For one of Urbanistan‘s opening posts, I felt that the most important place to start was at the grass roots. The history of top-down planning in the post-socialist region is no secret. However more recently a raft of grass-roots initiatives have been springing up in cities across the region – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine, just for a start. This new generation of urbanists are seeking to expand the range of people able to have a say on what their city becomes.
Of course, the development banks, government initiatives, ‘starchitects’ and multinational engineering firms will flood in to the region to work on large-scale urban projects – transport, mass event infrastructure and the like. However urban spaces lend themselves to alternative strategies of bottom-up, community-led initiatives.
Especially in those countries where traditional civil society linkages and social capital are weak, collective action focused on shared everyday issues can be a powerful form of solidarity. This emergence of urban actors is perhaps also energised also by a sense of fatigue over the ‘big politics’ that have dominated civil society attention in the past? A return to the local, the everyday.
Groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus are later to the game than Central and Eastern Europe, but they represent a similar reaction against the commodification of space as private investors have become dominant actors in shaping public space. The spatial scale of action has contracted, and concentrated its power in the process.
Many of these groups were founded by young architects and planners who have become disillusioned with the outdated and stagnant practices taught to them during their training. Most were set up only in the last five years. While some remain little more than a Facebook page to mobilise collective action, others are much more formalised, acting as mediators between local people and local authorities.
I want to use this space to showcase them and their role – often against the odds – as urban actors in the post-socialist space.
1. PILLE (Baku)
The Parisian-style ‘First Oil Boom’ architecture of Baku – a city of over 2 million by official figures – harks back to a more cosmopolitan past and marks the city out from its neighbours, at least in the city centre. Like other cities in the neighbourhood, this inner ring is both dotted with a few remaining early Soviet architectural treasures and surrounded by a sea of 1960s Soviet ‘krushevki’. In more recent years, ‘urban boosterism‘ and ostentatious oil-financed buildings by international star-chitects have landed like UFOs on Baku’s famous seaside boulevard, to the delight of some and the despair of many more.
Baku-based PILLE (meaning ‘step’ in Azeri) was founded by a group of young architects who felt let down and constrained by their formal training at the local university and wanted to create an informal platform that nudges Bakuvians to think about their city in a different way.
Among their most successful projects have been an urban furniture workshop, that resulted in the prototype of a multi-functional street food carriage; a public art festival called ‘Urban Olum‘ (a play on words based on a local saying) that saw a community garden being established in the hillside Bayil neighbourhood; as well as plans underway for a series of urban collages for an upcoming Baku Urban Agenda event.
PILLE are an illustrative example of the more organic, issue-based form of civic movement emerging in Baku, and the first with an explicit urban agenda.
2. Urban Forum (Almaty)
The Kazakh city of Almaty, home to around 1.5 million, lost its crown in 1997 when the capital was moved to the somewhat less charismatic new centre of Astana, as part of the symbolic ‘nation-building’ drive in the young country. However Soviet planners left Almaty with an inheritance of wide tree-lined avenues and a little more ‘bustle’ than the new capital.
Urban Forum Almaty, run by Kazakh architect Assel Yeszhanova and her team, puts Almaty centre-stage again. The Forum was established when the founders noticed ‘something brewing’ on the city level, despite the somewhat stagnant nature of civil society as a whole in Kazakhstan. However without any platform to capture this dialogue and take it to a more sophisticated level, the debate was bound to remain riven with conflict, taste-driven and with little concrete impact. It was in danger of remaining merely an exchange of complaints over new development, construction and the city’s disappearing heritage – the starting point for so many of the initiatives featured here.
Urban Forum Almaty is designed to provide space and support for that dialogue, taking it beyond the emotional and superficial level through a series of public events, each with a different theme. So far they have included ‘The identity of Almaty city’ and ‘Resilience’. However since 2017 they are expanding these one-off events to create a more comprehensive educational program called ‘Cities and People’, with invited international lecturers.
One of their greatest achievements to date has been persuading the local ‘mikrorayoni’ of Tastak and Orbita to cooperate on small-scale interventions by young architects to improve the quality of local public space – building that elusive link between grass roots experimentation and the attention of local authorities. As the quality of the discourse (among both amateurs and the professional community) gradually improves, and new ideas circulate, they also plan to cautiously expand beyond the borders of Almaty to other Kazakh cities.
3. Urban Initiatives (Bishkek)
Bishkek is a city of only around 1 million, but one that Soviet planners paid close attention to, leaving a legacy of manicured parks that sit alongside the raft of new constructions thrown up in more recent years. Like in other cities, urbanists are trying to support a better balance between investment and public space. Compared to its neighbours, Krygyzstan has a relatively open civic space, helping support participative initiatives, but the ‘urban question’ remains a new one for local people.
The work of Bishkek’s ‘Urban Initiatives’ is research-focused and the overall goal is to raise awareness and start a dialogue about urban problems and potential solutions, and to get more ordinary people engaged in discussing the future of urban spaces in the country.
Refreshingly, rather than focus only on the capital city, UI believes in an equally strong focus on second and third cities. The flagship projects have been the Urban Forums they have organised – in Bishkek in 2014, Osh (the ‘capital of the south’) in 2015 and a ‘Forum of Cities’ in 2017. More concrete interventions have included the transformation of local libraries, giving them new life as valuable community spaces that go beyond storing books, competing with the malls that too often become the public space of choice as cities in this region commercialise.
The team running UI combine their passion for urbanism with a twin passion for open data, bemoaning the poor quality of data available to understand urban challenges in Kyrgyzstan, and for making data-driven decisions. By doing this, they hope to create a local ‘urban community’.
4. Minsk Urban Platform (Minsk)
It is safe to say that Minsk may be one of the least ‘discovered’ cities in Europe and perhaps the one that suffers most from Western stereotypes of a bleak time warp of Soviet uniformity. Much of Minsk was razed to the ground during the war, which may explain why the city feels more ‘Soviet’ than others.
The aesthetes of the city mourn the gradual disappearance of Minsk’s modernist buildings. But there is more to urban Minsk than you might think – some might be surprised to find one of the more well-established urban initiatives based in the city.
The Facebook page of Minsk Urban Platform is a treasure trove of lectures and materials on the development of post-socialist cities. Talks like ‘Architecture means participation‘ speak to a widespread drive across the region to finally phase out modernist top-down planning and for local people to get stuck in and expressing their views on their public space. Their on-the-ground projects include their ‘alternativny dvor’ (or ‘alternative yard’) interventions – where they work with local community members, from children to pensioners, to re-conceptualise the neighbourhood space… halting the drift of Minsk’s yards into car parks by transforming childrens’ playgroundschildrens’ playgrounds and overcoming suspicious neighbours to help communities implement their vision of the shared space around their homes.
5. Iare Pekhit (Tbilisi)
The Georgian capital of Tbilisi is hot stuff these days with international travellers flocking to the city, bringing a bittersweet mix of vibrancy and concerns over gentrification and lack of regulation to conserve public spaces.
Iare Pekhit (‘walk’ in Georgian), was established by a group of passionate urbanists to stand up for pedestrian rights in the city, including staging a rally where activists lay down across pedestrian crossings. However they have also been outspoken against vanity projects like the tourist and investor-oriented Panorama Project which they describe as an ‘assault on Tbilisi‘ and its treasured botanical gardens – a typical struggle in a city where the less-than-sensitive new development can clash uncomfortably with the local vernacular. Georgia’s noisy civil society backdrop means they have been joined in the fight by other local urban initiatives such as Tbilisi Guerilla Gardening and Tiflisi Hamqari.
Like PILLE in Baku, Iare Pekhit have used public art to draw attention to public space and to draw the attention of the muncipality. They have also been involved in the debate over the encroachment of tourist-oriented cafes onto ostensibly public space as the tourist industry grows and streets like Agmashenebeli Avenue are pedestrianised. Finally, their popular ‘Ugly Walks‘ show participants how parks and open space are being chipped away by transport and hotel development.
6. Urbanista (Yerevan)
Yerevan, Armenia’s capital of just over 1 million, is of all the capital cities of the South Cauasus the one that retains the strongest sense of the Soviet legacy (albeit in its ornamented ‘national form‘). This is perhaps due to the destruction of historic buildings with the arrival of the first Soviet radial plan by Alexander Tamanyan in the 1920s, inspired by international ‘garden city’ trends. Its centre is also refreshingly walkable. However changes since independence have brought multinational construction firms and accompanying displacements along the central axis of the freshly gentrified Northern Avenue and elsewhere – leading to emerging Harvey-esque calls for the ‘right to the city‘.
Journalist Gayane Mirzoyan, who founded the Urbanista initiative, laments how the ‘islands’ of old Yerevan disappear without discussion, and aims to help urbanism establish itself as part of intellectual debate in Armenia. Not only in the capital, but also to help tell the stories of neglected smaller towns. A series of slick pilot multimedia stories launched in 2017 and future plans include an initiative for a ‘virtual city budget’ to try to boost citizen participation in urban processes, beyond small circles of city architects, through researching budget distribution in different cities.
7. Re-Urban (Chisinau)
Chisinau, with a population of around half a million and the capital of Moldova, is not often on the radar of urbanists, but has a rich heritage of 19th century architecture that co-exists with the built legacy of the Soviet past.
Local urban activist Victor Chironda, whose Moldovan-language blog breaks covers a range urban issues in the capital of Chisinau, founded Re-Urban in 2014 in an effort to save the ‘A. P. Chekhov’ Russian theatre in the centre of the city – one of many public spaces that was being lost as private investors flooded in. Using crowd-funding platforms they managed to raise money to collect $15,000, and found enthusiastic support among local people.
Victor worries that there is little awareness of urban issues, or expertise, at the official level in Moldova – where departments are run by “old school architects” who resist new ways of thinking about urban development. The study programs that churn them out remain focused on top-down planning – “maps and blueprints over people” – as well as the perennial problem of lack of funding.
This is another initiative born out of a passion for the key role of public space, and managing it as a common resource, a story repeated across the cities we have looked at.
8. CANactions (Kiev)
Kiev, one of Eastern Europe’s oldest cities, is dotted with distinctive golden onion-domes and laced with ribbons of green forest, concealing mysterious open-air theatres. It is also home to more kitsch curiosities, such as the infamous Disneyfied ‘oligarch ghost-town’ of Vozdvizhenka – a case of patrimonial-cum-neoliberal urban development gone quite wrong.
Ukraine, unsurprisingly perhaps, has one of the most developed networks of urban-based initiatives – ranging from one-off hackathons, to environmental movements and educational platforms. They have even been mapped.
Kiev-based CANActions describes itself as an experimental educational institution. It runs a regular International Architecture Festival, an experimental school of urbanism, a series of small grants competitions, and a series of public lectures and workshops. Founder Viktor Zotov and Urs Thomann insist that CANActions is not necessarily about big ideas but about connections and collaborative work, in particular linking local enthusiasts to both international experts and progressive local decision-makers, helping to circulate new ideas.
Did I miss any urban movements that you think should be featured here? Let me know!