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Faculty of Urban and Regional Development Opens at HSE

Faculty of Urban and Regional Development Opens at HSE

The new faculty is set to reinvent the profession of urban planner in Russia. The head of the faculty, Tenured Professor, Mikhail Blinkin, spoke about what it aims to do and where it is headed.


Mikhail Blinkin

Who should be involved in urban planning

Let’s look at Russian history. By looking at building plans for the Russian Empire, drawn up before the First World War, it is clear that town planning was handled by a ‘city engineer’. The word ‘urban planner’ was not mentioned at all. The role of this individual was to take into account the interests of the previous owners, the new developers, and the urban community as a whole.

Now, if you look at modern textbooks on urban planning, which are published in any developed country in the world, you will see the same thing. Urban planners consider the interests of those who live in the city, the interests of those who are ready to invest in the development of the territory, and the interests of the urban community as a whole. It has become a very important profession, which, by definition, is multidisciplinary. It involves municipal administration, the city economy, transport networks, and the sociology of urban communities. This science, referred to as ‘Urban Studies’, takes everything into account - from the work of outstanding engineers and architects to the work of world-famous sociologists, such as Max Weber.

I travel all over the world and there is not one university that doesn’t now have a Faculty of Urban Planning or a Faculty of Urban and Regional Development. It has become a very real profession with scientific foundations and there is a serious demand on the international job market

How Russia lost its ‘planners’ and ended up with ‘urban planners’

The June plenum of the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1931 condemned the bourgeois theories of city planning. These theories contradicted the Marxist-Leninist doctrine regarding the resettlement and location of productive forces.

The bourgeois theory of urban planning involved looking at everyone’s interests. What did CPSU decide to do? They decided that there would be urban planners, whom the authorities would recruit from among qualified architects. These individuals were to ‘give the city the real beauty’, and be guided by the party. That is, in simple terms, it was a completely totalitarian scheme, which didn’t involve catering to everyone’s interests at all. What was the architect to do? One cannot blame the professional community of urban architects: in the Soviet years, these people tried to do the maximum possible within very rigidly defined ideological frameworks.

No one is interested in the decision of the 1931 plenum and no one even knows about it, except historians. In Russia, you can still specialise in ‘Urban Planning’ – it is even possible to get a Master’s degree in the field. According to the federal educational guidelines, it is part of the architectural profession. These guidelines were introduced in 2016, which is very recent, and yet they resemble those of 1985. These guidelines contradict everything else in the world- from the Russian textbooks of 1910 to modern Western textbooks published in 2018.

The role of the new faculty

The late Alexander Vysokovsky tried to restore the profession when he created the Graduate School of Urbanism at the Higher School of Economics. I must say, it was a grand step forward, but we continued to produce urban planners. We did not have a federal standard. In addition, we worked according to the traditional framework. It was impossible to get away from it in one move – we had to work bit by bit.

We needed to create a full educational ‘cycle’. This is why we will launch a bachelor's degree in September 2019.

As for the Master’s degree, we already have two Master's programmes: ‘Urban Development and Spatial Planning’, which was created by Alexander Vysokovsky, and ‘Prototyping Future Cities’, which was put together by Vicente Guallart, the former chief architect of Barcelona.

In addition, we will launch a Master's programme in Urban Transport Planning in 2019, which is a discipline taught at all decent universities in the world where is in Russia people still refer to ‘transport workers’ as those who know how to build a bus engine.

We won’t force anything and we will do everything according to our capabilities, that is, the resources we have available. Importantly, we have the public support of Moscow mayor, Sergey Sobyanin. The government issued a decree on July 3 which outlined the allocation of a grant for the development of our faculty.

Who are we looking for? First of all, we’ll be looking for young ambitious scientists, teachers and practitioners. A very young team will head the project, people aged 27 to 33. For example, the new Dean, Gleb Vitkov, was a young teacher and he arrived at HSE with Alexander Vysokovsky eight years ago from private sector. He heads a successful design and consulting bureau. The Deputy Dean, Anton Vorobyov, with a PhD in Political Science, came to the Higher School of Economics as a first-year student, worked for several years at my institute, and defended his thesis. Now, he's a deputy dean.

Expert evaluation for authorities; retraining for professionals

We are a centre of expertise for the city as a whole, and we plan to strengthen this position. There is such a thing as ‘spatial development’, which the Ministry of Economic Development is involved in. Since our faculty deals not only with urban, but also with regional development, there are many areas where we need to be an expert platform on both the municipal and the federal levels.

Another very important aspect is the extensive programme for continuing professional education. Our task is not only to make money in this area, but to form a market. We teach city officials and representatives of large development companies and we train smart customers, interlocutors, and partners. Therefore, our continuing education programme is no less important than our master's and bachelor's programmes.

Until we are able to explain elementary rules to the authorities, such as the ratio of the total area of ​​the city street network to the number of cars owned by the city’s inhabitants, we will not be able to do our work properly.

Educating customers who are open and prepared for dialogue is a huge task for us

How to tell the world about Russian cities

Undoubtedly, there will be broad international cooperation. First, we already have Vicente Guallart on board, who supervises studies at the Shukhov Lab and is a very high-level specialist. Secondly, we are currently negotiating with various interesting experts, because we want to open international laboratories.

We need to enter the international context. Recently, the book ‘Transport Systems of Russian Cities’ was published by Springer, and for the first time, we were able to inform readers about the existence of Russian cities and their specific transport problems. We want to do this kind of thing on a broad spectrum, because if you remain a ‘country bumpkin’ scientist and you aren’t known internationally, then your neighbours can praise you as much as you like but it will be useless – experts won’t treat you as an equal. This is what we are trying to achieve. We just need to return to the international scientific stage, to get back into classical Russian science, which, to some extent, has been forgotten.


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