Today I gave an online lecture about the agglomeration of Saratov in Russia. When invited I thought – nice! Making a case for strengthening cities in the region and reduce the load on the central city. With further research I realized that there are barely any cities around. Of course that does not come as a surprise, given the Russian urban landscape differs a lot from Western European and even North American conditions.
But what can an agglomeration be in the absence of a more or less close connection of urban centers? Is the term agglomeration the right one? Or – to justify its validity – do we need to rethink the very concept of agglomeration?
To make matters worse, Saratov is not only pretty much alone out there with the next bigger cities Voronezh, Samara and Volgograd all around 500 km away. The urban region is also shrinking. It lost about 10% of its population since 1989 and the forecast for the Russian Federation does not provide too much hope that there will be significantly more people living in the region in the future.
I believe all that creates room for new ideas and a new concept of agglomeration. I would like to call it ‘MULTIGLOMERATION’.
What is it? It is basically a re-evaluation of existing assets in and around Saratov. Dacha settlements, villages, heritage sites, the Volga, big natural landscapes, agriculture, beaches and the urban core itself all are elements of this different agglomeration. Covid-19 has shown us that we do not need to be in the same place all the time to communicate, collaborate or be economically productive. We do not need centralized supply systems anymore. Technology has given us more freedom to chose where we want to work, live or enjoy our leisure time. In fact, Dachas that used to be private gardens to grow food have outgrown that function and turned into holiday and weekend settlements with more and more people not only spending their leisure time there but also work from their countryside house that in itself has gone from a shed to a villa with all amenities. 5G networks and mobile computing will further reduce the need to be in the office and liberate us even more, making a tent somewhere in the wilderness a workplace. The network that could emerge out of a revaluation and improvement of the existing spatial and highly specific assets paints a picture of a colorful multi-faceted urban landscape.
What is needs? For the Multiglomeration to emerge and thrive, high speed communication and smart connectivity are needed. 5G wireless should be available everywhere. Connectivity that can respond to the changes in use over the course of a week and a year. Decentralized bus or boat systems, decentralized food good supply systems and easy to build and maintain slow movement networks are the key to this to avoid the Multiglomeration losing its quality by losing the accessibility of all the places. Once connectivity is there, one can also think about small scale decentral improvements of the different puzzle pieces that constitute the Multiglomeration. Small community or sports facilities in Dacha settlements add boost the quality of them. The protection of natural reserves ensures they keep their natural beauty, and cultural and historic places profit from small scale hotels and cafés and vice versa.
How to start? I have been asked how to achieve this. I believe it need a joint vision of all parties involved. Central city and local political leaders, the economy and citizens need to agree on the idea of the Multiglomeration as their chance to grow – not in the number of people that live in it but in the way they can live and enjoy their life. Once that is achieved, all other steps become self-fulfilling prophecies.
by Markus Appenzeller