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Alexander Puzanov - What economic challenges are cities facing today, and which of them are specific to Russia

The debate about the quality of urban environment remains high on the agenda in Russia and other countries. The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) interviewed Alexander Puzanov about the challenges faced by a city today, and about which of them can be solved with the help of urban sciences.

What economic challenges are cities facing today? And which of them are specific to Russia?

— Throughout their history, cities had been plagued by problems interpreted as the end of an era of cities. It had been expected that cities would not survive and we would return to pre-urban way of living and organization of society. But each time a solution had been found. Marx and Engels had been building their critique of capitalism, largely, on description and documentation of the horrors which the first wave of industrialization meant for cities, for living conditions of workers, for the environment. But all these [challenges] had been successfully overcome. At the current stage, the problems faced by cities, mostly, are of environmental and transport origin. These are linked problems since today transport mainly contributes to air pollution.

Specificity of Russia’s cities lies in their sparse and unsustainable development and the lack of the mechanisms enabling inter-municipal cooperation within an urban agglomeration. The level of local autonomy of each municipal entity is not very high. They [entities] heavily rely on higher budgets, and cannot clearly define and safeguard their interests, which makes it difficult to agree upon any issue whatsoever. Yet, at the current stage of development, there should be a good many issues which require coming to an agreement — joint transport routes, infrastructure solutions, outsourcing services, joint elements of social infrastructure and so on.

A sprawling is taking place in the absence of growing population. A sparse distribution of population means a need for more infrastructure and for more pipes. Besides, the sprawling takes on the form of a whirlpool with the highest density being observed on urban fringes while the center of a city remains empty.

Can urban sciences deal with the challenges?

— Urban sciences can offer solutions and competencies in regard to what concerns the relevant deliberations and decision-making. But urban sciences cannot be a substitute for socio-political processes related to recognizing the need for a solution, formulating a solution, adopting a solution, executing a solution and so on. It is of importance, at what level of development a local self-governance and civil society are, whether participants of the processes are able to formulate their interests, pass them on, safeguard them, and, eventually, manage trade-offs. Once it becomes clear what a municipal community prefers, urban sciences may offer a range of possible options, and, then, get engaged in a discussion. Originally it has not been intended as a technological process. There is very little that can be solved based simply on technological innovations. And this will have nothing to do with urban sciences. Of course, one may monitor water in each pipe but societal changes are not required for that. But what to do with the information, how it will be used in decision-making is a different question.

A myth has been around since the days of the Soviet Union that an architect is so smart that he can draw a whole city in his head and we all will say ‘thanks’ to him and will live there. It does not work that way. An architect should come at a time when a society has already formulated an order for what it has matured, whereas drawing a scheme and saying ‘live here’ is yet another utopia.