“The paradox of transportation in the late 20th Century is that while it became possible to travel to the moon, it also became impossible, in many cases, to walk across the street”. – Joell Vanderwagen
Despite all their increasing diversity, there are some urban motifs that will always remind you that you are in a post-socialist city. The first might be the familiar plunging descent into the Soviet-era metro system. The next is likely to be the ubiquitous ‘perekhod’, or pedestrian underpass.
It turns out that expansive Soviet-era streets are less amenable to pedestrians than the military parades they were designed for. As an antidote, subterranean ‘perekhods’ were enthusiastically embraced by Soviet planners (and indeed many other modernist planning schools) to ferry non-car users across those intimidatingly wide ‘magistrals’.
In post-socialist cities, the penchant for ‘perekhods’ has continued. In Baku, they have become part of the marble façade of ‘new Baku’, complete with escalators – ‘underground palaces’ for a new era.
However energetic urbanists in Minsk, for one, are starting to contest this policy of ‘chasing pedestrians underground’. Their concerns have been echoed by global guru of ‘walkable cities’ Jan Gehl, whose on-trend urban design firm has consulted a number of post-socialist cities, and who has made clear that he is not a big fan of the supposedly pedestrian-friendly underground tunnels.
Underwear and lemons
The older ‘perekhods’ have a more diverse role in the urban space than simply channelling pedestrians. As soon as the Soviet system collapsed, the chaotic form of free enterprise that began to spring up often took the shape of hasty kiosks and small shops that appeared under the ground. This role of the underpasses as eclectic centres of small-scale traders continues today – my own particular favourite use is an underground shop near Baku’s Nizami metro station that sells only underwear and lemons. Recent efforts to ‘impose order on the chaos’ of this underground trading in Moscow provoked anger.
Security, severance and the perils of being in a wheelchair
The Soviets were not the only ones to be seduced by the prospect of the pedestrian underpass. Remaining underpasses, remnants of 1960s planning in the UK, are now renowned as dingy, lethal and certainly to be avoided once night falls. Similarly, utopian visions from those time of the ‘multilevel’ metropolis envisioned whole networks of footbridges, removing pesky pedestrians from the path of motorists, and creating a whole separate realm for pedestrians and ultimately proving somewhat hostile to them.
Waging a war on the ‘perekhod’ to make life easier for pedestrians might seem counter-intuitive to some. Key to understanding the problem is grasping the urban design concept of ‘severance’. Also known as the ‘barrier effect’, it is the phenomenon whereby either physical or psychological barriers separate communities, or slice up areas of the city. It is for this reason that is not uncommon to see retail activity thrive on one side of a ‘perekhod’, and shrivel quickly to nothing on the other.
That problem of connectivity is exacerbated for anyone with mobility restrictions. For the elderly, the disabled, or anyone with prams, baggage or even heavy shopping bags, moving through the city can become an agonising gauntlet of staircases. The ramps apparently provided for these people in post-socialist cities have become the subject of jokes for their precarious nature – in Minsk the gradient is 40% rather than the 10% recommended for safety. In Baku, expensive lifts installed for the European Olympic Games gather dust, and often absurdly even only serve one side of the underpass.
Shifting tides: moving away from ‘perekhod urbanism’?
This ongoing love affair with underpasses in the post-socialist world might be well-meaning, but claims of safety dividends need a closer look. If we accept the emerging consensus that a city’s streets are its ‘organising framework‘ and the best way to stimulate connections and urban vibrancy, we need to stop re-routing them underground.
Simple (and much less costly) at-grade crossings symbolically put the pedestrian at the same level of the car – sending a message that pedestrians are more than an obstacle in the way of cars, to be funnelled underground. Few mayors are willing to make that gesture, it appears. In many post-socialist cities, pedestrians still receive hefty fines for crossing the street rather than descending underground.
They might not be the spectacular failures of China’s ‘Peking duck’ underpass but let’s admit that perekhods are a problem. Moscow (the headquarters of what has been called ‘hipster Stalinism’ and a recent convert to ‘walkability’) is forging ahead in moving away from ‘perekhod urbanism’. However there are a lot of cities in the region who need to have a conversation about this awkward legacy of Soviet urbanism.