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Rebuilding Ukrainian cities – attempting a positive outlook

Rebuilding Ukrainian cities – attempting a positive outlook

Markus Appenzeller

The war in Ukraine and the Russian aggression are still continuing and most likely that will not change in the foreseeable future. It is horrifying to see this useless destruction and the deaths and tragedy this inflicts on the innocent citizens of a peace loving country and its cities.  The residents of Mariupol, Kyiv or all the other cities destroyed did nothing else than doing what more than half of the world population does: living in cities.

Yesterday, in my – equally mindless and increasingly desperate – search for the glimpses of hope and good in all the bad news I stumbled across the posting a British psychologist that reflected on our behaviour in times like this. I lost the original posting but in essence she stated that humans have the tendency to revert to nostalgia in times of crisis  and watershed moments. We look forward by actually looking backwards. We hope that it will blow over and things will be the se as they were back in the good old days. That thinking puts us in the waiting line for history to the revert. But the past is gone and it will never come back. She suggests that accepting things as they are allows us to better cope with the situation and it also puts us in a position where we can start giving the future shape.

I believe we all should start thinking about the future. A future that seems like a distant, blurred and unrealistic dream. A future that leaps across the pain, the death, the hardships, the war crimes and the destruction. A future that makes the unbearable present a bit more bearable and at the same time reminds us every day that for it to happen the madness of war has to stop: The reconstruction of Ukrainian cities.

Every time a war erased cities, the question arose how to rebuild them. Several ‘schools’ have emerged over the course of time. Especially in cities that had become battlefields this discussion lead to very different approaches.

Cologne after World War 2 – source: wikimedia.org

The ‘Restoring History’ approach

Wars lead to a huge loss of collective memory in the form of buildings, streets, and squares. The spaces where the significant moments of human life manifested themselves are erased. Therefore, it is a natural human sentiment to re-establish these spaces, ideally better than they were before. After World War 2, cities like Munich or Ulm with its big gothic church tried to do that. But the reconstruction was never done literally. The tight medieval streets were made wider, the architecture clearly had a modern tint and lacked the opulent historic decoration because of a lack of materials and money. The result was something that was neither old nor new but a compromise. Today these places feel charmingly 50s and the use of the traditional European city model with its streets, blocks and squares still works well today.

Critical reconstruction

In post Nazi Germany architecture and city planning were under scrutiny – especially any architectural language that referred to German building traditions. Critical reconstruction tried to combine the old with the new. Destroyed buildings or entire pieces of urban fabric were not erased and rebuilt in historic language. The buildings were kept as ruins and parts that had to be added or changed to make them working buildings again were done in an explicitly modernist language. The atrocities of war would remain visible while the new raises from its debris. It is both a daily reminder that this should never happen again and a ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ moment.

Tabula Rasa

‘New times need new cities’ was a mantra of the protagonists of Modernist city planning. The medieval cities had to make space for the airy, sunny and green visions that married city and landscape and finally made room for the motorcar. Cities could become the living environment for the new man. War and it’s almost total deletion of cities created that condition. They could be rebuilt from scratch, doing away with all the perceived shortcomings of their predecessors. Rotterdam embraced that model in the most radical way. The entire city center was cleared and basically replaced by a modernist ensemble, turning the city into a giant modernist experiment with all its positive and negative consequences.

Informal piecemeal rebuilding

One can also rebuild a city without a plan. That is what happens most often. Individuals rebuild their houses, infrastructure gets repaired – all without a vision or a bigger goal other than fixing things to work again more or less like they did before. Since there typically is a lack of resources – materials and money – the result often is less convincing and more simple and while the most basic needs have been served, many problems related to quick fixed infrastructure and hastily pieced together buildings last or keep returning regularly.

Contemporary repair

Repairing the city and replacing the lost by contemporary solutions is what can be seen all over Western Europe in cities that have not been destroyed entirely. The gaps the destruction of World War II left in London for example have been filled with modernist buildings. Partially destroyed factories in Germany got modern additions, boosting their technological competitiveness and helping Germany’s astonishing recovery.

Postwar reconstruction in London – closing the gaps. Source: wikimedia.org

All of these examples are taken from the past. But – what should be done in the future?

It is good to see, that there are many initiatives by designers, volunteers, professional organizations and people that just feel they need to do something to help. They want to re:build Ukraine, construct new buildings, rebuild bridges, libraries, sports centres – you name it. This is great as it shows the spirit an inflicted catastrophe does unleash, and it should be used. BUT: Is this watershed moment not an opportunity to achieve more? According to recent estimates Ukraine needs 100 Billion Euros to rebuild the country. A staggering amount, but an amount Ukrainians and the world will provide – and probably even more. This money is serving a political purpose as much as it does provide funding to rebuild the country. But – it can only be spent once. Spent wisely it can be an investment in the future, spent in the wrong way, it will  become a liability of future generations.

Ukraine did not ask for this war,  but healing the country’s physical wounds can be the tool to propel the country fast forward. It can overcome more of its Soviet past and the cultural imprint the USSR . It can define its own cultural identity much more strongly and it can leapfrog to achieve many other goals more quickly.

High on that additional agenda will (have to) be energy autarcy – namely independence from Russian fossils. Why not opting for carbon neutrality and a complete switch to renewables? Ukraine can embrace new models of spatial development. Why not rebuilding cities with less focus on cars and a bigger role of public transport? Why not accomodating all the modifications climate change will require in the years to come already now? A large part of the energy hungry steel and mining industry is heavily damaged. Why not embracing a new economy with high tech production, research & development and a porduction focussed startup culture? Ukraine is an agricultural superpower. Why not leading the way towards a more sustainable way of farming?

Many of these agenda items are closely intertwined with city development. Therefore new urban policy and programs that help achieving the defined goals is paramount. Defining these policies should not be the work of foreign architects ‘solving the problem’ with ‘the best experts’. This has been critizised by Iryna Mastevko, the deputy vice chancellor and Oleg Drozdov, the founder of the Kharkiv School of Architecture and rightfully so. It should be a task for Ukrainian urbanists, landscape planners and architects to define their own future. They should determine how their own country will operate in the future. They should define what the policies are. Of course it is good to use knowledge that exists elsewhere and occasionally a foreigner might be the right expert, but there should be no copy – paste from elsewhere.

How to do that in practice?

How to deal with the sheer size of the task of rebuilding a country? And how to achieve that in a system with decentralized power and authority of city making?

Cities should to be rebuilt mainly by locals. They are the collective memory of the place, and they are experts in the qualities and problems of their place. City administrations should get the authority to ultimately decide how they rebuild. The role of the central government and the presidential administration can become that of the body providing funding. To achieve the overarching policy goals, this funding can be tied to compliance with defined performance indicators or the achievement of certain goals. But money should also come with expertise. Not in the form of a team from outside that ‘does the job’ but in the form of a presidential task force that is involved in the projects and helps the local teams achieving more in training them and advising them proactively.

The advantage of such an approach encourages diversity in solution finding and further development. Every region, every city, every village will develop its own local solutions, but they will also learn from each other. KPI and objective based funding is flexible and supports this diversity as well as the dynamic development environment it will be used for. A task force will allow managing many projects without micromanaging and without setting up a big, slow and costly planning bureaucracy.

I have met many great architects and urbanists in Ukraine. What united most of them was the incredible energy, the belief in a better future, and the entrepreneurial attitude towards making things happen. How great would it be to see as many of them as possible as part of that task force that not only beliefs in a better future, but successfully shapes it.


Cover image: Synel @ depositphotos.com

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