​Tatiana Guk: “A document that determines the development of the city has to be flexible”

In this issue, we are talking to the director of the Genplan Institute of Moscow about trends that determine the future, about the 70-year history of the Institute, which is celebrating an anniversary this year, about electronic computing in the field of urban planning and about international experience accumulated in this area, as well as about how the Institute is involved with other cities, and about the perfect document for the city development, which has to be flexible and strategic.

Julia Tarabarina

Interviewed by:
Julia Tarabarina
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov

29 September 2021
This spring, the Genplan Institute of Moscow conducted a foresight session; for three months you were talking about a 30-year perspective. What can you say about the results of the foresight now? What issues did this discussion reveal?

Tatiana Guk:

It is important for us to understand what our city will look like and how its people will change in the future. In order to explore this subject, the Genplan Institute of Moscow, supported by Moskomarkhitektura and in partnership with the National Research University Higher School of Economics, the Financial University, and the RubiQ company, organized a foresight conference called “Moscow 2050”. Of course, the results of the foresight conference did not become ready-made solutions for us, but they did help us find out what will influence the development of the city in the future, and what technologies will affect the development of urban construction. Another important result of this work was understanding that we stay within the world trends. All the vectors of development, described by our sociologists, demographic experts, economists, urbanists, and construction experts are tied up with the world trends.

Tatiana Guk, director of the Genplan Institute of Moscow
Copyright: © Genplan Institute of Moscow

Which trends, focused on the future, could you describe as the key ones?

In my opinion, these are the strengthening of urbanization, merging of megalopolises with their agglomerations, and forming the city as a point of personal growth. Of course, this is fraught with risks, such as an aging population, increased migration, and the need to integrate migrants into the cultural environment.

Was foresight able to predict how Moscow would grow by 2050?

The question is not exactly correct because there is a world trend for both urbanization and de-urbanization. Which path Moscow will take depends on a very large number of factors, which rather lie in the area of politics than urbanism. For example, many muscovites (and people in other cities, for that matter) have primary and secondary housing: in winter, people live in the city, and in summer they move to their country homes; this is how a “city” is formed on the borders that do not coincide with the administrative division. And it’s hard to say whether you consider these people to be residents of Moscow or the Moscow area.

What other trends of the future were you able to single out at the conference? Which of them are the most relevant?

The rising importance of cyberspace, of course. There are forecasts that offline communication will be more and more replaced by online communication, and in the worst-case scenario the latter will ultimately prevail. On the other hand, such changes have to do with the rising demand for a high-quality environment. If we are able to go online from any given point, which is virtually happening now, we will be able to choose a place that is comfortable for us to be in: this is how competition between the city spaces appears. It is based upon people comparing the quality of the infrastructure that the city has to offer. Everything, from comfortable urban areas to the walking-distance accessibility of city functions and an opportunity to rent housing in a convenient location becomes a competitive advantage in the battle that the cities wage for the hearts and minds. And in the postindustrial economy attracting intellectual potential is what matters most.

Special questions must be raised about mobility both on the macro-level of the public transportation system, including the rail kind, and on the micro-level, which, among other things, presupposes the growth in the number of EV’s and various drones. This will entail the development of the new service infrastructure. In addition, the transition to smart systems for managing the city’s transport structure is not far off.

Things that are quite real, and to a large extent relevant already today: developing mobility and high-quality public spaces – continuous projects with prospects for future development. The smart systems of cyber control are also a reality that will be developing. By the way, the young generation is responding to this reality in a much more loyal way than the older generation – for them, it’s quite natural: if you’re holding a smartphone in your hands, this automatically means that your location can be traced. Digitalization will permeate all spheres of human activity: services, trade, and, of course, urban planning.

This year, the Institute is turning 70. You have been meditating about the history of the Institute, reliving the brightest moments. 

Yes, I gave it a thought. What is 70 years for an organization that designs a whole city? Four generations of architects came and went over this time. Today, essentially, it’s already the fifth generation. Who are we, conservatives with a long history, those who live in the past, or those who are looking into the future? I’m sure that we are the latter. We take an active part in the dynamic development of the city, proceeding from the methodological and informational base that we accumulated. We are always relevant and always trendy. 

Oh, and by the way, we’ve been around not for seventy, but for about a hundred years. Both Moskomarkhitektura and the Institute “grew” from the first design offices that were involved in Moscow town planning, and were developing Moscow’s master plan 2035. It is this document that served as the basis for the center of Moscow as we know it, the area that we show to tourists, the “grand facade” of the city, so to speak.

Another important milestone for us was in 1951, when a decree was issued of uniting the design offices under one roof of the Moscow Genplan Institute. The main task then was to continue the development of the city, specifically, to provide muscovites with housing. Still later on we got new borders of Moscow within the confines of the Ring Road, and at that time the territory covered the “agglomeration” that included Perovo, Lyublino, Kuskovo, and Kuzminki. It was then that an attempt was made to create self-sufficient city centers in those areas.

For example, a document with a plan for the placement of retail trade objects dates back to 1972 – the concept of a Soviet supermarket first appeared in it. At that same time, standard projects of a supermarket, fairs, and markets arose. In addition, the 1971 General Plan gave us the idea of the Big Metro Circle. Now it is somewhat different in terms of routing, but the idea of the second metro ring was announced as early as in those days, as well as the corridors for the traverse metro lines that we are building today. 

When I look back I realize that in 1935 and 1971 real geniuses walked these halls – not just architects but philosophers capable of seeing the future and making predictions for decades ahead.

How does the Institute celebrate its anniversary?

We already had the festivities. In addition, this year we are going to publish a three-volume edition about the projects of the Institute, about the people that worked in it, and about visions of the future. The results of the foresight, specifically, will be published in volume three.

You did not say anything about the nineties, when some of the ideas of Master Plan 1971 were crushed by chaotic construction. What do you think of this period? 

I don’t want to criticize or make judgements about that period. Perhaps, the decisions that were made then seemed wise at the time. I also cannot entirely rule out the possibility that in about 15 or 20 years people that will come after us will question our decisions and our work. This is a normal process of reconsidering your values. There are people, in this day and age, who call the state-of-the-art complex of Moscow City, which offers every service you can possibly think of, the biggest urban-planning mistake. If you ask me, I will say that this project was one of the most important steps towards developing a multi-center city, and towards creating a powerful business center outside the Garden Ring – a full-fledged city area where you can both work and live.

So I hope you will excuse me – I will not pronounce judgment on the nineties. And things that happened in the 2000s and 2010s – they definitely made a positive difference. Once a journalist asked me if I was missing Moscow that it gone now. And I said – I definitely don’t. What matters to me is visual perception, and when I see what Moscow has become over the last decade, I do not for a second doubt that this is the best city in the world.

What is happening now is large-scale formation of the city framework: the transportation infrastructure is rapidly developing and projects that were in the pipeline for maybe 50 years are becoming a reality. You can compare this time with the construction booms in the transport infrastructure of the mid-1930s or during the postwar years when the nation’s capital was being restored. And I realize that all of this is happening thanks to the attitude of the city administration, which is active now: Moskomarkhitektura, Stroikompleks, and so on. It was very important to make decisions about the construction of new metro lines, new roads, about renovating the housing stock, and about bringing the facades to order. Making these responsible decisions is something that we must give credit for to first of all Sergey Sobyanin, without whom implementing these complex projects would be impossible.

Recently, the Institute has been actively involved in the development of the city, the transportation system, and in forming new city attraction centers… is that really that way?

Absolutely! The last ten years is a time that we have been in constant demand, the time of such projects as the Big Metro Circle, Moscow Central Ring, new radial metro lines, the master plan of the city and the territories that have been joined to it, and, of course, the renovation of the housing stock. Essentially, these large-scale and high-profile projects are what our Institute is all about. But then again, we are concerned about Moscow’s individual projects as well: ZIL, the South Port, and Cherkizovo. I am referring to developing the territory adjacent to the Moscow central diameters, which we regard not only as a certain conveyance but also as a booster for the development of the neighboring territories.

I cannot resist asking you about increasing the construction density. It does create problems for the transportation system that you work is aimed at combating, doesn’t it?

I don’t see any direct connection between the overloaded roads and dense construction. Developing public transportation is a world trend. The city responds to this challenge. If we are talking about mobility in the public transportation system, this virtually cancels the question of our roads being overloaded. And I will emphasize that when any kind of architectural project is designed, the local road network is designed as well by default – houses do not appear out of nowhere. The architects have to consider the paths by which people will be getting to the nearest metro station, routes to recreational facilities, and other vital locations. They design parking spaces that do not belong in the yards – the yards are a place for children to play and for adults to do sports. 

One more thing about parking spaces – this is an issue of changing your frame of mind, I know this from my own experience. I remember being shocked at Mikhail Blinkin’s statement that owning a car and finding a parking place is the owner’s problem, not the state’s. But this is how it is, come to think of it. Now you can park your car in an intercept parking lot and take the metro, I often do this, it’s faster and more convenient, or you can park your car in the center for 380 rubles per hour. This is all a matter of personal decisions.

On the other hand, if we are to speak about the new square meters, we must be aware that their increase does not mean the increase in population on a 1:1 scale. The apartments, halls, and public places have become larger and more comfortable. There is no direct dependency between the increase in the sheer number of square meters and the increase in population. Some of the square footage works for improving the quality of life. In addition, there is the height factor to consider – me and my colleagues used to think that the most popular apartments were in the 2,3,5, and 7th floors. It turned out we were mistaken. Many people, especially young people, prefer the top floors. 

How long has the Genplan Institute of Moscow been working in the regions?

For quite a while, probably since the beginning of the 2000s.

It’s probably more difficult working with regions than with Moscow?

Well, there is not a single regional project that would be easy. But Moscow is the leader both technology-wise and in the area of urban planning thought. And we are ready to share our expertise with the regions. 

The master plans that we developed are being implemented in Kazan and Voronezh; currently, we are working on master plans for Ufa, Almetyevsk, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. For Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, we, together with the “Tsentr” company, are conducting the competition for developing the new model of the city. Recently, a consortium headed by the Institute, won the competition for designing the master plan of the Astrakhan agglomeration – a strategic document that will define the priorities of developing this region. This is a unique project because this is the first time that a master plan is designed not just for a city but for the entire region.

We work a lot with the regions. This, of course, is far from easy, but very interesting and rewarding. And, of course, this work allows us to see the country develop and be aware where and what priorities arise. Besides, this means sharing our knowledge, first of all in the field of simulation modeling: territorial, ecological, as well as geo-information analysis and digitalization of master plans.

We do the projects of planning linear projects in BIM; the Institute has received several awards from Autodesk as the BIM leader in Russia over the last few years, including 2021. It’s one thing, by the way, to use BIM for working with buildings, and another thing for working with linear projects, such as metro lines and boulevards. But we’ve learned how to do that.

I would like to ask you about the prospects for developing New Moscow. Currently, it is not exactly an “urban” territory.

What do you mean by “not exactly urban”? It is developing very intensively, two metro lines already came there, and a third one, Troitskaya, is being designed now. We are also working on a transport interchange hub that will be located from the side of the Varshavskoe Highway. In addition, we are considering the possibility of building expo facilities here at the commission of Moskomarkhitektura. A lot is being done to make this territory more accessible, so that you can get to New Moscow not just from the center of the city, and not even via the Ring Road. And if you are speaking about the fact that the typology of construction is pretty diverse here, and low-ride houses stand next to high-rises – I believe this is rather a plus. You know everything about Kommunarka yourself. Currently, we are considering placing a large educational campus there.

Of which university?

We had different options to choose from. The Polytechnic University, the Moscow State University of Civil Engineering… What matters for us more, though, is the very fact of having the anchor functions here, the fact that this place will include not just housing but other functions as well, thus becoming a full-fledged urban area function-wise. A metro line will reach Vnukovo, and the airport will turn into a mega-hub. I would not say that the new territory of the nation’s capital was left unattended. The first belt of Moscow is developing to a greater extent, of course, the second belt should “follow suit” after the Central Ring Road with all of its interchanges is launched.

What about the actualization of Moscow’s master plan? 

The last edition of Moscow’s master plan was adopted still in 2010, and this document covers the development of the city up until 2025. After the new territories were added to Moscow, an independent master plan was also adopted that covered their development until 2035.

The foresight conference that we have just held is a kind of a toe in the water, an attempt to understand just what we are expecting from future Moscow. Do we need a plan or a strategy of spatial development? I have many times said that master plans hinder the changes in a city.

This is not to say, however, that I am speaking about a document that will untie our hands to do whatever we like with impunity. What I am speaking about is a document of an even higher level, about a strategy that sets the goals, that you can check yourself up upon, choosing the means of achieving them proceeding from your specific situation. Such a goal can be, for example, achieving a certain percentage of rental housing or making sure that the average journey from home to work takes no more than 40 minutes.

And how exactly, proceeding from your experience, can you transfer such a document into a master plan so that it would remain flexible?

Based on the experience that we accumulated in Voronezh and Ufa, we did a large number of multifunctional zones that are parts of a larger zone, which allow you, when you reach the next design stage, just select what you need instead of having to make cumbersome changes. This depends on the politics conducted by the regional authorities. Some still want documents that are clear and precise on what you can and cannot do. However, the way I see it, more possibilities are opened by a flexible document that is also more convenient to work with. I would say that at the level of the master plan things that are life-supporting should be rigidly fixed: transport, engineering. However, everything that concerns the development of territories should be regulated more easily and freely.

Over the recent decade, the subject of master planning has been widely discussed in the professional community, but few people really understand what this document is all about. Meanwhile, flexibility must be one of its primary features. A master plan is a declaration of goals and directions for development, which leaves a wide range of maneuver in the event of sudden changes. The master plan should be highly recommendatory and determined by the current needs of society, formed by professionals in a dialogue between the local residents, business and government.

29 September 2021

Julia Tarabarina

Interviewed by:

Julia Tarabarina
Translated by:
Anton Mizonov
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