Moscow public spaces pretty, but lack purpose

The initiative to close several central streets to traffic is well-intentioned, but will people actually use the spaces?

Drawing by Konstantin Maler. Click to enlarge

This fall, after a long phase of reconstruction, Pyatnitskaya Street in the center of Moscow reopened to the public — but not to their cars. Pyatnitskaya is just the latest in a series of Moscow streets that have been closed to traffic. 

Creating pedestrian streets is not a new trend for European capitals. The most famous European pedestrian street, Stroget in Copenhagen, was closed to cars in 1962. In fewer than two years, the number of pedestrians on the road doubled — much to the delight of shop and cafe owners. Half a century later, this street is one of the main attractions of the city for both tourists and residents. Each day, up to 100,000 people walk along Stroget. In comparison, only 40,000 people pass daily through Moscow’s best-known pedestrian street, the Arbat.
Whether the new pedestrian zones in Moscow will become as popular as the Danish street is an open-ended question. It will surely be pleasant to walk along such streets, but they should attract people with more than the opportunity they offer for walking or reading outside on a pleasant day.

“In itself, the creation of pedestrian zones and streets is a great breakthrough in Moscow’s urban policy,” says Ilya Mochalov, vice president of the Association of Russian Landscape Architects. “It transforms the city’s car chaos into a comfortable atmosphere. There have been excellent decisions: for example, paving the streets with durable materials such as granite slabs or sett. But there are also weak points. The quality of construction is not always good, and planning and designing new pedestrian space is a reference to past architectural styles without any innovation.”

The main shortcoming of Moscow’s pedestrian zones is the lack of trees. The mayor’s office says there is just no place to plant them: the land under the sidewalks is not even earth, but just mounds of pipes and cables. Even if one planted a tree in such conditions, it would die. That is why the authorities have made the decision to plant seasonalflower beds in the zones.

The other question is what can attract people to the pedestrian zones, besides a pleasant, secure place to promenade. Most of the popular pedestrian streets in Europe and the U.S. have evolved in accordance with a certain urban concept. Times Square in New York is a concentration of theaters, cabarets and concert halls. The Viennese Mariahilferstrasse is the largest shopping street in the city. The atmosphere of many pedestrian streets is also created by musicians and street artists. In Moscow, however, only the Arbat, which has long been known as a place to buy souvenirs and have a portrait drawn; and Stoleshikov Lane, one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world, are not contrived spaces. 

Stores that cater to the average consumer are not anxious to set up business on pedestrian streets. Rents are higher there and there is no guarantee that foot traffic will be good — at least not yet. So far, the most interested businesses are restaurants that can have open-air cafes in the spring and summer. 

The only pedestrian zone that has a truly innovative concept in the Russian capital is Romanov Lane, which is located between Vozdvizhenka Street and Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street just steps from the Kremlin. In 2009, investors from Luxembourg received a contract to reconstruct six buildings behind the Moscow State University Journalism Faculty, across the road from the main visitor’s entrance to the Kremlin. But instead of a high-end business center or an elite apartment complex, they decided to create a street with cafes, restaurants, culinary boutiques and a heated sidewalk paved with sett. For the moment, only the first row of Romanov Lane is rented out and only two out of the six buildings have been restored. But a French bakery and a cozy Armenian restaurant are already operating inside. The construction is scheduled for completion by 2016.

Other pedestrian streets still do not have such clear visions for their development. Occasionally they host concerts or photo exhibitions, but they cannot compare with the public parks that the mayor’s office has developed, which have really transformed the look and feel of the Russian capital. In just three-and-a-half years, Gorky Park was transformed from practically a wasteland to the largest public space in Eastern Europe, attracting millions of locals and tourists. The number of visitors has grown to almost 14 million annually — more than the population of the city — and the revenue brought into the local administration’s coffers from the park’s commercial activities has more than doubled.

Most likely there are still no planned concepts for Moscow’s pedestrian zones because the priority of the mayor’s office at the moment is simply to increase the number of public pedestrian areas. His office has already announced plans to create a new six-kilometer (3.7 mile) pedestrian walkway. It also revealed plans for modifying Tverskaya Street, the main artery from Red Square north. Here, a lane for cars will be removed from both directions in favor of expanding sidewalks. 

The city is changing. And the direction is a good one. The success of the initiatives will depend on creating concepts to bring people to these areas, the creativity of the architects and designers, and the continued support of the mayor’s office for the construction and upkeep of such zones. 

Moscow’s parks are the best example that successful public spaces are possible in the city, and they must be used as a model for developing other public areas.
Vadim Yershov is a journalist who has lived in and written about Moscow for nearly 20 years.

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