Cold, intimidating, and stuck in the 1960s. These were my preconceived notions of what Russia would be like. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. During the two weeks I spent there with my colleagues, I learned that Russia is actually quite progressive, its weather can be wonderful, and urban planning is every bit a part of its cities as in the United States.
We visited four cities on our green building exchange tour: Moscow, Perm, Yekaterinburg (or Ekaterinburg), and Chelyabinsk. (You can find our city summaries and final trip report on the Leaflet.) What surprised me most was that each place we visited had a certain set of similarities to Pittsburgh. Here, I want to share some insights into those similarities, along with each city’s high-performing buildings/spaces challenges and successes.
We flew into Moscow just in time for Victory Day, which I think was a victory for the GBA team. The excitement and positive energy of everyone in the city was palpable. On our first day there, the weather was gorgeous and, despite being jet-lagged (some struggled more than others), we had a full day of meetings and tours. One stop along the way was Gorky Park, an amazing public green space with a fountain, lots of food vendors, outdoor recreational opportunities, and more roller-bladers than I’ve ever seen in one place. Gorky Park is one of many outdoor open spaces that attracts the masses in early spring after a long, cold winter – and it’s located right along the Moskva River.
Moscow’s green spaces were definitely impressive, but perhaps even more impressive was the city’s public transportation infrastructure. The GBA team is not fluent in Russian, nor can we read Cyrillic (but Sean gave it some exceptional effort!) and yet we didn’t get lost once navigating the city, including its extensive Metro system. The city had bike lanes, bike sharing and bike racks, the Metro was well planned, and the urban areas in general were strategically thought out. Even the pedestrian walkways included tunnels under the freeways to increase ease of movement. (As Sean pointed out, the pedestrian tunnels wouldn’t necessarily be found in a Complete Streets model, but they did increase pedestrian safety at large, busy intersections.) For being such a huge city, getting around in Moscow was never a problem, even with the influx of people celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.
Perm is the first of the three “capital cities of the Urals” (along with Ekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk…who knew?!). It has a rich history and is known for its role in geology and archeology. The Permian Period is named after the city because of the vast fossil record found there. It also served as a major waypoint between Asia and Europe for merchants traveling along the Silk Road. The city has a long history of metallurgy, too, which served the country well during WWII for building tanks, military equipment, and munitions. Of the three sister cities, it is the largest industrial producer. Perm is situated between the Volga and Kama Rivers (sound familiar, yinz?) which are used for transportation and hydro-electric power. One particular challenge Perm faces is the small number of bridges spanning the two rivers. Traffic in the city around rush hour slows like a clogged sink because many people travel across at least one if not both of the only two bridges that span the waterways. Does crossing any number of bridges to get to and from work ring any bells, Pittsburghers?
We visited Perm National Research Polytechnic University, which is one of 29 universities in Russia that is classified as a research university. PNRPU is currently cooperating with universities at the international level, researching best practices in urban planning. One of its current projects involves an undeveloped plot of land that is hoped will become a model of sustainable urban development. The research team is exploring international collaborations for this project and GBA hopes to connect it with some of our friends in Pittsburgh’s academic community. The plot is over 130 hectares, situated in forest land across the beautiful Kama River. This project is an ideal opportunity to include new student research and best practices from other universities with similar models.
Perm is an area that would be ideal for eco-tourism. The GBA team took a rafting trip along the Chusovaya River (a tributary of the Kama), which was relaxing (not what we usually think of as traditional rafting) and an atypical tourist adventure according to our hosts. The riverbanks were pristine with white birch and pine and plenty of rock outcroppings, creating a picturesque backdrop. Many of the rock formations are now protected by the government under conservation laws. The area was historically used for mining operations and commercial transportation (barges) in the spring (read: elevated water from winter melt), but now is mostly used for tourism, though yet to become a hot spot. Stepping out of the city into a natural (and still quite wild) environment was a chance to get a look into untouched areas of Russia that are being effectively preserved.
The Iset River runs through the middle of Ekaterinburg, where there is a culture surrounding a love of water just as there is in Pittsburgh. The river, along which various mills were situated, has been used for decades as a source of hydro-electric power. Green spaces with wide sidewalks and lots of trees are also a part of the natural city fabric and made walking around there a relaxing experience.
While in Ekaterinburg, our cohort was fortunate to tour the ISET Tower (still under construction), BC Senat, and BC President, all with amazing smart features. (You can learn more about the buildings’ smart features in Leslie’s Ekaterinburg blog here.) I was blown away by the design and management of these buildings. They are all sub-metered for each tenant (who are selected based on their commitment to the environment and environmentally friendly practices). The business centers have sub-floor electrical components, which provide additional insulation and flexibility to change the space to fit each tenant’s specific needs. A handful of people can manage these buildings from a smart system that is integrated throughout the building systems.
One thing that stands out in my mind about Ekaterinburg is the navigability. The street systems for pedestrians and traveling are well planned, though the road network has some challenges. The layout is similar to a spoke, so that to get from point A to point B (both outside the city), you must first travel into the city, which creates a great deal of congestion. (Our hosts explained that city planners never imagined there would be as many passenger vehicles in Ekaterinburg as there are.) Something as simple as being able to turn right on a red light could help to alleviate some of these challenges and we compared notes with our hosts about driving in Russia versus driving in Pittsburgh. The city in general feels like a cultural and economic center that is just starting to hit its stride and I would love to return and see it in the future!
Chelyabinsk is an industrial city, where metallurgy is heavily practiced and much military machinery is produced. But it also has great public spaces, such as the massive Gargarin Park, where a quick stroll allowed us to see a fishing pond, a widespread ropes/zip lining course for kids and adults, a small amusement park area, and vast nature trails. The city also boasts a lovely Arbat, or walking street, which hosts several WWII memorials and the city center. The similarity of its industrial past with Pittsburgh’s is evident, as is the current movement there to create enjoyable public spaces for residents. In some ways, it seems that Chelyabinsk may have avoided all the messy bits of Pittsburgh’s polluted past, but it is still a developing city. Hopefully the case for green building will influence the continuation of the successes it has already experienced.
All of the cities we visited seem to appreciate the fact that better public spaces will lead to better local economies and that those spaces are more enjoyable if they include green features. The plethora of public parks within walking distance of myriad amenities, pedestrian walkways, and beginnings of green buildings in Russia all indicate that the high-performing building movement is there to stay. The country thoughtfully memorializes its WWII veterans (especially marked on Victory Day), evident in statues or memorials in each city. Urban planning is a key ingredient in city growth and the academic, development, construction, and design communities there recognize green buildings as a tool for sustainable urban growth and international investment.
So what was my favorite part of the whole trip, you ask? The people! Traveling to Russia was a wonderful experience, but it could have been completely different without the great people we met and those who helped us along the way. To all of them, I send thanks for their generosity, hospitality, humor, and warm welcome. They opened my eyes to the treasures of their great cities and I hope to see them again! Spasiba!!