The way we design our cities and move about them has implications for the functioning of an open and free society. Indeed, a physical context that may be considered a matter of local urban design can influence national destiny: Tahrir Square in Cairo, Zuccotti Park in New York, and now Maidan in Kiev are public spaces where social movements have expressed themselves to an international audience. The ability to move around the city and socio-economic mobility are also linked, as we’re reminded by recent demonstrations in Brazil about high transit fares or the historic Birmingham bus boycott’s vanguard role in the U.S. civil rights movement.
I was thinking about that link between physical and civic infrastructure while watching events in Ukraine on television this week. I visited Kiev and Odessa in 2005 to help teach a short course on city planning and development sponsored by the International Real Property Foundation, a U.S.-government backed organization that helped former Eastern bloc economies transition to market economies. We taught realtors, developers and local government officials some basics of legal and regulatory practices like zoning, and the rights and responsibilities that go with private property ownership, an unknown concept while Ukraine was ruled by Soviet until 1991.
Younger Ukrainians all spoke of the Soviet Union as an era or a regime rather than a country – they used the term “the Soviet period,” as if it had been a temporary occupation, not a place. The one transportation link to Russia they showed me was a statue on the Odessa waterfront commemorating a dog-sled that had been used to miraculously deliver fresh oranges from the Black Sea port to Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg one February in the early 18th century. Other than that historic connection to the Russian empire, the Ukrainians I met in 2005 (admittedly a small and atypical sample) stated a uniform goal: as they put it, “to become a European country.” Geographically Ukraine is undeniably sitting on the European continent, but their meaning was metaphoric: they wanted cities with freedom of association and speech, and, yes, freedom of movement.
With the exception of the grand subway, which the people wanted to freshen up, the Ukraine I visited in 2005 was eager to erase evidence of Soviet infrastructure. Most Lenin statues had been toppled and centuries-old cathedrals destroyed in what people referred to as “the Stalin time” were being restored. In the port city of Odessa, an official of the city transportation bureau told me of their eagerness to update their tram network, which was still running with the equipment and technology that a Belgian company had installed in Czarist 1910. One of the chief city officials in Odessa spoke with pride of the possibility that a new comprehensive plan would enable new development while also protecting and restoring architectural landmarks from ravenous ex-Soviet officials-turned-oligarchs. But he worried that corruption would stymy his efforts.
I rode the architecturally ornate Kiev subway, which like Moscow and St. Petersburg’s Metros, is a good reminder that the U.S.S.R. was building inspiring, grand subways whose architecture uplifted the common person in the mid-20th century, a good thing. (OK, the U.S.S.R. may have done one other thing right: ballet.) Meanwhile U.S. cities were awarding contracts to the lowest private bidder to quickly build barebones subways and expect a private profit. But to my eyes in 2005, the 1950s Soviet technology is overdue for an update, and it hadn’t had one. Similarly, the Kiev tram I rode along a pretty route paralleling the mighty Dnieper River through beautiful parkland was fun to ride but had outgrown its functional utility at this late stage of its life.
It was understandable that Ukrainians would want to emulate London’s reinvestment in a modernized rail system or the 21st century trams in Barcelona or Lyon or Dusseldorf. Working with western neighbors might unlock infrastructure funding from the EU or IMF. Western Europe’s approach to transportation was preferable to simply expanding huge “ring roads” as Ukraine’s former colonial masters in Moscow have been doing. Indeed, Moscow’s model of increasing car-dependence (and therefore traffic and air pollution) is strikingly un-European.
While the world watches in this cold winter of 2014, Ukraine may be forcibly splintered and parts of it dragged backwards to imperial attachments to Russia. And while commentators understandably focus on the geopolitical implications of this trauma, the country’s progress in local city planning, urban design and the ability to get around town like its European neighbors it aspired to be may also be stymied.
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