Arkady Gershman: “Putting the historical heritage in order brings more profit to the city than new buildings”

Russian blogger-urbanist Arkady Gershman — about urban improvement in Kazan and Russia

This summer, famous Russian urbanist Arkady Gershman has visited Kazan and following the results of the trip published a large post in LJ, where he told in detail about the main problems in the creation of the urban environment and social infrastructure of the city. The correspondent of Realnoe Vremya asked the blogger about his impressions of the capital of Tatarstan and argued with some statements about our city.

“Money is just thrown into the sand, not expecting any return”

Arkady, could you name the top of the main problems of improvement of the Russian cities you have visited.

I think the main problem is that people in our country basically do not understand what the improvement is. Under this, they often understand a major overhaul, in which you need to lay out as much as possible tiles and pavers, that is, not qualitative but quantitative criteria are important.

Improvement should improve the quality of urban environment, create life, develop business. This is a very multifaceted process through which quite serious issues are resolved. For example, if the area loses residents and becomes less attractive to people, the city authorities can invest in the creation of a new park, which will immediately increase the demand for land around. One of the results — the city will earn on that it will sell the area for development more expensive. People in our country do not understand this at all, and when they spend money on landscaping, I have a feeling that they are simply thrown into the sand, not expecting any return.

What in creating the urban environment and social infrastructure has struck you most from what you have seen?

They all follow from the fact that we're trying to reach quantity rather than quality indicators. For the same reason, there are cases when someone, for example, creates a fairly good space, but people just cannot get there because the creation of pedestrian crossings is outside the project boundaries, that is, the authors do not understand how citizens should get there, the analysis is completely absent.

Sometimes it is just subjectivity when some specific decisions are taken not by specialists — architects and designers, but officials themselves, although they do not have the competence. For this reason, we get very second-rate solutions.

Photo: Oleg Tikhonov
Improvement should improve the quality of urban environment, create life, develop business. This is a very multifaceted process through which quite serious issues are solved

“There were times, when fences simply killed people”

Do you agree that the number of fences in Russian cities is reaching the point of absurdity?

In my opinion, we have a very big problem with this. Fences in Russia seem to be the only possible solution to improve security. Even a slight decrease in accidents on the roads, which is observed almost every year, is taken as a result of the installation of barriers. But this has not been proven by anyone, and if you look, for example, at the studies conducted in London, they say that fences cause more problems than advantages.

There were cases when fences simply killed people — when a car crashes into a protection, metal fragments literally turn into shrapnel. Plus, fences make fast driving very attractive, which greatly increases the accident rate. In this regard, the movement should be calmed, not accelerated. Here you can remember the centre of Moscow, where the fence was removed, raised islands were made and lanes were narrowed. Statistics show that on those streets where such decision was made, the situation has become more secure, no with traffic collapse.

What is the reason in your opinion?

The problem is that for safety those people are responsible who do not have the necessary competencies. Officials and traffic cops are just performers who can't subject to the critical analysis what they do as the works are carried out within the developed state standards. This is the executive branch, which is not focused on solving problems. In this regard, fences have become a very good tool for reporting: the more we install barriers per year, the better we work. It is important to change the criteria for effective work with safety, to adopt Vision Zero standards (the concept of zero injury — editor’s note).

In general, the main fault for the accidents with victims lies with the state. People make mistakes — this is normal, but it is important to create the infrastructure for them where their mistakes would not lead to death.

Photo: Inna Serova
I was in Kazan both in winter and summer. In winter — 2 years ago. I can say that now there have become even more fences

I would like to ask you about the parks and green areas of Kazan: they are considered to be the best in Russia, but you still have questions to them. Could you tell us more about it?

In my opinion, these are really the best examples of creating public spaces in Russia. Yes, you can find improvement more expensive and better, but the process of creating parks and green areas, as well as working with local residents is the best system solution for the development of public spaces. Such practice in Russia is still very small, but Tatarstan has already gained a lot of experience. You see, it is important not just to make a good place — it is important to maintain its existence, and we have enormous problems with this. One of the exceptions in this regard is Tatarstan.

Photo: Dmitry Reznov
Yes, you can find improvement more expensive and better, but the process of creating parks and green areas, as well as working with local residents is the best system solution for the development of public spaces

“Transport should go where people need to go”

In your blog you write about the inexpediency of even existing underground stations in Kazan, not to mention new ones. At the same time, talking with the citizens, we can conclude: the subway — it is very convenient and reduces the travel time. Why are you so pessimistic about this type of transport in our city?

It is wrong to ask people what they want — it is important to ask what public transport they want. Sometimes they answer that they need a subway near their entrance, but this is not quite right because people start from what they see, and they see not very convenient stops and not the most comfortable public transport, which sometimes stands in traffic jams due to problems with the allocated lanes. At the same time, they see the subway, where it is warm, dry, a good interval of arrival of trains and no traffic jams. Hence the belief that this is only possible in the subway. It is necessary to understand that exactly the same service can be created on land transport, and it will cost hundreds of times cheaper.

That carrying capacity, which the Kazan subway has, can be organized with the help of the same tram, if you approach the issue systematically. But the problem is that we do not know how to do this and the subway is everywhere becoming a reference mode of transport. If we go beyond Russia and look, for example, at Prague, we will see that tram traffic can be organized no worse. In general, the subway is being built when the previous forms of public transport have almost exhausted their capabilities. For example, if you have a tram line carrying tens of thousands of people per hour and no longer coping with passenger traffic, then yes, it's time to start building a subway.

We were also surprised by the moment in your blog where you write: “The biggest mistake which was made in the city is the elimination of the tram... the downtown almost completely lost the tram...” Plus, at the end you conclude: “The tram sooner or later will be returned to the centre of the city... the only question is by how it will take.” Why does the city centre need tram tracks, why are there not enough bus and trolleybus connections?

Transport should go where people need to go, and the whole world experience shows that people usually need to go to the centre or through it because there are the main points of attraction or it's just the shortest way. Therefore, if you have a tram but it does not go where people need it, but somehow bypasses this place, it is logical that this type of transport will not be used.

In general, the subway is being built when the previous forms of public transport have almost exhausted their capabilities. For example, if you have a tram line carrying tens of thousands of people per hour and no longer coping with passenger traffic, then yes, it's time to start building a subway

If you look at how tram lines are being restored in cities in Europe and the United States, where they were removed 50 years ago, for the sake of adding another car lane, you will see that they are laid through the centre and, as a rule, return to those streets on which they used to be. This is a very simple logic, which is used in different cities of the world, regardless of climate, mentality and other prejudices.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
Investing in historical heritage is an investment that pays off. If you just demolish such object, you will forever lose this opportunity

“The site development should be universal, but instead Kazan received some closed area”

Now the movement of protection of architectural monuments, wooden architecture and so on rises is rising. Public discussions begin with the authorities with the requirements to stop the demolition, to reconstruct. But whether there is a side when it is necessary to recognize that not all buildings need to be saved and enormous means should be invested in reconstruction, and on this money it is possible to make much more useful for the city?

Architectural monuments are not just beautiful houses. They have a lot of different tasks and functions that may not immediately become obvious. For example, from the point of view of education of patriotism, you can make it clear to the current generation how their ancestors lived and worked. This is better than any trip to a museum because you can touch the old days by just walking down a street.

If we look at the European experience, we will see that putting the historical heritage in order brings more profit to the city than the new ones. Investing in historical heritage is an investment that pays off. If you just demolish such object, you will forever lose this opportunity.

Imagine that someone cuts with a knife an old painting hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery, it is sure to be restored — no one will come to mind to redraw the canvas. We restore because we understand that it is a value. With buildings it is about the same.

Photo: Roman Khasaev
Okay, you built a village for the guests of the Universiade, then you put dormitories there, but what will you do with this area if, for example, in 20 years, if the university moves to Innopolis?

There is also a couple of your interesting suggestions. In your blog you write: “Let's start with the city centre, here you can clearly see how the city does not appreciate their land... The territory of one parking and roads alone can fit a few blocks, but instead there is emptiness and transit space.” In your opinion, is this quite an adequate option — to build residential areas 100 metres from the Kremlin and block the view of a UNESCO site?

While this parking with some random buildings does not make the city better. Since you were able to build a pyramid 100 metres from the Kremlin, you will surely be able to announce a competition and find good solutions for quarterly construction. This will be more appropriate option than the current fields.

Also, you write about the Universiade Village: “The Universiade Village could be a good boost to the housing market by changing the views of residents about the layout of the houses: but it was given to the students, closing the area and removing it from the urban life of Kazan.” But it was built specifically for this purpose. As far as I know, both in Europe, and in Asia, they do the same with the similar villages of the athletes inherited to the city from large sports tournaments?

When you build something in the city, it should be universal. Okay, you built a village for the guests of the Universiade, then you put dormitories there, but what will you do with this area if, for example, in 20 years, if the university moves to Innopolis? It will simply lose its relevance, and the budget will have to subsidize its existence.

A very good example is pre-revolutionary houses, which were in demand both in Soviet times and now. They can be compared with khrushchyovkas, which were built for a specific purpose, and now they have to be demolished because the houses do not meet the modern requirements of quality of life. They are easier to demolish than to renovate.

Again, the construction should be universal, but instead Kazan got a closed area. In terms of implementation, this is a very bad example of architecture and development.

By Lina Sarimova, Olga Golyzhlybina