In 2018 I organized a study trip to Moscow with students from the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture. They all felt it was an adventure and all of them had imagery of Moscow in the back of their minds that for a long time have shaped the international image of the city – grey, big and unpleasant. What they got to see did not match their expectations in the slightest. What they got to see was a city that still was big and, in some places, still grey but also a city that was very pleasant to be in – a city that radiated happiness and a positively loaded public life. Life that found its summary in the swings on Triumphalnaya Square. Moscow had aspired to become a world city at par with other great metropolises and it was on a straight path to get there.
The interesting thing about the great metropolises is that they have that status because they cater to the local needs and demands and in doing so generate a unique DNA that is attractive to tourists and international travelers as well. Moscow pursuing its own path in typical Moscow style – big and bold. The MY STREET program was established which over the course of a short period of time lead to a complete overhaul of many of the central public spaces in the city. Renewal was imminent since many of them hastily had been sacrificed to cars and tarmac when the market economy claimed its space after the end of the Soviet Union.
MY STREET did not more and no less than bringing back public life into public space. People started walking again. Cycling became more popular than ever and more and more people prefer the much-improved public transport over using the car. Once noisy boulevards that felt more like inner city motorways became the locations where shops opened their shopfronts to the reappearing customers, where little terraces emerged in summer and where families took a walk equipped with strollers, kickboards and kids bicycles. Achieving all this in a short time is an incredible feat. Moscow had developed its own path to becoming a world city – using what many thought would be the most unlikely tool – public space. Muscovites took pride in that, showing around friends and celebrating the newly found pleasures. Being a frequent and regular visitor to Moscow, I could experience these shifts on a daily basis. Business meetings moved from nondescript meeting rooms with generic furniture and bad coffee to the restaurants terraces and street cafes and conversations lost the stiffness that the previous locations seemed to lead to.
But all the successes booked should not hide the fact that so far, they only were focused on the central areas of Moscow and the main spatial framework: the rings, the boulevards, the main streets and the big parks. Most of the ‘hinterland’ has not profited yet, neither have the prospekts, the industrial belt and the micro rayons – in other words – the biggest part of Moscow. Ending the MY STREET program now therefore also ends a phase of Moscow’s evolution prematurely. The city had and still has the chance to become the world city it aspires to be and that it deserves to be, but it is one thing to aspire to that status. Cementing and sustaining that status requires more than a program that gets buried as soon as it started having a positive effect. It needs policy that is enshrined in the DNA of a city administration. That test Moscow has failed so far. But in all consternation about the untimely death of a success story, there is hope that Muscovites have evolved with MY STREET. They have seen what is possible now and they can keep pushing for similar changes to also come to their front doors in the more remote zones of the city. And maybe that offers the chance to reinvent MY STREET to become MY NEIGHBOURHOOD, MY COURTYARD, MY STAIRCASE – programs that lead to change with the local people and not only for them. Covid19 could give this an unplanned boost. We can see in almost any city in the world, that in the light of the pandemic, they have significantly increased their focus on and investment in public space, promoting walking and cycling and making room for more outdoor activities. Public space has become even more important than it used to be half a year ago.
I will keep coming to Moscow on a frequent basis and I will keep enjoying the fact that I can walk or cycle from one place to the other. I will keep enjoying terraces and parks and maybe I will then also have the chance to do that not only around the boulevard ring and in Gorky Park but also in Maryino, Tushino or Izmaylovo.
by Markus Appenzeller.