‘It’s profitable for authorities to cooperate with activists. It’s a mystery to me why they don’t understand it’
Krasimir Vranski on problems of Russian cities
“If you are an activist and raise some problems, there is a one hundred per cent probability some articles about you appear where it is said that you are an agent of the State Department, a gay, paedophile or something like that. It is just an awful occurrence. Prankers attack on social media, they say that such-and-such an activist wants to get to power and other rubbish that is characteristic of functionaries,” thinks founder of Beautiful Petersburg movement, coordinator of Green Coalition of Petersburg Krasimir Vranski. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, he said what steps have to be taken to solve urban problems, what to do with “anthills” and why the bridges between activists and authorities in Saint Petersburg were burned.
“Only Moscow, Petersburg and Kazan try to improve citizens’ level of comfort in Russia”
Krasimir, what standards a modern city must comply with?
First of all, it must be comfortable for people to live in. There are different types of cities. There is a variant of an industrial city where logistics and a short distance to the citizens’ workplace are a priority. People there understand that they live in the city to earn money. Chicago is a prime example where everything is made for comfortable car driving and the maximum speed of displacement.
A comfortable city for people to live in is another variant. Copenhagen will be the best example here. There is a lot of green, bicycle lanes, eco-friendly transport, public transport lanes, free access to water.
If we are talking about Russian cities that try to improve the level of comfort of their citizens, it is Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kazan has recently caught them up too. The rest of Russia today is Soviet industrial cities where, as a rule, there are few public spaces, improved territories (parks or embankments). They still exist in the regime they were built in 50-60 years ago.
Copenhagen will be the best example here. There is a lot of green, bicycle lanes, eco-friendly transport, public transport lanes, free access to water
Moscow follows the road of development of world metropolises. A lot of attention is paid to public transport there, “rings” are built for cars so one can get to any point of the city quickly.
Petersburg conserves its identity as an “open-air museum”. Nothing can be built in the city centre, as it is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. And the model of the city is built according to it — to make it as comfortable as possible despite all restrictions.
A city’s standards, first of all, must depend on the way of development it chooses. “Anthills” are usually made of cities where it is unpleasant to live. Soviet dormitory areas were built earlier, now it is Russian where blocks of flats already have 20-30 storeys. But if the city has a historical component, it should develop in this area.
The second moment is that it is a local community of citizens, a movement of activists who will provide ideas to develop the city and make them real. Active changes both in Moscow and Petersburg began mainly thanks to public movements. The citizens had constantly been bothering functionaries: “We want cycling lanes! We want modern transport! We want public recreational spaces, parks and embankments!” But the authorities in Kazan decided to improve the city themselves.
There isn’t a single answer to your question. For instance, there are “tourism Meccas” like the Golden Ring’s cities. There is wood architecture, the historical situation of streets and houses that has conserved for a long time is appreciated there.
I mean, first of all, million cities.
Comfortable and quick public transport is the first and main thing that big cities need because it can significantly reduce the amount of traffic jams in the city, and this enables as many people as possible to get to study or work. It is necessary to create separate lanes for public transport, develop cycling lanes and water transport. A lot of big cities are located in the river, and water transport can simplify urban traffic.
Comfortable and quick public transport is the first and main thing that big cities need because it can significantly reduce the amount of traffic jams in the city, and this enables as many people as possible to get to study or work
“Planners say: ‘Yes, 95% of our territories of all embankments are roads. This is why we design the rest of embankments for them’”
Why aren’t public leisure areas developed in Russian cities? Is there a lack of money?
As I said, we still live according to the Soviet pattern. All embankments at that moment were used as highways for cars. All the Neva and Gulf of Finland embankments in Petersburg are used, first of all, as roads. Planners I talked with say: “Yes, 95% of our territories of all embankments are roads. This is why we design the rest of embankments for them”.
But as it is known the most pleasant site for leisure time is near water, this is why it is necessary to create sites for recreation and public and useful activity near embankments. For instance, playgrounds, small stages for performances, spaces for citizens’ gatherings or doing sport can be built. Precisely now we are protecting the Pearl Riverbank in Saint Petersburg. Now there are six exits to the Gulf of Finland, and they want to rebuild one of them for a highway.
You’ve mentioned the “anthills”. How can this problem be solved?
Their construction must be prohibited. The “anthills” are built because, on the one hand, businesses look for the biggest profit, on the other hand, functionaries don’t report to citizens but their bosses. While functionaries’ friends and fellows build up cities and make multi-million profits, it is such a profitable joint cooperative. This is why our civil society isn’t very strong at the moment, while functionaries afford to ignore public demand or citizens’ opinion, the “anthills” will spawn. But I hope that this will change soon.
It is an already well-known fact that all these dormitory areas and “anthills” gradually turn into anti-social quarters with a high level of crime. Such districts and blocks of flats in some countries are remade, storeys or entire buildings are demolished to decrease the density of population and beautify the district somehow: they add more green, cultural spots, places where people spend their free time.
What dwelling is more comfortable for humans?
Blocks up to five storeys. Most importantly, the height of the building mustn’t put psychological pressure on people. The height of a five-storeyed block (about 15 metres) is the height of the crown of trees, this is why it doesn’t press people. In general everyone, of course, wants to live in a house. Anyone who has lived in a house knows what it is and would change it for a flat only in some extreme circumstances.
Soviet dormitory areas were built earlier, now it is Russian where blocks of flats already have 20-30 storeys. But if the city has a historical component, it should develop in this area
What urban problems in Russia are discussed little?
Urban planning seriously falls behind — general plans, projects of space planning, that’s to say, important documents of a city’s development. If a well-thought-out general plan is created, many future conflicts can be avoided. Soviet general plans had good ideas. Thanks to them, we, for instance, have big buffer zones, that’s to say, there is a wide green zone with trees along an avenue, then there is lay-by, a pavement, only then there is a residential building. Such buffer zones keep the dust, dirt, noise, and in general this looks beautiful when the green grows along the road. There is almost no such thing now, new roads are built as close to houses as possible because land in cities is very expensive, and planners choose to build some commercial sites. Nowadays buffer zones and citizens’ recreational areas could be added to the general plant too. A zone 10, 15, 20 metres near highways should be left to parks.
This topic is for architects, planners. It is quite hard for the usual activists to puzzle urban development documents out. Just 50 activists in Saint Petersburg know how to work with a general plan, while the city has 5 million people. There are 10 such activists in Novosibirsk. We try to teach people in this area, invite experts, functionaries. Authorities too want to receive fresh and well-formulated ideas. This is why they also participate in our educational seminars. When there is an opportunity to make proposals and amendments, we always take advantage of it.
“All bridges between public leaders and authorities were burned in Petersburg”
You travel across Russia, give lectures to activists. Can we say that the public movement is growing in the country?
Of course. I have been into public activity since 2012. Hundred thousands of people in Russia have become conscious, active citizens since the early 2010s. These people became interested in ecology, animal advocacy, separate waste collection and urban protection. They try to understand a city’s problems and the country in general. This activity grows in the regions as well. Thanks to public leaders, our society increases too. And, of course, leaders themselves acquire new valuable knowledge on this road. It is a very good tendency of formation of normal educated society.
All the problems that take place in society are, in fact, catalysts of awakening people’s consciousness. If there is a problem, a person can start looking for a solution, find out how it is solved in other cities, how people acted in similar situations.
Hundred thousands of people in Russia have become conscious, active citizens since the early 2010s. These people became interested in ecology, animal advocacy, separate waste collection and urban protection. They try to understand a city’s problems and the country in general
How can quick cooperation of citizens and authorities be organised to solve problems of a house, quarter or district?
It isn’t hard from a perspective of organisation. All representatives of society — activists, specialists, deputies, functionaries — gather in a conference hall, thank God, the state has conference halls, and set deadlines and ways of control over a process. The only problem is that our society doesn’t almost have such meetings.
I can say that all bridges between public leaders and authorities were burned in Petersburg. Here the power talks with people in social networks with the help of chatbots and prankers, with the help of ordered articles about activists. That’s to say if you are an activist and raise some problems, there is a one hundred per cent probability some articles about you appear where it is said that you are an agent of the State Department, a gay, paedophile or something like that. It is just an awful occurrence. Prankers attack on social media, they say that such-and-such an activist wants to get to power and other rubbish that is characteristic of functionaries.
If we could come to the table in Petersburg 2-3 years ago together with deputies, activists and functionaries, now, with the coming of Governor Beglov, we don’t have any contact. And the degree of protest in our city gradually goes up. Last year, Petersburg was Russia’s leader in protest activity, and this year there have been tens of rallies over a couple of months. It is a very serious sign. We can say that society mistrusts the deputies, official representatives of power, systemic opposition. It is very hard to fix such dialogue. I don’t see the current power in Petersburg have either desire or readiness or ability to fix it.
It is possible in small cities, we have good examples of it. Some cities, for instance, Balashikha, activists conduct civil inspections together with the mayor and administration, discuss a solution to a problem on the spot where it arose. And its solution begins right there. It can be much easier in towns because everybody knows each other. Activists are valuable there, there can be just one or two in the whole town. Two people do this in Balashikha, consequently, both functionaries and citizens are familiar with them well and cooperate. It is harder in big cities, but, actually, it is very profitable to cooperate with activists for the authorities themselves because, on the one hand, real problems are solved, and, on the other hand, the tension, discontent and protest in society go down.
Can the power be afraid of the great importance you will gain in society?
To be honest, I don’t understand them well. It remains a mystery to me how it is possible not to cooperate with public leaders who organise different campaigns and rallies in a city. The cooperation with activists can solve many problems, while the absence of a normal dialogue just raises the degree of discontent at the power. It is the rigidity of bodies of authorities who think that they are “big daddies” in the city who solve everything themselves and can not listen to anybody. I think it is an absolute absence of skills and abilities to manage a city. It is their tactic — not to cooperate with people. It is their incompetence, unfortunately.
The cooperation with activists can solve many problems, while the absence of a normal dialogue just raises the degree of discontent at the power
What will you advise citizens to protect their rights and interests?
Depending on the scale of a problem, the following measures can be taken. Firstly, simply call or send a message to a corresponding body of authorities. Then, if there is no reaction, a collective address to a local deputy can be written. A campaign can be organised then, for instance, a Saturday clean-up or protest to attract people’s attention. Then launch a petition, a fully-fledged campaign, communities in social networks in which you start attracting people, voicing problems. In other words, an activist who deals with it becomes a beacon that constantly gives signals to be heard. And in the end, it is flashmobs, meetings and other serious campaigns.