Monday, October 15, 2018

CBC The National 'Putin's paradise': How Russia is revamping Moscow to be one of Europe's most vibrant cities

While CBC television rarely attends my SFU Lectures, it did attend my talk at the Strelka Institute in Moscow. Chris Brown, who heads up CBC's Moscow Bureau and I did a subsequent interview as part of a 8-minute documentary on how Moscow is beautifying the city. You can find a summary of the event here   and the National segment here

In Moscow, Soviet-era drab and tacky are out.
Classy building facades, urban greenery, bike-sharing and pedestrian-only streets are in. And Canadian architect Michael Geller says it's stunning to see how fast the transformation has happened.
"They [visitors] expect it to be grey, dirty and full of graffiti, but it's none of that," Geller says admiringly, as he sips a craft beer at a patio in Kuznetsky Most, a coffee shop- and eatery-filled neighbourhood just a few blocks from the Kremlin.
While many western observers would consider Russia's authoritarian political system repressive, when it comes to public spaces the people in the capital are experiencing a new kind of freedom.
It's a sort of urbanism in overdrive.
"I am impressed in the last two years," Geller says of the new, polished feel of the downtown. "There is no doubt a lot of money has been spent. It's fabulous."
Ulitsa Il’inka in Moscow’s Kitay Gorod area is part of the city's massive urban renewal project. Almost 300 kilometres of downtown streets have been revitalized in the past three years. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
A frequent guest lecturer and judge for Russian architectural competitions, Strelka — one of Moscow's top urban design firms — has invited Geller to the city seven times in recent years to share Canada's best practices with young Russian designers.
Strelka has led many of the most prominent redevelopments in Moscow, including building facelifts, street redesigns and the creation of new green spaces.
In fact, Geller says he's increasingly bringing home as many good ideas to improve Canadian cities as he's leaving behind for the Russians.
Canadian architect and developer Michael Geller, in Moscow’s Kuznetsky Most neighbourhood. He says some of Moscow's design ideas hold lessons for improving Canadian cities. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)
"We talk about pedestrians being important, but we don't have streets like this [in Vancouver]," says Geller, of the recently tiled promenades that are now ubiquitous around the city's downtown.
"They encourage people to walk. They discourage automobiles."

Multibillion-dollar facelift

The number of urban renovation projects undertaken in Russia's capital since 2015 is dizzying.
More than 300 streets have been completely rebuilt under a program called Maya Ulitsa, or "My Street":
  • Thousands of unlicensed vending stalls were swept away, eliminating serious eyesores.
  • Major streets, such as Moscow's Garden Ring Road, were narrowed and sidewalks widened with more than half a million new paving stones.
  • Thousands of kilometres of piping and electrical wires were buried underground.
  • The facades of 12,000 buildings were given a facelift.
That's on top of the addition of hundreds of new parks, cultural landmarks and other monuments.
While some of the projects were directly related to the World Cup of soccer this past summer, the overall scope of the effort is far larger.
Estimates from Russian media sources (RBC) put the price tag at a stratospheric $1.6 billion US spent since 2015. The total outlay is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2020.
World Cup fans celebrate in one of Moscow’s many new pedestrian zones during the tournament in July. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Political goals

Almost all of that spending has focused on the area around Moscow's core.
To put that in perspective, the Moscow Times reported that the capital now accounts for a third of all municipal spending in Russia, with the remainder of the budget having to be shared between 40 other cities.
It's unheard of for any European or North American city to spend so much in such a short period of time on urban renewal.
Michal Murawski, of University College of London School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, seen on the bridge at Zaryadye Park in Moscow. He says the Putin government's huge expenditure on Moscow is a calculated political investment. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)
"It's a distinct policy now of the Russian state leadership and the Moscow leadership to ... harness the potential of urban improvement and architecture to create a sense of wellbeing," says Michal Murawski, a British scholar with the University College of London's School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.
Murawski has spent the past year in Moscow analyzing the social and political implications of the city's facelift.
"Urbanism is a stated priority of Putin's fourth term in power," he says.
Murawski adds that there's a long history of autocratic regimes beautifying cities as a way to glorify leaders. And by trying to make Moscow an urban showpiece, the Kremlin has made a political calculation.
Moscow’s Zaryadye Park, with its spectacular view of the Kremlin, has been nicknamed by critics as 'Putin’s Paradise.' (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
"It's designed to create support for the regime," he says.
In 2011, the Kremlin was shaken by street demonstrations that drew over 100,000 people, protesting declining living standards. Murawski says keeping people in the capital happy by creating better urban spaces is part of the strategy to insulate Putin if times get tough again.
Putin made reference to the improvements as he praised Moscow's recently re-elected mayor Sergei Sobyanin, in a speech in September.
"The atmosphere of the city has changed," said the President.
"Moscow,  with its rapid rhythm of life has become ... hospitable and cozy."

Zaryadye Park

The crown jewel in Moscow's urbanist redevelopment is Zaryadye Park, an oasis of nature and culture just a stone's throw from the Kremlin.
"It's extraordinary that the decision-makers were convinced that instead of squeezing profit of out of this piece of land — surely the most expensive piece of real estate in Moscow, if not Europe — that it should be a park," says Murawski.
Zaryadye contains an enormous amphitheatre, a media centre and grounds that feature examples of Russian geography, from the Arctic to the desert.
Its most stunning architectural feature is a platform extending out into the Moscow river that offers spectacular views of some of the city's best-known landmarks, including St. Basil's Cathedral and the buildings of the Kremlin.
No official price tag has ever been attached to Zaryadye, but Russian media outlets have published estimates ranging from $250 million US to $500 million.
"It's what a new stadium costs," Murawski says.
Zaryadye Park is one of the focal points of the modernization of Moscow's public infrastructure. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
And he says Putin has tied himself personally to the project.
"I think on the project website the wording was, 'with this single gesture of Putin, the golden land was given back to the city and its inhabitants.' So it's this grandiose gesture of gifting which ties this park inherently to politics."
Indeed, around Moscow some refer to Zaryadye as "Putin's Paradise."
The park has only been open for a year and many of the renovation projects in the city's core were completed just in time for this summer's World Cup, so many Russians are only now beginning to appreciate the scope of the changes.
At a recent street festival thrown in celebration of Moscow's 871st birthday, the pride many people felt in their capital's new look was evident.
"The city has changed dramatically for the better," says senior Vladimir Zubkov, as he lounged with his wife Lyudmila on a lawn chair in a temporary garden on the usually busy Tverskaya Street, which was closed and transformed into a park for the day.
Vladimir and Ludmilla Zubkov relax during a recent festival that saw Moscow's busiest street transformed into an urban garden of greenery. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
"The mayor [Sergei] Sobyanin has done a lot to lessen the traffic in Moscow. He made new roads. He cleaned up Moscow. Moscow has been transformed."
"Moscow is the best city in the world," Lyudmila adds.
"The most important thing is that our historic streets have been restored," says Anton Kirilov, another Moscow resident.
"Look how amazing they are. People here feel themselves and worthy and valuable and happy to be living in this country."
Recently, Murawski the anthropologist hosted an academic conference in Moscow — nicknamed "Zaryadyology" — that dug deeper into the themes behind Zaryadye and Moscow's urban renewal.
British anthropologist Michal Murawski says Moscow’s new urban improvements were designed with 'the selfie' in mind. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
He says a key question for many academics is whether greater urban freedom and a sense of wellbeing will inevitably lead to a demand for greater political freedoms.
"It's too early to judge that. It's much too early to see if Zarayde and Maya Ulitsa creates a kind of democracy and freedom through architecture," Murawski says.
"The only thing we have to go on is that people take more selfies [at the park] than they used to. And that people voted in increased numbers for Putin."
Michael Geller, the Canadian architect, says whatever political motivations have driven Moscow's urban renewal, they are secondary to how much more livable they have made the city.
"In the end, I think it's more important not to judge how something may have happened," he says.
"We have projects across Canada and the inspiration was questionable, but they became very livable places."

Friday, October 12, 2018

Opinion: Too many Vancouver candidates are promising more than they can deliver Vancouver Courier October 10, 2018

   "So, who should I vote for in the upcoming municipal election?”
     Hardly a day goes by lately when I’m not asked this question. Unlike previous elections when the choice was between two or three political slates, this year there are 10 parties and 158 candidates running for 27 positions for mayor, council, school and park board.
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      To assist voters, the city has prepared a comprehensive list of the candidates, their priorities, platforms, biographies, social media, contacts, and documents including statements of disclosure. (You can also find the Courier’s online candidate guide at
      The disclosure statements are revealing. Other than NPA mayoral candidate Ken Sim, few candidates own shares in any corporations or any real estate, except in some cases a principal residence.
      Does this matter? I think it does, since those elected will oversee a corporation with 2018 operating expenditures of $1.4 billion and capital expenditures of $426.4 million.
      As I write this column, I am reminded of the column I wrote before the 2014 election.
It included the story about a Grade 3 class election in which eight-year-old Jamie offered specific ideas about how to make his class a better place, while Olivia promised to give everybody free ice cream. While she had no idea how she would pay for it, she won by a landslide.
      During the 2014 election campaign we were promised a Broadway subway to UBC, the most open city hall in Canada, free swimming lessons, a $30-a-month transit pass, a tax on vacant foreign-owned properties, 4,000-plus units of rental housing and 1,000-plus childcare spaces.
Not surprisingly, few of these promises were fully realized.
      This year, most election promises relate to improving housing affordability. If elected, COPE councillors will ask the provincial government to immediately set a zero per cent rent increase for the next four years. This is akin to offering free ice cream to every renter. If such a policy was implemented, it would be disastrous for the city’s rental stock. No COPE candidates will be getting my vote.
      Mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart is promising 25,000 new purpose-built rental apartments over the next decade and a tripling of the Vacant Home Tax from one per cent to three per cent. While I respect Stewart’s political acumen, I question whether his first promise is realistic given new rent controls; his second promise would be a major mistake.
      Shauna Sylvester’s housing plan focuses on new co-op housing, which currently accounts for just two per cent of Vancouver’s housing stock. She wants to make Vancouver the “North American capital of co-ops and co-housing.” As CMHC’s program manager-social housing in the early 1970s, I approved many of Vancouver’s housing co-ops.
      Sylvester’s goal will require a significant increase in senior government funding or new attitudes on the part of financial institutions if it is to be realized.
      Rather than focus on stimulating thousands of new-build apartments or co-ops, the NPA proposes to allow two secondary suites in detached homes. Given how long it takes to approve and build new housing, this could well provide an effective short-term remedy.
      OneCity is proposing to downzone the Little Mountain site from its approved mix of condominium and rental housing to rental only. While I have consistently opposed this project, I shudder at the thought of this, and so should any fair-minded voter.
      So, who do I recommend?
      My recommendation for mayor is between Sylvester and Sim.
      Sylvester is personable and intelligent with considerable board and public policy experience. She would likely best manage what is expected to be a fractious council.
Sim offers no public sector experience. But by all accounts, he’s decent, caring and could bring some much-needed fiscal acumen to City Hall.
      My council recommendations include Vision’s Heather Deal and the Greens’ Adriane Carr, given the need for some institutional memory, joined by Pete Fry (Green Party), Colleen Hardwick (NPA) and independents Rob McDowell and Adrian Crook.
      At park board, I hope Stuart Mackinnon will be re-elected along with other Green candidates and the NPA’s John Coupar.
      My school trustee recommendations include the Greens’ Janet Fraser and NPA’s Chris Richardson.
      Space does not permit a more complete list. Therefore, I urge you to read the candidate profiles, attend remaining campaign events and make your own choices.Then cross your fingers. It’s going to be a fascinating election night and the next four years.

Opinion: What Vancouver can learn from Baku, Azerbaijan Vancouver Courier September 24, 2018

     The internet has certainly transformed our lives.
      I have been very conscious of this the past few days as I was asked to respond to a Vancouver journalist’s question about the impact of the new duplex zoning on land values, while touring the extraordinary, transformative architecture of Baku, Azerbaijan.
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      I came to this city for three reasons. As a 10-year-old stamp collector in Toronto, I was fascinated by the stamps of Azerbaijan. The country name seemed so exotic. Five decades later, at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, I wandered into the Azerbaijani pavilion where I saw futuristic images of Baku. At the time, I could not tell if they were drawings of what was to come or what had been built. I learned these were not drawings — these were photographs of actual buildings constructed with the country’s oil wealth.
While many Vancouverites get in a lather how over new duplexes might destroy the character of single-family neighbourhoods, the city of Baku, Azerbaijan continues to evolve architecturally, as evidenced by Flame Towers. Photo iStock
Two years later, I saw an illustration of Baku with what looked like three giant slugs superimposed on the city skyline. I had to check Wikipedia to see if this too was the result of someone’s imagination or if these were real buildings. They were real buildings.

Not only are the buildings extraordinary to view in the day time, at night they are lit up with constantly changing colours and images. At times, they appear like giant flames on the horizon.
These buildings, one of which is the same height as Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel, seemed so out of context to me, I wondered what the locals thought of them. Were they considered a blight on the landscape? Were they disrespectful to the city’s medieval Islamic history. I discovered that, on the contrary, everyone was proud of the development.
      I was told that thousands of years ago, Zoroastrianism, a religion based around worshipping fire, was popular. These towers played homage to this past.
      Over the centuries, the city has been constantly transformed from an Islamic, medieval-walled city to a centre of lavish buildings built by wealthy oil barons, followed by an era of dull, Soviet architecture, and today’s extraordinary contemporary designs.
      As I wandered around the city, I could not help but compare it with what is happening in Vancouver. In Baku, they have such extraordinary juxtapositions, while in Vancouver, many worry how new duplexes might destroy the character of single-family neighbourhoods.
      While I too question whether the recent council decision needed to be rushed through, I welcome the housing choices this change will bring, knowing many Courier readers would like to own or rent a 1,600-square-foot duplex in their neighbourhood, rather than be forced to move away.
      It is worth noting that Portland, Ore. recently voted in a similar zoning measure. Edmonton has gone one step further and is allowing what some call “pork-chop” lots, which allow a property owner to subdivide the rear portion of their property, while maintaining a narrow strip along the street to meet legal requirements.
      Now that Vancouver is allowing duplexes, I hope that “semi-detached” homes (where property sits on its own legal lot without any requirement for a strata-arrangement) and fee-simple row houses (which can also be individually owned) will not be far off in our future.
     But getting back to Baku. One of the things that struck me about this city, which is of a similar size to Metro Vancouver, was the number of museums. There are literally dozens of them, including museums for bread, history, modern art, ethnology, literature (there’s even one for miniature books), customs, medicine, agriculture, religion and, most recently, a carpet museum designed to look like a roll of carpet.
      I couldn’t help but compare this with Vancouver with its very limited number of museums.
In this regard, there is a group of architects and planners who are hoping that Vancouver might one day have an “Urbanarium,” or museum of the city.
      It would tell the story of how the city came to be and feature displays on various urban topics. It might also include a large model into which every new building would be inserted.
      As we watch our city transform, let’s hope that one day an Urbanarium will allow residents and visitors to Vancouver learn more about our past and future.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Back Home in Astana

    It was very nice to return to Astana. While it seemed quite exotic the first time I visited last May, this time it seemed like I was returning home after Tbilisi and Baku. I stayed at the Marriott, which is well located, somewhat removed from the Radisson where I stayed the first time. The Innovation Week events were held in the hotel’s conference facility.
The view from my room. This is not the Kazakhstan most people expect if their only previous contact was Borat!
Given the choice between local vodka and Finnish vodka, I had to drink the local!

There were two days of talks, and the speakers include architects from Moscow, Spain, Jean Nouvel’s firm in Paris, and Portugal. Oh yes, and a Canadian. There were also speakers talking about Big Data, and innovative projects in Latvia including the Ghetto Games.

My favourite session featured Russian architect Sergei Tchuban who recently won a major European award, and one of Astana's best known architects. While the English translation of Tchuban’s talk was a bit difficult to follow (at times I thought I had a better understanding of what was being said in Russian, than the translator) his architecture was delightful. His thesis is that cities need to have a balance between 'look at me' buildings and good quality 'background' buildings. He designs both.
     I gave two talks. One explored innovative approaches to master planning and housing based on what’s been happening in Vancouver, like the talk I gave in Moscow. The other looked at how Astana might increase its attractiveness as a cultural city.

One of the students presents the results from their Charrette

The audience was predominantly young architects and student architects, some of whom also participated in design charrettes that were taking place while the talks were happening. They later presented their work to the full audience.

It wasn't all work and no play. A delightful evening with Антон Надточий of and Dos

The closing night, an elegant reception was held at which design awards were presented for local architectural projects. I was given a bottle of Rada designer vodka, a nice change from the bottles of BC red which I usually receive in Vancouver.

  After the event I toured around the city. A highlight was a visit to the round ball at the EXPO2017 site. The former Kazakhstan pavilion, it now houses 8 levels of displays on alternative energy. It is most impressive, especially since the country’s financial health is very much tied to oil! Indeed, a young man who served as a guide told me his is a university studying the oil industry, even though he’s surrounded by other energy sources including wind, solar, water, and space.

A new bridge over the river helps connects neighbourhoods and contribute to Astana's walkability

  It was a delight to be back in Astana. I very much enjoyed the experience, and appreciated the attention from the local organizers. My only regret was not spending more time with Indira Max, one of the key organizers, with whom I spent a lot of time on my first trip. Maybe next time. Thanks to all for a most fascinating four days in Astana.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The leafy city of Almaty

I first learned about Almaty last May when I participated as a juror in a competition to select a consultant team to prepare a new master plan for Astana. Prior to Astana being made the capital 21 years ago, Almaty was the country's capital, and as described in guidebooks, a beautiful cosmopolitan city with tree-lined streets and a mountain backdrop.
Many people urged me to see it, so when I was invited by the organizers of the Astana Plan competition and others to participate in Innovation Week in Astana and Almaty, I decided to speak in both cities, which are about a 1 and half hour flight apart.

I only stayed one night at a dated Hyatt Regency Hotel but got a taste of the city, and the local food, wine and vodka. Arriving in my room after dark, I was intrigued by an illuminated circular building I could see out my window. It turned out to be a circus, dating back to the days of Russian occupation.

The conference was held next to the hotel in a gathering space called SmArtPoint. At first, I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to understand much of the printed materials since my Google Translate app didn’t work well in Kazak. But then I quickly realized all of the materials were in Russian, the principal language in Almaty and Astana. However, I need not have worried when a charming man in blue jeans came up to introduce himself. "I am your translator", he said. When I joked that he should feel free to improve on what I say in his translation, he responded that on the contrary, I was the needle. He was just the thread. (I'm sure it's even more poetic in Russian!)
Hopefully the next time I am in Kazakstan I will be able to return to Almaty for a more extended visit. And if the developer who approached me after my talk to see if I would be interested in helping them with a 40 hectare site follows up, I may well be back!