Moscow: moving out?
It is a perennial mystery why Russia, with so much land at its disposal, builds up rather than out. It is not as if the land around cities like Moscow is especially valuable agriculturally. The reason, at least in the twentieth century, was that it was cheaper to build a pubic transport system in a densely-populated urban environment. But with the fall of Communism, cars took over and the road system in the city was not able to cope. The result is obvious to everyone who drives, walks or breathes. Since everyone does at least two of those things, something has to change.
So it was with great relief that the press received the announcement, by President Dmitry Medvedev at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in mid-June, that the relationship between Moscow City and the Moscow Oblast is going to be reorganised. In essence, the President announced is plan to crate an entity called the Capital Federal District, which will enable serious de-centralisation of the city by allowing it to expand into the Oblast. The government will decant many of the less glamorous and important administrative entities to new business centres in the forests of “pod Moskovye”.
This is similar to the approach developed by innovative urban planners in Britain in the late 1930s with the Garden City movement, though it was not widely implemented until the late 1950s due to the War. Sadly, the result has not lived up to expectations in terms of aesthetics—who would want to live in Milton Keynes, Welwyn Garden City or East Kilbride? But that is not because the concept is flawed. It is due to the way fashions in peri-urban living have changed.
So Moscow needs to undertake this initiative in a sensitive and flexible way. Is this likely? I leave it to the denizens of Papa’s, Chesterfields or Katie O’Shea’s to debate. But one thing is for sure, if the Russian government puts its weight behind it, it will happen a lot more quickly than it did in Britain. This could have negative and positive effects. But there can be little doubt that almost anything would be better than the present situation in which the city is gradually grinding to a halt due to traffic congestion. And that is in the context of a public transport system which is already over-used. The Metro, for example, carries 14 million passengers per day when its theoretical capacity is 6 million.
The best hope for relief is the Russian government’s intention to transform Moscow into an international financial centre. So many outsiders, right up to the CEOs of major Wall Street banks, have told the President that one of the greatest barriers to this is the traffic situation. The only solution to that is de-centralisation. Take the jobs to the people, rather than the people to the jobs. Rents will be cheaper, new opportunities for hard-pressed builders will open up, and the government will have an opportunity to pump money into the economy by getting people to work rather than by subsidising unprofitable state enterprises. There is hardly a downside—especially if in its wake, such a scheme involves a radical upgrading of the suburban railway system.
Russia is looking for prestige projects which, unlike the nuclear missile programme, also have practical benefits for the economy and for the quality of life in the country. This could be one of the greatest of the early twentieth century. But will it be President Medvedev’s legacy, or is it just a ploy to downgrade the Mayor of Moscow’s role in the wake of Yuri Luzhkov’s empire-buiding?