says Dasha Paramonova, director of Strelka Architects, the architecture department of Strelka KB.

Mikhail Blinkin, director of the Institute of Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, expects the changes will lower carbon emissions and increase revenues for local businesses.

“Undoubtedly, Moscow’s program for city streets improves transportation services in the city center, stimulates public transport usage, and cycling or walking,” Blinkin says. “In general, street reconstruction leads to a boom in commercial, restaurant, cultural and all other kinds of activities oriented towards pedestrians. Moreover, these pedestrians tend to use public transport or perform non-motorized trips and want to spend some money for their leisure.”

Street design standards

Part of Strelka KB’s work on My Streets was to develop new street design guidelines for the city. It was an extensive project. Researchers looked at Moscow’s 4,000 streets, from the center to the outskirts, and divided them into ten different categories based on the density of people in the area, vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and other parameters. Each type of street had its own set of problems and challenges that had to be addressed in the process of upgrading, Paramonova says.

The study was published in four volumes. It covers everything from the general profile and functional zoning for each of the street typologies identified, and provides guidelines to architects and planners on the design of parking spaces, street lights, surface materials, benches and more. It also addresses the planning process — how to conduct a survey, how to incorporate user feedback during development and how to achieve quality implementation.

“The idea this time was that if we were to develop the space, we would need a concrete strategy, new standards, designs and an updated approach,”  Paramonova says. “What we’re trying to do is to shape this process with guidelines, so that different architects that are commissioned follow certain rules that unite the whole project. Otherwise, there will be a multiplicity of diverse approaches.”

Architect Philip Wren, who specializes in retail and leisure projects and was consulted for the project, says the guidelines will give Moscow the tools to change the feel of its streets over many years. “A successful public realm is a result of a profound understanding of how a place works, its positives and negatives, how people use a space, pass through it, rest and meet,” Wren  explains. “It does not have to be expensive or precious, and some of the best spaces evolve over time.”

Walking along Tverskaya Ulitsa recently, Paramonova gestured to the wider sidewalks. “If you remember, just a few years ago, this place was lined with parked cars on both sides,” she says. “Now they’re gone. I believe it’s a breakthrough. But our mentality needs change. We’re very car-oriented, as if we were in Los Angeles. But Moscow’s density is much higher. The transition [to a less car oriented city-center] will be painful, but it’s the reality we have to face.”

While the construction work has been an annoyance for Muscovites, people I spoke with on the street were generally supportive of the changes. Anya Smirnova, a businesswoman who lives just off Tverskaya Ulitsa and gets to work by bicycling or taking public transport, agrees. “I personally think the city center looks good now,” Smirnova says. “I certainly won’t miss the cars on the sidewalks and all of those old ugly kiosks that were demolished.”

In the extra space along the sidewalk, large planter boxes hold the leafy green linden trees, which just arrived in autumn. Planted in intervals of about 10 meters, they serve as a visual and safety barrier from the busy road. The planter boxes protect the soil from chemicals used to clean and de-ice the street.

The changes in the city center are extensive. But the real test of My Streets will be when the project reaches Moscow’s outskirts, where fewer people walk, cycle and take public transit and driving is more valued. Paramonova says she hopes early successes along Tverskaya Ulitsa and other streets in the center will demonstrate the benefits and build momentum. “Let’s hope that in the following years people will feel a difference,” Paramonova says, “and when we work on other streets, including some in the periphery that are more complicated, they will support this project.”

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