Moscow's new Chinese approach to urbanization

Under new leadership, Moscow is taking a decidly modern approach to urbanization. But can the city overcome its struggle with political fraud? 

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Under new leadership, Moscow is taking a decidly modern approach to urbanization. But can the city overcome its struggle with political fraud? 

American movies usually depict Moscow as a dark, drab, and dangerous place. Burly neckless mafia are central characters. 

But the real Moscow isn’t any more like the old gangster movie depictions than New York or Chicago. In fact, Moscow is an easy city to fall in love with. The Czars may have been brutal but they had pretty good architectural taste. On this old framework Moscow is actively and very smartly trying to become one of the world’s mega-global cities.

Early in December, on the edge of Russian winter, Moscow put on a spectacular Global City Forum featuring a stunning panel of international experts from all over the world, especially from China. Whatever differences Russia and China have nationally, there are no barriers between the big cities of China and Russia. Both nations are embracing the notion that city-regions are the drivers of the new economy.
Indeed, as China urbanizes to industrialize, Moscow is urbanizing because of the de-industrialization of the Soviet factory towns that dotted central Russia. The early post-Soviet era attempts to resurrect steel and fabrication industries are over. This transition from an old managed economy to a new innovation entrepreneurial economy is, of course, far from easy.

Unlike China and Japan, Russia has no history of small factories to draw on. It does have a very rich culture of craftsmen and artisans who can make almost anything from wood and glass, but these fine arts are in competition with cheap knock-offs from the developing world. The acceptance of low quality substitutes for handmade luxury items baffles many Russians.

Still, there’s no choice: Russia must meet the challenges of the modern world. So, Sergey Sobyanin, the new mayor of Moscow, and his team are setting a course to change Moscow from a sleepy Soviet-managed city to one that will compete with the rest of the world. This explains the invitation to Chinese cities to play key roles in the transformation of Moscow. As the Russians acknowledge, almost no cities in the world are growing faster or smarter than Shanghai and Beijing.

Mayor Sobyanin is taking some very bold moves to make Moscow a city of brains instead of factories. Moreover, the mayor, with central government permission, is expanding the boundaries of the city to make a region about the size of Greater London or the New York region. His rationale for this expansion is to control unwanted and un-needed peripheral land uses, like single family suburban housing that will gobble up more land and extend auto based infrastructure.

Instead the inner ring of the city, with its unused and under-used rail land and surplus heavy industry-oriented infrastructure, is seen as ripe for redevelopment into the kind of knowledge-intensive industrial activities that have emerged in Chicago’s core over the last decade. Sobyanin and his team want much of the non-essential government work to move out of the core of the city and into new surrounding nodes. Much the way Washington, D.C., has.

Taming the automobile, in a city where the car is the symbol of wealth and mobility, with streets carrying as many as eight lanes, will be the most challenging agenda for the mayor. 

The most difficult challenge for Muscovites, though, is the struggle over the destiny of their fledgling post-Soviet democracy. The national elections during the first week of December spurred strong demonstrations in the center of the city. More than 60,000 people of all ages and classes called for a re-run of a very tainted electoral process, flawed — according to international observers — by large scale ballot stuffing and voter fraud. Many who witnessed these electoral abuses reported them in the press, on television, and via social media.

It’s clear that before a great city is re-planned, some semblance of democratic electoral process will need to be installed.

But Moscow has good bones. The rivers and the Kremlin give the city a natural flow. The imported Parisian architecture is a good building block for urban renewal. Failed modernist architecture of the ‘50s-70’s is crumbling on its own. Moscow is calling for an international competition in late 2012 to set out a direction for change. A new physical plan for the city is essential.

But the real test for Moscow will be whether it can generate distinguished civic associations like SPUR (San Francisco Urban Renewal) or the Regional Plan Association (New York) to guide, protect, and energize the city. To create what Peter the Great set out to create — one of the great cities of the world.

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