Moscow street upgrades caught in a 'nyet'

In many streets, piles of paving stones, heaps of sand and fenced-off sites make awkward obstacle courses for Muscovites - who spend half the year blanketed in snow and are keen to make the most of the summer with a stroll.
In many streets, piles of paving stones, heaps of sand and fenced-off sites make awkward obstacle courses for Muscovites - who spend half the year blanketed in snow and are keen to make the most of the summer with a stroll.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Pedestrian-friendly plan runs into complaints of graft, tacky designs, top-down directives

MOSCOW • An ambitious project to make central Moscow more pedestrian friendly has drawn mixed reactions from the city's residents: some like the upgrade, others worry the soul is being ripped out of historic neighbourhoods.

Bulldozers and drills roar around the centre as more than 50 roads are being torn up, a quarter of the total number chosen for a revamp under the "My Street" scheme.

City authorities say the three-year project - which will cost 126 billion roubles (S$2.5 billion) - is the largest redevelopment in the history of modern Moscow.

In many streets, piles of paving stones, mountains of sand and fenced-off work sites make awkward obstacle courses for Muscovites - who spend half the year blanketed in snow and are keen to make the most of the summer with a stroll.

"It does hinder traffic quite significantly, but maybe it's actually good because afterwards it will flow faster," said 19-year-old Vladimir Molchanov.

Said 28-year-old computer programmer Maxim Lagvinenko: "Even as a car owner, I understand that the city centre should be for pedestrians and cyclists.

Mr Alexei Muratov, a partner at KB Strelka, an architecture and urban design consultancy for the project, said: "There hasn't been any urban redevelopment since the Moscow Olympics in 1980."

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin won a second term in 2013 vowing to raise the quality of life in the wealthy, but notoriously congested, polluted metropolis, home to 15 million people. Since then he has pushed through massive investment in the road network and improved public transport, building a 50km circular railway line due to open in the autumn.

The mayor's critics, including prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a runner-up in the 2013 mayoral race, allege that the massive projects are rife with corruption.

There are also complaints that the rich and diverse cultural life in some of the newly pedestrianised streets has been replaced by bland government-sponsored events and tacky decorations.

Veteran street artist Vladimir Dotsoyev accused new city bureaucrats of excessive zeal and extortion. "They say 'Don't set up here' or 'set up there.' They find fault with our parasols and they think we're millionaires," he fumed.

Artists said all street entertainment now has to fall under the umbrella of city-organised events, such as the recent Moscow Jam and Moscow Ice Cream festivals.

During such events the city's streets and squares fill up with identical music stages and stalls all selling the same range of goods, while dubious street decorations include giant plastic topiary and replica prehistoric skulls.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'Moscow street upgrades caught in a 'nyet''. Print Edition | Subscribe