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Transforming the organisation of urban systems in Russia was the focus of a panel discussion held by IUE as part of the 10th Saburov Readings

On February 14th, 2019, IUE held a 'round-table’ event “Transforming the Organisation of Urban Systems in Russia: Latent Potential for or Fundamental Constraints to Economic Development?” as part of the 10th Saburov Readings.

Nadezhda Kosareva, President, IUE, moderated the event. She noticed that this year the anniversary of Saburov Readings has been taking place under the general theme “Inheritance and Heirs in Times of Change”. Eugeny Saburov is an outstanding economist, politician, poet and playwright. He was working out a theory of signals and filters for public goods, a system of assessment of human-capital investment as a basis for humanitarian economics. He had given a lot of attention to the development of local self-governance in Russia. For years, he had headed the Institute for the Development of Education with the National Research University “Higher School of Economics”, and eventually, the Federal Institute for the Development of Education. He was the first Chairperson of IUE Board of Trustees.

Alexander Puzanov, IUE Director General, was the keynote speaker. He reviewed the latest data on the current trends in the organisation of urban systems in Russia, including in respect of cities and urban agglomerations. He highlighted the major trends and provided his forecast findings. According to Alexander Puzanov, 25 years ago, at the time of transition to market economy, some trends – which should have played a determining role in the development of Russia’s cities – were forecasted. “Sufficient time has passed so that we could assess the current situation and have an idea of the new urban policy that we need and what we want to come to in terms of urban administration”, argues Alexander Puzanov. IUE research has found that the pattern of the development of urban agglomerations is uneven. The main problem is the urban development imbalances. “This needs to be well understood so that urban policies be shaped out competently across regions. This should inform future decision-making”, concluded Alexander Puzanov.

Alexei Novikov, President of Habidatum, a company engaged in analysis and processing of urban environment data for transport-, real estate- and urban economy infrastructure projects. He used the case of Moscow, being a large urbanized area, to present the model designed to identify and determine the typology of a ‘system of core locations’. According to Alexei Novikov, practical significance of using the model is that it enables a more efficient urban planning, impact assessment of projects and business risk assessment and also the forecasting of housing price dynamics. Introduction of the dynamic model in the general plan of a city will help wipe out the overcentralization - the legacy of the Soviet time – and might be the new driver for economic development of major cities countrywide.

Natalia Zubarevich, Professor at the Department of Geography of Moscow State University, reckons that the main thing about the research being carried out is that development follows different courses in various cities. The Spatial Development Strategy of the Russian Federation approved by the Government, as submitted, leaves that part out. Would it be appropriate to set as a ‘top-down’ priority the development of certain cities and support them financially? The expert is of the view that grants are good in themselves, but they should be extended on a competitive basis to those who can offer something, demonstrate what they can do and how they are going to do it. The expert believes that the problems associated with the development of Russia’s cities lie in institutional structures. As long as budget formulation and distribution and also budget mandates of cities remain, as they exist today, there would be no point in preparing the strategies.

Andrei Bokov, Honorary President of the All-Russia Public Organization “The Union of Architects of Russia”, in his speech elaborated on the subject of imbalances in development of urban agglomerations. Similar to ‘white’, ‘grey’ and ‘black’ economies there exist affluent territories, at one extreme, and completely distressed, at the other, and large ‘grey’ mass in between. Besides, in the process of urbanization we not entirely take into account the need for building up the infrastructure adapted to suit the environment, and also for promoting the policy of good-neighborliness, argues Andrei Bokov. In respect of the core locations being formed we do not realize that these can be of two types – downtown areas that are frequently renewed, without sustainable communities being formed there, and historic and cultural, ‘emotional’, city centers. The urban development practice, as it pertains to spatial planning, completely lacks the differentiation as mentioned above. Investing makes no sense unless a process of self-development is triggered in respect to the environments under formation, concluded the expert.

Alexander Kolontai, Deputy Director of the Public Autonomous Institution “Genplan Institute of Moscow” agreed with Andrei Bokov that there are significant development distortions in the western part of the country, and the decision on whom give the opportunity to earn the money to should not be prompted from the top. Alexander Kolontai highlighted the work on urban management standards done by the experts of his institution. The findings suggest that in Russia a primitive approach to the process is used. But we need to be fully aware of the purpose and end-users of urban development. According to the expert, five “region associations”, displaying a precondition for development, have now been formed. Rather than keep churning out gigantic high-cost agencies and institutions, we have to create the enabling environment to ensure the interaction between regions and municipalities inside the existing formations, thus optimizing the resource allocation.

Olga Vendina, Leading Research Fellow, Laboratory of Geopolitical Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), believes that the debate revealed a profound contradiction between the dynamic changes in cities and obdurate attitudes, sticking to traditional views. We seem to forget that a city is a society being involved in making a lot of decisions on its development, argues Olga Vendina. In fact, a society may be arranged in a special hierarchical way, and, therefore, be interested in ‘white’, ‘grey’ and ‘black’ environments, as described by Andrei Bokov, if only because this ensures informal mobility. Olga Vendina went on to say that, in addressing the development issue, we talk in evolutionary terms, while leaving aside such aspects as attitudes of people towards the environment, administrative resources, political interests. These contradictions are overlooked entirely when it comes to understanding the urban development, and that is a challenge facing now all major cities, concluded the expert.

Andrei Gnezdilov, Chief Architect, architectural firm “Ostozhenka”, Alexander Kolontai, Deputy Director of the Public Autonomous Institution “Genplan Institute of Moscow”, Emil Marquardt, Professor, HSPA RANEPA, took an active part in the debates.

In the discussion, the following participants shared their viewpoints: V. Shuper, Leading Research Fellow, Institute of Geography, RAS; Ye. Shugrina, Director, Center for Support and Maintenance of Local Self-Government Authorities, HSPA RANEPA; V. Kirpichnikov, Chairperson, non-commercial partnership “Center for Municipal Innovation Development”; K. Yankov, Head of the Laboratory of Regional Economic Forecasting, the Institute of Economic Forecasting, RAS.

The panel discussions also featured A. Yelin, Director a.i., Department of Territorial Development Planning, MEDT RF, who emphasized the importance of interaction between ministries and expert community in elaborating proposals on enhancing the country’s spatial development, including territorial planning.

“We sought to examine the issues raised at the round table in a comprehensive manner, through such aspects as social geography, architecture, formal and informal institutions. And we are pleased to see that it has now become possible to embrace a broader vision for the development of a city from various professional standpoints, in a way that had not been done before,” concluded Nadezhda Kosareva, after having thanked all participants for their contributions to the interesting discussion.