Lessons in Urban Interventions, St. Petersburg

Delai Sam (DIY) in St. Petersburg—hosted by Free Space and the Center for Independent Social Research— included 2 weeks of workshops, community events and lectures.

 


Delai Sam

We traveled to the city to to participate in Adeola Enigbokan's  'Sociological Party Marathon.'(You can read more about her research in Russia here).

Our plan was to use research and insights from this workshop to create an urban intervention in the community. We arrived on site to meet people, creating a party-like atmosphere with balloons and food. And although we came with the best intentions, we were forced to reflect about working with new urban communities, conducting research, the value of being patient, and the relevance of process oriented vs. physical, output focused interventions.

 

The Site

Pallevsky Jilmassiv is a cooperative community, originally set up as a garden city. It has since split between a gated community and the 'outliers'; infrastructure (a gate) that once sought to keep cars and squatters out of homes has now become a source of tension in the area.

An overriding theme is problematic infrastructure. People complained about the gate that divides the space, and residents on either side feel its obtrusiveness. But it wasn't just the gate. One person complained about a statue of an elephant in the middle of the children's playground. And several older people commented about a lack of available benches (most are on the gated side) and having to sit in the playground at different hours of the day. We observed broken benches—which is not uncommon in many Moscow districts because they eventually become a spot for alcoholics to drink; and unfortunately these people are socially excluded and stigmatized.

 


Show Palevsky zhilmassiv on a bigger map.
 

The struggle over space and infrastructure seemed to have existed over quite some time. Public space in the area is fought over by different age groups and interests who want different uses – children's play grounds, trees, gardens. The needs of teens and alcoholics are not considered, and when the benches are removed they have no where to hang out.

Everywhere, we found that children were prioritized and their needs and requirements were addressed over everyone else's. This had further consequences because everyone started to hang out in the children's playground, making it a mixed-use space. These planned community spaces seem to promote an idea for what is socially acceptable and desirable, without considering the requirements of all its residents.

 

Speaking to Locals : Boris the Gardener

Apart from the last standing street vendor who shared his complaints about cars, and several people who spoke about wanting to sit on the other side of the gate, perhaps the most interesting person we met was Boris the gardener. He highlighted the issues of public vs. private, community and personal space and embodied a desire for free expression within the community.

 

56 year old Boris lived in a shared apartment and wanted his own garden, to remind him of his home. He occupied a part of the green space outside of the apartment block and planted his own mini vegetable and flower garden. Not without personal touches - a hanger, chair and brush for his cat. His actions in some sense blurred the boundaries of public and private space, and raised a question about ownership and use.

 

Delai Sam interventions

We realized that no solutions were easy and that our interventions had to be a process rather than a physical intervention. So, we started by creating a Google map of people's favorite places and the locations of problems, which is how we identified the overarching issue of infrastructure and space. This mapping  ultimately formed the basis for the Cooperative Urbanism workshops which we are planning in Moscow.

Instead of repairs, which would have been easy but unsustainable, and instead of installing infrastructure like benches, which could become problematic, we took our mapping one step further. On the day of a public community event, we set up a DIY map asking people to mark their favorite spots, landmarks, and problems in the area.

 

 

Things we had not realized

Working in St. Petersburg, which is not our city, brought a new awareness about working in unfamiliar spaces. It demonstrated that the best people to learn from are the residents; citizens are experts, and it takes longer than expected to really understand underlying tensions, concerns and issues.


May Interventions

Unsanctioned physical infrastructure or placing objects is not a solution and can have the opposite effect. An intervention therefore is not just about placing objects, it's a process. We found this happened in Moscow with benches that we installed - the color was perhaps not deeply considered and neither was the function. So, even something placed with good intention can be come a source of anxiety in a community.

Appropriate interventions needs awareness, empowerment and involvement as a part of the process. Research and interventions cannot be probe-like where you just enter and leave. Interventions should be thought of more as a process of engagement, research and interaction than focusing on physical outputs.

Participation and collaboration are key, and just trying to do what we thought would be right (filling the playground with sand, repairing broken play things) would not be that useful. There is a question of how interventions can become long term, sustainable and empowering.

 

Participation and collaboration are key, and just trying to do what we thought would be right would not be that useful. There is a question of how interventions can become long term, sustainable and empowering.

 

Interventions in themselves are a learning process and very often require researching and working with communities over a longer period for the appropriate changes to be made (if any at all).

The long term intervention we identified and have yet to implement was ultimately to create a community gardening system, where people have to share a social activity that involves different age groups and forms a green space that is positive and productive. The next step would be to share this idea with the residents, securing their buy-in, because if they do not want it, then its ultimately useless.

Another social issue we identified and think needs to be addressed is creating a social space that is inclusive and un-stigmatized for people who can't afford bars to drink. An outdoor area where they can socialize and gather without feeling as though they are doing something wrong or undesirable by the rest of the community.

So

Research and interventions are ultimately about people, and not just some people, but trying to address the needs of many, particularly those that are being excluded. We can't tell people what to do or assume that we know best. We can only ask, listen, talk and communicate. Because cities and neighborhoods are about finding a balance to support and foster the relationship between people and spaces.