“We’re recording the appearance of a ghetto around Moscow with a large number of self-settlers”

Sociologist Pyotr Ivanov about the problems of cities and urban residents. Part 2

“We’re recording the appearance of a ghetto around Moscow with a large number of self-settlers” Photo: podolsk.ru

Millions of people in a big city create a lot of problems for themselves and others — from traffic jams and dumps to competition for jobs and a too high pace of life. Sociologist Pyotr Ivanov told Realnoe Vremya about whether it is worth living in a city at all and about the projects of arrangement of people's lives in the future. Read the first part of the interview here.

“In Russia, it is considered normal when a person works several jobs”

How much time do people really spend on work, family, recreation and hobbies in cities? There is a feeling that the work time is gradually increasing, including due to the constant availability of the employee through smartphones and the Internet.

We live in different time modes at the same time. In any Russian city, we can find people who live in the modern mode with a clear division of time into working and non-working. And we can also find such technomads, modern technological digital “nomads” who live in complex flows of time and space, who do not really understand where the workplace is and where the home is. It is not very clear when they work. It is even more difficult to trace the moment when a person is directly working and not doing other things. Slow communication movement, which advocates the introduction of a “slow day” where we give up all our newfangled gadgets and communicate live or, in extreme cases, watch a movie, but in no case go online, is studying this problem.

There is also a Russian peculiarity associated with that we consider it normal when a person works several jobs. This can be seen in any field: state employees, non-budget employees, academy workers. Just because it is quite difficult to live on one salary in Russian cities. For example, when we studied the labour market in Mytishchi, we learned a very surprising story. A policeman, receiving a quite modest Mytishchi salary, worked on weekends as a cashier in a hypermarket.

For the record, the salary rate of the teacher in Moscow is one second of the rate of the cashier in a store. So, there are also a lot of works and contracts in the academic environment. Twenty thousand rubles is not much, people have to make a living somehow, after all. At the same time, the university rector’s salary can be 3 million a year. We have big problems in our country related to the fairness of distribution.

Photo: Dmitry Reznov
In any Russian city, we can find people who live in the modern mode with a clear division of time into working and non-working. And we can also find such technomads, modern technological digital “nomads” who live in complex flows of time and space, who do not really understand where the workplace is and where the home is. It is not very clear when they work

“The disciplines related to human comfort and perception are excluded from the work on urban development”

What is natural harmonious environment for human life? Village, where there are nature, few people, close communication? Is the city an unnatural environment?

Why unnatural? We all live in cities, so this environment has developed in a natural way. There was also some super-villain who decided to make fun of humanity and herded everyone in the city.

Another thing is that material culture develops faster than our biology has time to adapt to new conditions. So far, we are arranged in such a way that we are comfortable to perceive less information, stimuli than there are now in cities, but we are gradually adapting to this. Now we can say that the non-urban environment is more favourable for humans. Indeed, there are just fewer events happening there, there is less need to pay attention to anything, there are fewer incomprehensible things to interact with. A city is a vast expanse of uncertain unknown processes. And we, accordingly, are forced to digitize an incredible number of things that for us, it turns out, are vital. If we do not take them into account, we will not eat, we will not sleep, we will die.

What should be done to reduce the stress level of Russians?

We need to work more closely with urban design. Here it is the work for the chief artist of the city and the chief architect, the work of design bureaus. They should turn to cognitive psychologists who analyze, study human reactions, what makes us feel bad and sad, and what makes us feel good. At the moment, unfortunately, the work on the construction and development of cities excludes the disciplines related to human comfort and perception. Human perception is not mentioned in the documents of the ministry of construction, in the programmes Comfortable Urban Environment. It would seem that if we are talking about a comfortable urban environment, we should take into operate the subjective sense of human comfort. In reality, this does not happen, and then in many ways there is such an unconscious process. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. If we suddenly have some area that people like, it's either a very smart architect, subtly feeling the category of comfort, or he had some consultants-psychologists in the team.

It is common to talk about the epidemic of depression. Depression as a cause of death is gradually moving up to first place in the world. It's strange that we work on other causes of death, like cancer and cardiovascular disease, but we do not work on the main one. To solve this issue, there are technical means. If earlier parametric architecture was very difficult to reproduce, today there are relatively inexpensive technologies for its implementation. The beauty of natural landscapes, natural objects is that they are uneven, that they are arbitrary in shape. Even one tree is quite complex, it is an interweaving of non-industrial winding forms. A hundred years ago, copying the real shape of one tree would have been an incredible work of a team of brilliant carpenters for a lot of money for some millionaire. Now we can use parametric architecture programs to create a tree, and then print it on a 3D printer, and it will be quite cheap.

Then we can work with these natural principles of formation of objects in the urban environment. That is, there can be, for example, parametric benches or stops. They will already cause us more positive feelings than rectangular boxes.

Photo: Oleg Tikhonov
We need to work more closely with urban design. Here it is the work for the chief artist of the city and the chief architect, the work of design bureaus. They should turn to cognitive psychologists who analyze, study human reactions, what makes us feel bad and sad, and what makes us feel good

“Megacities will die”

In the Soviet Union, cities often grew and were built around factories. What should the city be built around for a comfortable life of people, how do you think? On what principles should it be built?

Factories are a relatively recent acquisition of cities, they began to play an important role in the city about 150 years ago. Before that, the most important driver of urban development was exchange. That is, the city is a place where different people meet and exchange something. This function persists, unlike factory one, which gradually is dying. We will build our comfortable cities of the future around exchange. Another question is that it is no longer necessary to be together in the same city for exchange. It does not require a large concentration of people, does not require their spatial proximity, so in the future megacities will die.

There is a fantasy scenario called The Venus Project by designer Jacques Fresco, who claims that we already have the entire technological complex allowing us to remove all the cities and evenly divide ourselves across the planet in such beautiful green residential units with self-building houses, while not engaging in the classic form of trade or production. And all material objects will be built by construction robots and 3D printers and delivered to the place of need at the first call. People will only have to develop culture, write books, sing songs, conduct scientific research. And they will harm nature in no way.

The only thing that hinders the implementation of this project are states and transnational corporations. We will abolish states and corporations, and everything will be ok, we will live in normal nature in those concentrations of people per unit area in which we feel comfortable, in which we were born and which do not cause us a sea of stress. It's clear that this is a fantasy, but it wraps the unfolding trends very nicely. Indeed, cities are becoming less attractive, downshifting is developing, but so far not to such an extent as to talk about an imminent death of big cities.

Constructive criticism of the metropolis is seriously developing. At the beginning of the 20th century, the doomed criticism of cities dominated, that we have no choice, that we live in this terrible city, that a lot of evil is happening in it. They also spoke: “To what state the mankind has brought itself.” But now we are talking about that the city has certain shortcomings and nothing prevents us from going to do this and that with a high level of comfort and a sense of self-realization. Development of local culture, development of local products, farming, remote work, maker culture.

A serious blow to the big cities causes the cheapening of the means of production. That is, if earlier it took some incredible capacities in order to assemble a computer, now we can already put an experiment and get quite a working computer, printing it on a 3D printer, which itself is not so expensive. Why should we live in a city, work in these factories? Further woodworking, metalworking machines become cheaper, and gradually we will have fewer and fewer reasons why we need to live in a metropolis. Everything that we can get in a metropolis we can get in a small town, in a countryside, in Antarctica, anywhere with the help of what is known as Production 2.0.

Photo: building-tech.org
There is a fantasy scenario called The Venus Project by designer Jacques Fresco, who claims that we already have the entire technological complex allowing us to remove all the cities and evenly divide ourselves across the planet in such beautiful green residential units with self-building houses, while not engaging in the classic form of trade or production

“We are recording the emergence around Moscow of actual ghettos with struggling homeowners' associations”

What can we do with those large, chaotically growing cities in Russia that have already been built and are creating problems for millions of people?

In fact, it is the question of managing migration flows at the state level. Indeed, we now have some problem that people are heading for the concentration of money. And the concentration of money has several levels: small cities, medium cities, megacities, Moscow. The people follow money up this ladder. This is closely related to tax policy. Even a small change in tax policy aimed at keeping more money in municipalities will lead to major changes in people's migration. People will have the opportunity to connect to some economic processes in their small homeland. Why going to Moscow if there is a sufficient amount of money in your town to provide employment for their citizens. Such a tactical story.

And there is a big strategic question. For example, people began to leave the cities... and around Moscow there appears a huge number of abandoned scary houses, where no one wants to go. A complicated story that will require serious local regulation because poorly populated houses are great material for ghettoization. Already today we are recording the emergence around Moscow of actual ghettos with large number of self-settlers, with struggling homeowners' associations because people, who pay property managing companies, are just 20 in a house, but designed for 1,000. It is clear that the economy of this house is designed for that 1,000 people pay the property management company and it can maintain these houses, make current repairs. If this does not happen, then the economy of the house collapses, then the house begins to collapse.

Then we get a Detroit scenario, which cannot be easily solved because people need to be moved, to find some communities in which a person wants to enter, giving his apartment. Then it is the same problem — housing is rapidly becoming cheaper. Accordingly, in the market, people cannot exchange their housing for something decent. And they need some kind of state programme or the World Bank program, that is, we need a lot of work to cope with this.

You’ve mentioned Detroit. Are the townspeople still leaving en masse?

They're starting to come back now. But Detroit has always been an example of how a city can take off for half a century, become super successful, and then be completely abandoned because industries left and people had nowhere to work. For this reason, people began to leave Detroit. There was a catastrophic, dramatic population decline, so it became creepy to live there.

By Matvey Antropov