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‘Specialists in Other Areas Need to Learn the Language of Urban Studies’

‘Specialists in Other Areas Need to Learn the Language of Urban Studies’

Alexey Novikov has been Dean of the Graduate School of Urban Studies and Planning at HSE since January this year. A PhD in Geography, he was head of Standard & Poor's in Moscow and Thomson Reuters, and took over from the first dean of the school, the late Alexander Vysokovsky. Alexey Novikov talked to HSE News Service Editor in Chief Natalia Kogynina about what will become of the school of Urban Studies now, how to resolve urban planning conflicts and why urban planners are like lawyers.

How urban studies is appearing in cities

— The word urbanist is very fashionable at the moment. Everyone who is even slightly interested in the city considers themselves an urbanist and in the public perception urbanists have become people who design cycle paths, and minor things like that. Is that your impression too?

— Urban studies and a kind of urban awareness has been brought into public debate, not by hipsters and cycle paths but by the attempts of architects, builders, economists, sociologists and planners to find a common language for their work in the contemporary city. It is a response to the increasing complexity of the urban environment. Professionals who have created urban studies are from very different academic disciplines like urban economics, and housing economics for example. Then there are the applied areas like urban planning and design.   

The language of urban studies needs to be understood by specialists from completely different sectors. If an economist tries to talk to an architect today it’s like a comedy show, you could sell tickets to watch how each of them has no idea what the other is talking about. But in city administration these two professionals often work side by side so they need to know how to listen to each other. At our school, we are trying to create a new common language for them.

Urban studies educational programmes, not courses and workshops but full programmes, are only beginning to emerge now. Our school is at the forefront, the avantgarde.

— But in Moscow they are always pointing to New York or Amsterdam as examples, ‘Look how well thought out everything is.’ If it is done well, doesn’t that mean they have specialist urbanists?

— It’s not just about specialists. In New York and Amsterdam local democracy and traditions of engaging the local community in planning have played a significant role. When planners started to take the interests of the residents into account, when they realised there was a demand for pedestrian zones or cycle paths, for example, from that moment the tendency towards a complex urbanistic approach took off. In fact the reason why urban studies appeared in those cities is because of local democracy and the way it interacts with the free market environment.  

Public hearing as a competitive process

— But in Moscow there still a lot of arguments about city planning and construction...

— Arguments are inevitable and as a rule, actually very useful. If arguments are constructive they always lead to something new and interesting. At some point people start to listen to each other, reach a compromise and move on. The main thing is that they should understand each other’s language. At the moment, they don’t, particularly if you take the public hearings. Here there is a gaping abyss between the residents on side, with their views and knowledge and concerns, and representatives of the local authorities on the other. And it isn’t only because of the peculiar distrust between residents and bureaucrats but because one side is only thinking about it in professionally terms and the other as part of their everyday life. 

This is why the School of Urban Studies is making a big effort to develop a mechanism to help resolve these conflicts. Its called advocacy planning, where residents are accompanied by specialists to help them oppose local authority planners with more than just an emotional response. It’s a mechanism that is used in many parts of the world. Town planners working independently from the council support local residents and try to find ways to resolve their conflicts with the local authorities. It’s like a competitive court process. There is clearly an unfulfilled need for this approach in Russia now and we’re preparing a Master’s programme in it and later a consultancy training. 

— What happens if the local authorities propose something which is a good idea but the residents oppose it? For example, in the courtyard of a building where one of my colleagues lives, there are plans to build a school on the lawn. It would be socially beneficial but the residents don’t want to lose their lawn. Now they’re fighting about it. Which side would the advocate take in this situation?

— Here you start asking, do you need the school or do they need the lawn? Can both priorities be accommodated? How would it be dealt with in New York for example? There are three elected representatives - the mayor, an auditor and a community lawyer. They are all independent from each other. The community lawyer gathers cases like the one you mentioned and comes to the mayor with demands from the residents. And the two opposing groups (the people and the authorities) battle it out and come to a compromise. It could be compensation, planning alterations or even dropping a decision. There’s always an adjustment of some kind to be found. We tend to be afraid of this kind of confrontation in Russia, but that’s how democracy works. It’s the only way for a city to develop humanely.   

New Laboratories and specialist courses

— What other new programmes is the school introducing besides advocacy planning? Will you carry on developing Alexander Vysokovsky’s ideas or do you have concepts of your own to promote?  

— I share Vysokovsky’s concept of urban studies entirely and everything that is happening at the moment will continue in the future - there is no other concept for the school. We will just add some individual programmes because life in general and urban life is changing.

We currently have three main research areas. One is the project teaching laboratory which is developing concepts for the university campus as a city-shaping function in large and small urban areas. It’s extremely important now we have a knowledge economy. It involves planning, economic and social aspects. The second laboratory does spatial data analysis. This is important - the spatial differentiation inside a city, comparing cities with each other. Another laboratory does social research field work looking at research into city communities. There will be are another three laboratories on top of these three.

Firstly, every university should have a group that thinks about the future and experiments. The laboratories that we want to set up will work on prototyping urban environments for the future. They could be experimenting with the parameters of city building, the use of new materials in architecture, reconfiguring space, cooperative consumption like Airbnb and Uber. The new specialisations on Master’s programmes on the city and new technology will fit together with this laboratory. The new courses will start in 2016. 

Our second new laboratory will focus on expertise in town planning decisions for legal purposes. Developers often take city councils or one another to court and it’s always useful in these cases to have an independent expert opinion. This laboratory will work on the advocacy planning we talked about, and also on program evaluation and impact analysis which is less about architecture and planning and more economics based. We’ll have a Master’s in it.

Finally, we’ll have a laboratory for modelling flexible governance for urban territories and city agglomerations. Urban agglomerations like Moscow are broken up into jurisdictions, at least, Moscow and Moscow Region, plus municipalities which are directly connected by work trips, transport routes, big projects. It is all fast-moving, managing all these different things administratively is impossible, we need different kinds of conventions - taxation, tariffs and planning which directly influence the way the public space develops. Moscow doesn’t have that kind of approach. We want to create a laboratory which would study these mechanisms, adapt the experience of other countries to fit our situation, and maybe think up some new ways to do things.

Advantage from competition

— Are you planning to develop international cooperation?

— Yes, we have another big task ahead — to internationalise the school. We want to attract students from all over the world. We are already beginning to teach some specialist courses in English. The first will be Transport, jointly with Mikhail Blinkin at his institute. I’m in discussions at the moment with foreign universities to set up double degree programmes.

With the help of the mayor of Paris and the French embassy, we want to organise practicals in France for our students, for them to be able to talk to decision makers in the Paris city council. We’re also in talks about a joint programme with the  IAAC —the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. The director of the Centre for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), Claudio Silva is visiting us in the summer, and then we are expecting Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities a bestseller on city data and new technology. These people are big data analysts.

We are also discussing joint projects with Vicente Guallart, chief architect of Barcelona and Lev Manovich, the guru of urban data visualisation and design. We are building up work links with the LSE in London and Erasmus university in Rotterdam. We will try to set up a joint Master’s programme and international laboratories with them.  

— I read about your partnership with the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, I thought they were your arch rival?

— Why? Of course we do compete in some spheres but in reality, we complement each other more. We are talking to other institutes connected with urban studies about partnerships as well, not just Strelka.

There’s an idea that we should organise a summer school. Strelka has a good range of lecturers we can work with. They are very interesting people mainly in the architectural sphere, some of them are conceptualists. We have our own people too. We are discussing having an Urban HSE summer school at Strelka with open lectures each week by a guru and we’ll ask the guru to take part in our seminars at HSE. To work together in the field where we can obviously complement each other seems to me the right thing to do. 

Natalia Konygina, HSE News Service

See also:

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