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Polycentric city: what future lies ahead of St. Petersburg

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St. Petersburg hosted the International Week of Urban Planning – Urban Week. It is one of the largest international events dedicated to forming and developing city environment. Alexey Mikhalev found out whether urban planning poses any dangers to St. Petersburg’s skyline or would become its safe protection.

Yuriy Zinchuk, host: “This week St. Petersburg hosted the International Week of Urban Planning – Urban Week. It is one of the largest international events dedicated to forming and developing city environment. Studying materials from this conference, I recalled a great expression by Konstantin Paustovskiy, which I read back in school. He wrote – the city must be as wonderful as century-old parks, forests and the sea”. Many experts agree – the most obvious way for St. Petersburg’s development is polycentrism. In essence, that’s what Peter the Great did in his time. Remember his polycentric – speaking in modern terms – decisions: Lomonosov, Kronschtadt, Peterhof.

Pyotr Alekseevich proved to be a professional urban planner. And what now? How can we – living ion the 21st century – can retain the city’s architectural heritage while stimulating growth and development of the 5-million-strong megapolis? How can we grow the tempo of housing construction while building lower-storied buildings?

Does urban planning pose threat to the city’s skyline or would become its protector? Our observer Alexey Mikhalev with the details

The agenda was defined with just three words: “Quality of city environment”. Dozens of reports were all about this. Particularly – about polycentricism. Briefly speaking, instead of one overloaded center, St. Petersburg will have several points of attraction. Which will form a totally different city.

Oleg Barkov, CEO of developing company: “We are the biggest non-capital city in the northern hemisphere. Naturally, many principles of development remind those of big cities. But we can see how different we are becoming now – in politics, in global economy. We are different”

In a sense that European ways are not universally applicable to St. Petersburg. Hopes that it would develop due to satellite-towns, as it had been thought until recently, have been described as unlikely.

Vladimir Linov, renowned architect: “Development of St. Petersburg agglomeration is impossible now under such scenario. It seems that the city will develop differently and use its inner resources” 

Inner reserves are – first and foremost – about the industrial belt. The one which separates central St. Petersburg from the suburbs like a flat wall. It consist of obsolete enterprises, most of which have been out of operation for two decades and have been used as warehouses

Alexey Mikhalev, reporter: “Here’s one of the most vivid examples of this belt – the “Krasniy Treugolnik” factory. Almost like a city within the city. You can object – this is a typical industrial zone, the outskirts of the Obvodnoy Canal. But there are plenty of those even in good neighborhoods. Many at the Vasilievskiy Island, at the Petrogradskaya side, by the Chernaya river, not to mention southern suburbs. And now this so-called grey belt makes up 40 percent of St. Petersburg’s main territory”

This 40% part will accommodate not one, not two, but several centers – residential, educational, commercial. London’s experience suggests such projects are real. One of the forum’s participants – British architect Bernie Fawkes – told of the “Battersea Power station’s” nearest future. The plant which was made globally famous by the Animals album of the Pink Floyd band has been abandoned for more than 30 years. It was preserved as a masterpiece of art-deco. And it bear fruit – an Irish construction company bought the building for 400 million pounds, willing to create a residential area here, which would look like the Garden of Eden. Its amazing though that both the station’s history and its location remind those of the “Krasniy Treugolnik” factory.

The central part will change too – partly because of the large-scale project “Nevskaya ratusha”, which would be located at an abandoned six-hectare tram park. 24 state bodies – including 9 committees of the Smolniy – will move in here at the end of 2015. Big businesses will gradually leave the city center, moving to St. Petersburg’s southern suburbs, depriving the Nevskiy of traffic jams. This is part of actual green economy – urban planners’ dream.

Boris Yushenkov, coordinator of city communities organization of St. Petersburg “Civic Platform: “This is a sublimation of hipsterism. They are tired of doing selfies. They want to leave something behind. And urban planning is very convenient – its biking, greenery, pedestrian areas, exhibitions, events”

Residential houses. In 2015 alone, St. Petersburg will receive 3 million square meters of new housing. When the quantity problem is solved, the quality problem arises. Consumers are growing less interested in urban jungles, which used to be the face of urbanization.

Alexey Mikhalev, reporter: “But this is not urbanization nor urban planning, It could have been that 50-60 years ago. For instance, in a post-war Paris, when people had to be relocated from favelas, literally carton boxes into some kind of houses. That’s when concrete monsters appeared, which found their way into USSR in the 1970s. However, in the 21st century, nobody’s building like that anymore. First, because its bad for health – respiratory diseases travel from one floor to another. Secondly, because it breeds criminals”

There are scientific estimations which say – the maximum should be 9 floors. If we’re not talking about an elite skyscraper. Europe’s norm is six. St. Petersburg moves in that direction.

Vladimir Linov, renowned architect: “Vice-governor Oganesyan says the right things – density of population in new areas has to be limited to 400-450 people per hectare of a district. This will limit the height of buildings too”

After a flurry of hot debates, the forum though came with a unifying thesis – urban planning is not only about practical matters, but more so about the city’s identity. And Strategy-2030 – which had been thoroughly dissected the whole past week – is not about the number of square meters of new residencies, not about kilometers of new roads, but about what St. Petersburg will be like and how we are going to live in it

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