Aleksey Shcherbinin, Doctor of Political Science, Head of the Political Sciences Department of Tomsk State University, made a presentation at the 2nd International Research and Practice Conference “Images of the Future” in the city of Oryol, on February 25, 2022.
If we look at the history of many Russian cities, we discover that they did not just spring up spontaneously in this or that particular place, but were built with the future in mind, and became symbols of that future. Once me and my colleagues did some research on authors who wrote about cities, our home city of Tomsk in particular. A book came to our attention; it was by the famous Soviet writer and grand master of literature Ilya Ehrenburg. The book’s title was “Day Second”, and in it, the author juxtaposes the old wooden Tomsk of craftsmen and merchants and the new city of Kuznetsk, a great part of it yet to be constructed. He also mentions Novosibirsk, the Chicago of Siberia, and prophesizes a great future to it. Tomsk, however, and other cities like it, in his opinion, were sentenced to death by history. Although further he writes: “On the other hand, Tomsk still has a university. Over 40,000 people, mostly Buryats and Yakuts, have come here to study. They do not need any speculative Philosophy; they want to study Sciences and Engineering and build a new future for themselves.” Writing about Kuznetsk, still under construction at the time, he referred to the utopian “garden city” from the verses by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a city built by the new people as a symbol of a new futuristic society.
If we look back, we will see that there have been many attempts to build such symbolic sites, some of them the so-called university towns, in various parts of the Soviet Union. Some have been built quite recently in places where oil and gas are explored and produced; they are still pretty new. In the 1960s and 1970s, academic towns were the trend. They were twice as focused on the future as geological townships amidst the taiga. Even agricultural industry jumped on the train, in a manner of speaking: there were agro-industrial towns, sovkhoz and kolkhoz towns as well. A town or a city means the world for our society. In the words of our famous urbanist, they are not just spaces between houses, but a manifest of the future.
Let us think about the American frontier, I mean that first wave of expansion in North America. All those temporary camps and settlements, built in haste, in knowing that their population would soon move forward, discover new land, find their own Klondike, get rich, and so on. And for the time being, they seized the day and lived in the conditions they could afford. I think that in some places, we are just like those settlers. We don’t care much for how the town looks; the important thing is that we’re here, and eventually, everything will be okay.
The substance of my presentation is the right to the city. We have been discussing this idea for over a year, it is a metaphor now, a political slogan. Now, in the time of the pandemic and the latest changes in our governance system, when public policy is on the march, the question of a citizen’s right to the city becomes acute. And it does not have a simple answer. In a post-pandemic future, some will have that right, and some will try to gain it, and fail. If we attempt to define the communication mechanisms that establish that right, we might as well do it in terms of constructivism. Let’s have a look: the goals of the actual owners of the right to the city are concealed. Indeed, there is some legislative framework: a year ago, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe published a document on smart sustainable cities. Well, praise those scientists, public persons and politicians who have finally raised that issue. Defining and declaring the Sustainable Development Goals for our planet, the UN have totally forgotten about cities, scarcely mentioning them in the Goal No. 17. That’s my first point.
My second point is that the UN have called the 21st century a century of cities, but what kind of cities? This presentation also deals with the works of Henri Lefebvre; he and his followers, such as David Harvey, Mary King and others, said over and over again that in the 21st century, the urban population of our planet would increase by the size of the population of London every consecutive year. The question is, where would the growth be the most prominent, in civilized cities or in slums and favelas? Henri Lefebvre contrasts his views on public spaces, his concept of the right to the city and the non-liberal political and economic actions of city authorities. What we study now could be instrumental in creating a new discipline that no one has touched before, that is, political urban science. And it does not only deal with urban conflicts or urban administration. It will also study how a city can become a policy actor again. In my opinion, that is the main right of any city. The city must be the ground level of any political pyramid, because it is what supports states, political factions and parties, social elites, mass media etc. Political urban science is capable of designing such concept.
But let us get back to those who will gain the right to the city and those who will fail to do it. Industries are washed out of cities all over the globe, and the working class cannot but go with them. The industrial basis of cities is as good as lost, and new social groups emerge to replace industrial workers. Creative class, that’s what we call them; the harbinger of the so-called creative economy. Instead of heavy industries, we now have all sorts of white-collar companies, design bureaus, engineering offices etc. The old traditional meaning of what a city is slowly becomes a thing of the past, and what we have now is an artificially constructed trade mark, for each city its own. This is the new policy, and we are quite used to hear discussions like this: “Let’s do something, let’s arrange a thematic event, it will bring money.” That is to say, cities are trying to capitalize on their names. I’m not qualified to judge if it is good or if it is bad for them. If it really brings money, people will continue to do it.
Let us not forget about education export. You only need to look up the number of recently emerged universities and compare the old respectable universities with traditions, the ones that have been there for centuries, with these new ones, some of them solely virtual. Don’t get me wrong, I do not deny the importance of the fourth industrial revolution and I will not deny these attempts to diversify education. It is the zeitgeist, and I am not nostalgic. The fourth industrial revolution is about knowledge, and there’s no escaping that. Today, knowledge equals progress. Not information per se, not interpersonal communication, but information as a means to transfer knowledge and communication about knowledge. We talk about “smart cities”, and there is that smart sustainable cities program up to 2030, which is relatively long-term by today’s standards. Is there anything to criticize? Well, as a matter of fact, the authors did a solid job and considered a lot of factors. However, it is full of purely declarative accounts of practices that appeared in the last ten to twenty years. The authors recite the most popular ideas: a socially sustainable city must be smart, must be healthy, must be socially available. A city for elderly people, a city for those with disabilities and limited mobility etc. I’m not sure it is a good idea to build a city of the future on the basis of old ideas, because some of them are history now. In my opinion, the authors of the program lacked creativity. There is a lot of work to do in that area for scientists, for practitioners and for people whose job it is to contemplate about the development of cities. However, there is also a lot of traps. The colleagues from Moscow Architectural Institute tell us that today, cities are designed by IT specialists who don’t have a clue about architecture and how people are supposed to live. In the same time, they have to address the same questions: how to design a compact apartment, how to arrange apartments in a block, how to build a 24-storey tower on the site of a wooden house and how to do it all in a competent way. The bad thing is that there is not enough collaboration with other specialists in the process, but that is solely my observation as a sociologist.
What happens with a city if industries are edged out of it? The working people are edged out, too. They will never become university professors, or, I don’t know, craftsmen who make souvenirs. Or glossy zine publishers, or IT specialists. All those retraining programs for silver-aged citizens or industrial workers are something akin to scientific communism. There’s no way around it. If industry leaves a city, working people go with it.
Today, we discussed if Tomsk could be considered an old city. It has been there for 400 years, give or take. However, the age of buildings is not as illustrative as the sentiment of the people. The population changes pretty quickly here. We conducted several surveys in order to determine the percentage of people who had been living here for 15 years. They consider themselves born and bred citizens of Tomsk, but they have no historical ties to the city. They see buildings and streets, they can drive along them in their cars, enter supermarkets and buy food, then come back to their newly built human ant-hills and go about their duties. But do they have any real sentiment towards the city? No. First of all, this state of things disrupts social balance, and Henri Lefebvre was strongly opposed to it. You see, if the owners of a building change their plans, people have to move out, and it happens more and more often. For example, the owner decides to make a micro hotel or a hostel out of a building, and so he just tells the tenants to get lost. This happens in old cities all over the world, in Lisbon as well as in Hongkong. People who have lived in a building for some 50 or 60 years, are forced to move out. They are edged to the outskirts, to their local New Moscow, so to speak. Then they will have to spend more money on commuting and do without the urban infrastructure they have got used to while living in the center. Take a birch tree, cut its roots and plant it in an open field, and soon it will be dead. Those people are in the same situation: they are displaced and have no roots nor friends in a new location. This is about social balance, and we have to consider that. Those new microdistricts need their own history. Take the New Moscow; it is located on a land rich in history, and we need to emphasize that. Let’s make new legends! People use QR codes now, so let’s make codes that could tell the users the history of every old building. New technologies allow us to reconstruct historical events, so let’s do it. Victor Hugo once said that printed books destroyed architecture. Maybe that’s true, but digital technologies could compensate for that. The development of history is cyclical. Once again, the visual has become more important that the textual. If digital technologies really killed printed books, they could also compensate for that, help us enrich our reality. That would be the smart part of a smart city that I’m prepared to believe in. And there is something else I would like to say about healthy cities. If we are talking about health, I personally would forbid car traffic in certain areas of any big city. A really healthy city needs pedestrian zones, bike zones, separate lanes for public transport and streets open only to emergency services and private cars. The craziness we have now has to stop. The transfer to remote work could help; many people have seen the advantages of working from home and don’t want to go back to offices. If this new trend continues, it could significantly reduce passenger traffic.