FEBRUARY 6, 2018
Block development is a principle on which Yekaterinburg was initially built. Why was it practically abandoned in the Soviet time, and now is gaining popularity once again? What is a block, and how comfortable is it for residents to separate private and public spaces in the city? Timur Abdullaev, the founder of ARCHINFORM architectural bureau, gives his expert opinion on this, to 'It's my city' informational portal.
What is a block? There are several levels of urban planning units and, of course, a whole hierarchy of definitions. For example, there's a planning area, a neighbourhood, a city block, a housing group. However, quite often there is confusion because when people use the word 'block', each person usually means their own thing.

The value of a block, first of all, lies in the fact that it makes up a sustainable urban unit. Urban notions and categories directly influence the organization of human livelihood in a certain area.
A block primarily makes it possible to form a condominium, and block structure of a development creates a system where comfort for everyone is provided by means of distinct division of private and public spaces. Thus, a person has a need for socialization, for interaction with others within the city limits, but at the same time, they always want to maintain their right for privacy.

Block development type provides this delicate balance. Besides, an important feature of block development is appropriate scale. The optimal correlation of buildings' height and yard areas promotes psychological feeling of comfort and safety.

Imagine: you are in a small yard 60 x 60 meters, surrounded by residential buildings over 10 storeys. It is a visually comfortable private space, which is human scale. Parents can let their children go out and play in this enclosed yard, and keep an eye on them from their flat on the fifth floor. Thus forms the atmosphere of good neighbourly relations: the buildings are relatively low-rise, that's why, according to urban planning norms, there is no necessity for a connecting balcony. As a result, people walk the stairs in the hall and get to know their neighbours not only on the same floor but between the floors. This provides the feeling of safety within a certain community.
Initially, Yekaterinburg was built based on the models of German and Dutch cities, where the underlying principle is block development. A bright example is the whole old part of the city, for instance, sections of Belinskogo and Rozy Luxemburg street. This planning structure clearly sets the street cross-section width and development logic. Plot division also complies with the principles of active use of each fragment of the area, assigned to individual owners.

In Soviet time the paradigm of social development changed: the collectivization of municipal economy made all urban spaces communal and unattached at the same time; hence, the unthrifty attitude towards urban spaces, the excessive street scales, large gaps between buildings, enlargement of planning elements to gigantic neighbourhoods, where the feeling of human scale is lost, and, as a result, beautification decline.

And if in the socialistic period the role of a managing subject, maintaining at least some level of beautification in public spaces, was undertaken by the state, in post-Soviet period all these 'unattached' spaces between buildings started to decay rapidly, which led to significant marginalization of urban environment in the 90-s. The industrialization of house-building, fostered in Soviet time, when architecture strictly complied with simple economic feasibility (and a panel building of 9/12/16 storeys was the most efficient type of housing), also left its mark.
Everyone remembers the horrifying words 'connecting balcony', which can be a bogeyman for children – In designer tongue, it's stair-wall type N-1. Such buildings were hardly appropriate for compact block planning structures: it became inconvenient to encircle blocks. Urban fabric started to tear.

Now the paradigm is changing again, and, once again, there is demand for personal space. As a result, demand emerges for block development, and corresponding projects appear. For example, Solnechnyi neighbourhood, with block development as its main idea. However, the scale of blocks, in my opinion, is slightly exaggerated: street cross-section width is excessive, housing units 102 x 120 meters are also too large.
The semiclosed 'Novatorov' block looks more harmonious, with spaces between buildings smaller and the yard becoming a real walking zone, instead of just being a space for cars (the yard dimensions are 45 x 50 meters). Another example of a comfortable yard is 'Sukhodolskyi' block. The yard is only 25 x 53 meters and the surrounding development is mainly 6 to 12 storeys – this exact proportion provides the feeling of human scale and safety. Besides, the construction of a series of blocks is planned there; thus, interblock public spaces will emerge between them. This could be public gardens, parks and squares.
However, despite all the advantages of block development, it is often said that for an investor it is more lucrative to build a single 30-storey high-rise rather than a block of middle-rise buildings. In my opinion, it is a questionable statement. It's not that one mustn't build infills.

Of course, development should be versatile, and somewhere high-rises are reasonable. But the emergence of a residential infill high-rise is always a 'hoover', because such building, with its high concentration of development and population density, drains the resources of the surrounding area. It means that, according to urban planning norms, it is impossible to build anything around it quite far, as there should be parking slots, sports grounds, playgrounds and other facilities near it. At the same time, such a structure does not form the urban environment. One of the main public spaces in any city is a street where people walk. And streets are formed by the development front, which an in fill simply does not have.
The assertion about economics making developers build high-rises is mistaken. If one erects a block of middle-rise buildings on the area required by reglations for a 30-storey tower, then the overall quantity of square meters will be comparable, but the ground floors can accommodate dozens of street retail shops, livening up the urban environment. What is more, the owner of each of them will be interested in high quality of landscaping in the adjacent area, so that it is more pleasant for people to drop in. As a result, urban environment quality benefits significantly.

This is the underlying principle of many European cities, where many people like to walk. For example, in Milan or Vienna new residential districts rarely have buildings higher than 10 storeys.

In Yekaterinburg, the success of spreading block development depends on numerous factors. But one of the key issues, in my opinion, is forsaking infill development.

One cannot consider the owner of a small land plot a developer if they decide to build a house on it.
Such kind of development does not encourage forming high-quality urban environment and does not create comfort, no matter what marketing tricks developers turn to. One has to approach area development in a more complex way. In order for block development to work, for people to experience all its advantages, one has to use it systematically, as one of the right principles of sustainable urban development.

I suppose, the minimal unit of area, allowing complex approach to its development, can be represented by a land plot of at least 2 hectares. But, unfortunately, not every even large development company in Yekaterinburg operates with such planning elements. I think, there is a way out. We can develop areas in collaboration, by efforts of several owners, consolidating common land and financial resources, so that area development translates into well-balanced projects that would make it possible to develop urban environment instead of constructing separate buildings. Ultimately, everyone will benefit from this.
Author: Timur Abdullaev
Source: It's my city
Photo: It's my city, Znak.com