APRIL 3, 2018
Moscow authorities' decision to demolish five-storey buildings as part of the renovation program has led to discussions in Yekaterinburg, where city administration is dealing with the development of built-up areas, auctioning them off as separate lots. Why both mechanisms can be traumatic for the city and what renovation system would be more effective – that's what Timur Abdullaev, the founder of ARCHINFORM, is reflecting about in a column published on It's my city.
When we say 'renovation', first we need to understand: what is it for? What value is there in it for urban environment development? How does a city benefit from it? How do people benefit? What are the underlying mechanisms of this process? Lately I often see this word quickly being caught up and used without its primary meaning.

What is renovation?

Renovation is not just new construction in the city. In this process, several aspects intertwine. On the one hand, renovation means, of course, new development opportunities in terms of business development. But that's not the point. Renovation means, first and foremost, new opportunities for urban environment development within the existing urban fabric.

First, we should define strategically where the renovated areas are located. The second step is defining the rules of the game, that is the conditions for proceeding with the renovation, which may vary from area to area. This should be defined by the strategy of spatial development for Yekaterinburg. Besides, quite possibly, the areas subject to renovation should be separately marked on the city's masterplan and in the documents for spatial planning, including the rules of land use and development. Now it is not the case.

Renovation development of built-up areas is always hard for business, because there are issues to solve with a large number of property owners, issues with relocating older facilities and their reconstruction; sometimes this can be combined with the presence of architectural monuments and their protective zones. Obviously, it's more expensive compared to new construction on a free area. But if we want to talk about renovation specifically, not about demolishing and building anew on the same spot, we need to create mechanisms that will enable effective work with these areas.

We need to cherish the existing developments

Not so long ago, a mechanism of built-up areas reconstruction was actively employed in the city. The administration auctioned off plots of existing urban development with the goal of reconstructing them, but this mechanism, in my viewpoint, was quite barbarian.

In reality, of course, neither reconstruction nor renovation took place

The developer who won the auction simply got the right to demolish the existing urban development and build new structures. That said, the parameters of the new development were in no way limited in terms of, say, urban planning or social context features of the area. They could build big time, as if they were building in the open fields. But a city is not an open field. It's a living organism, a fabric, sewn from specific plots and fragments, which form the unified cultural and spatial environment. There's development area, which may not be an architectural monument but still represents unified urban fabric, with a completely alien development being incorporated into it.
For instance, a three-, four-storey Stalin-area bulding is a good example of good quality development, shaping an authentic environment around it. There are such buildings, for instance, on Gagarina – Mira streets. Let's say one of these buildings is recognized as dilapidated (although, in my opinion, it is always a matter of argument: is it really dilapidated?), and the developer is planning to demolish it, settle the residents in a new place and erect a 25-storey high-rise (or even two) in this area. In the surrounding context, such high-rise buildings will surely look absolutely alien. They will in no way fit into the architectural and planning landscape. Is it good for the city or not? In my understanding, this is barbarity towards urban environment. That's why giving such opportunities to a developer, one should set clear boundaries.

The rules of 'proper' renovation

First, during renovation there should be no distortion of architectural context. Second, we should always keep in mind that a city is not just any place. A city is, primarily, people that inhabit it. Hence, the people are bearers of the urban spirit, urban culture. And if a large portion of the population of a certain area is forced to move due to renovation plans, the notion of urban cultural context is washed away.
Let's take s simple example. We really like it when visiting the good old Europe we feel the spirit of the place, the spirit of times. We see that ground floors of buildings house shops and restaurants, where people from the same families have been working for centuries. These people, with their peculiarities, habits, routines, have been living here for centuries. And when travelling we often find immersion into this environment the most interesting aspect. If we want to remember our city as a similar cultural space, then, perhaps, we should think about all this.

When making a decision regarding area development, keeping in mind renovation, we should work through the mechanisms of this process on several levels: in terms of architecture and planning, in terms of urbanism, in terms of social and economic aspects.

However, unfortunately, a simple instant economic feasibility very often outweighs everything else, and the solution is simple: how many square meters do we have to build in place of a three-storey building in order to demolish it and move the residents? A developer decides on 20 storeys and no one stops them. Administration sells the area in lots and doesn't impose any additional conditions on the developer, which would require respecting the rights and interests of the people who live in the area. Conditions that would require saving a certain architectural and planning context and place memory. This leads to consequences which, it seems to me, are traumatic for the city.

Profitability and the height of buildings

Examples are numerous. Let's take the project for Yekaterininskyi Park in the block of Sverdlova, Azina, Mamina-Sibiryaka and Shevchenko streets. Now Sverdlova street is lined with five-, six-storey Stalin-era buildings. The street was once a model of a guest, front route of the city, and the buildings are very high quality architectural structures that are landmarks, perhaps, not architectural but historical for sure. And there's a 35-storey development planned in this block. Clearly, it will absolutely depreciate the scale and strangle these buildings in terms of their further perception in the urban context.
Another example is the demolition of the derelict 'Temp' cinema, a constructivism building. Housing development is planned in its place now. Although this cinema is not architectural heritage, it is connected with the memory of this place, with cultural context of the area, and it represents environmental value.

Height and number of storeys of a new housing development are one of the sore subjects. When making mechanisms of renovation, administration should create different height regulations in different parts of the city, to avoid such chaotic changes in the urban landscape within the city boundaries. There should be certain locations for high-rise developments. For example, we have the City area. We realize that it will develop as an area of high-rises. There are certain architectural and planning joints where high-rise development is also reasonable. But 30-storey buildings cannot simply emerge in the center of existing blocks, which is now happening everywhere in the city.
Naturally, business is driven by economics – it seeks economic feasibility and profitability from the projects, and it would be ludicrous to demand any abstract social responsibility from developers in urban development process. This is a task for city administration: creating rules and conditions of the game, which enable the search for balance. Of course, a lot is determined by high land costs, but this isn't an unconditional argument either.

The cost of land in major European cities is much higher; however, housing developments are mostly limited to 10 – 12 storeys. I think the crucial role is played by urban planning regulations and parameters fixed in the rules of land use and development. This instrument is in the hands of city administration. If, according to these documents, development area allows for construction of buildings up to 25 storeys in a certain area, then the cost of this land will be high. If there was a strict regulation limiting the height of buildings, for instance, to 5 storeys, the cost of such a land plot would be different. I believe that urban planning policy in no small way determines the parameters of development and the city's skyline by influencing urban land capitalization.

How it works in Europe

How does the mechanism of built-up areas development work in European countries? Quite often, city administration acts as master developer there. This means that first a unified development project is formed, where public, residential and, if necessary, industrial functions are balanced. Such a project usually presupposes the presence of different classes of housing, so that people of different social categories, including very well off ones, could continue living in this area after the renovation. On the stage of creation, the project goes through public discussions. When the project is formed, developer companies are invited to choose which of the defined facilities they are ready to invest in: a hotel, housing or, perhaps, a shopping center. At the same time, responsibility for the area development still falls on the administration.

However, for now city administration doesn't take up the role of master developer. It is much easier to delegate this to the business, to construction and developer companies. But being socially responsible is the task for the city, not business.

A city of skyscrapers

Speaking about renovation in Moscow, where five-storey buildings were announced for demolition. There are several factors here. Moscow started choking on peripheral districts development a long time ago. This led to transport collapse and social tension. For a long time now, there has been an question of whether Moscow should continue growing its commuter belt. If not, then it means they should look for development resources within the city. The idea per se is a good one, because, in the end, renovation should lead to increasing the quality of urban environment. That is to investing money in the city, instead of spreading resources all around. But how will it happen in reality? If instead of a 3-storey building developers usually want to erect a 20-sotrey building, then instead of a 5-storey building – minimum a 40-storey high-rise. In the end, this leads to Moscow becoming a city of skyscrapers.

It is not bad per se. it is bad in the context of infrastructure not being suitable for a city of skyscrapers.

But Moscow does a lot to fix the situation; for example, they are developing a sustainable system of public transport: underground, commuter trains. We need to realize that all this is developing not at the expense of Moscow's resources only, but at the expense of the whole country. These are state investments into Moscow. Unfortunately, other cities cannot count on the same support. That's why when we discourse about applying Moscow scenarios to Yekaterinburg, a question immediately arises: can we afford a city of skyscrapers?
Author: Timur Abdullaev
Source: It's my city
Photo: It's my city, Vyacheslav Soldatov, Moscow mayor's office website