Ordinary people have an unprecedented opportunity to make their voices heard concerning the development of their place of residence, whether it be a sprawling metropolis or a remote village, and should take every opportunity to use that voice, visitors to the City as a Community conference held at the Skolkovo Technopark heard on Wednesday.  

L-R: Sergei Kuznetsov, Sergei Kapkov and Skolkovo vice president for urban development Elena Zelentsova. Photo: Sk.ru.

With growing public participation in and feedback to Moscow’s transformation over the past few years, work in the city administration has changed, according to Moscow’s chief architect, Sergei Kuznetsov.

“The culture of public space is a trending topic, not only in Moscow but around the world, and on the one hand that’s useful, but it also creates a challenge for city authorities: people take up a civic position and throw down the gauntlet to the authorities,” Kuznetsov said in a panel discussion titled “Who Changes a City? Standards in Managing City Development.”

Sergei Kapkov, who oversaw the much-publicised revamping of Gorky Park during his tenure as Moscow’s culture minister, said that people’s needs should be the foremost consideration in town planning projects.

“People, and not public spaces, are the drivers of city development,” Kapkov, now head of the culture and urban development and creative industries research centre at Moscow State University, told the conference.  

“People stay where they feel comfortable. Public space is only a small part of what people need to feel happy. They need good hospitals and schools and good salaries,” he said.

Moscow’s newest public space is the much-anticipated Zaryadye Park, built on the site of the former Hotel Rossia, which was demolished in 2006, just a stone’s throw from Red Square. The park has been besieged by curious visitors since it opened earlier this month. Its director, Pavel Trekhleb, was also taking part in the session and described how the park’s designers had tried to involve its future visitors during the planning process.

Pavel Trekhleb, left, is responsible for Moscow's brand new Zaryadye Park. Photo: Sk.ru.

“Everything we did was done with the Moscow audience in mind, with residents who would interact with it if not on a daily basis, then at least regularly,” said Trekhleb.

“As a city landmark, the park will be very important for foreign tourists too, but not losing the Moscow audience was the most important working principle for us,” he said, adding that the park was designed as a living space with a changing events and festivals programme, and not simply as “another city attraction like the [Lenin] mausoleum” for visitors to take photos at and then cross off their list.

“We don’t have good and bad projects; we have projects that change the city, and Zaryadye is one of them,” said Yury Grigoryan, head of the Meganom architecture firm.

Like the other participants of the panel discussion, Grigoryan called for an end to the idea of city projects being implemented by the authorities in isolation from residents themselves.

“We live in a society where there is this idea of some people providing the heating, for example, and other people receiving it,” he said. “We need to blur the lines between people who carry out projects, and the people who use them,” he said.

Architect Yury Grigoryan calls for an end to distinctions between people implementing projects and people using them. Photo: Sk.ru.

In a separate session of the conference, social entrepreneurs from the other side of the fence with experience in helping ordinary people to organize their own local projects shared their experiences.

Ekaterina Zatuliveter founded Altourism three years ago with the aim of encouraging and supporting residents of small towns and villages across Russia to take the initiative in developing their localities. The company arranges for groups of visitors – largely Muscovites – to go to rural towns and villages to help with local projects, ranging from cleaning up riverbanks to collecting ivan chai (koporye tea, or fireweed) and learning about traditional weaving.

The unusual sight of Muscovites choosing to spend their time and money visiting the towns and volunteering on local projects has the effect of making the local population look at their town in a new light, said Zatuliveter.

“People stop asking ‘Why doesn’t anyone do anything for us, why does nothing happen here?' and start asking each other the question: ‘What kind of town do we want to live in?’” she told a conference session titled “How to make residents the co-authors of a project.”

Once people realise they are not alone in their desire to improve their hometown, they start working together on projects they would have been unable to tackle on their own, she said, citing the example of turning an abandoned lot on the bank of the Volga in the Yaroslavl region town of Tutayev into a park.

The City as a Community conference included excursions around the Skolkovo innovation city. Photo: Sk.ru.

Altourism has one condition for selecting its locations: there must be an existing project there run by locals.

“If the locals don’t want to help, there is no point in going,” said Zatuliveter. At the same time, the company’s aim is not to tell local residents what to do.

“We don’t have the right to teach people. But we can go there and support them, and show them there are people who care, and that they can make a difference,” she said.

Tatyana Sokolova founded her company Expedition to Torzhok to help develop tourism in the small town of Torzhok in the Tver region, where she was born.

She admitted that the idea of people taking the initiative to develop their towns in Russia’s regions is not yet widespread.

“Our regions don’t understand, people don’t understand the concept of ordinary citizens doing something for citizens,” she said.

“But if you want something, you have to do it yourself.”