‘My Entire Two Years of Studying at HSE University Were Very Happy’
Maria Melnikova, a graduate of the HSE Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism Master’s programme in Urban Development and Spatial Planning, has written a book entitled Not Just Prefabs: The German Experience of Working with Mass Housing Neighbourhoods. She describes how Germany investigates and solves problems of housing in the city suburbs. Maria spoke with the HSE News Service about her interest in this topic, what she thinks about urban renewal and what she does in Berlin.
On Applying to HSE University and Student Life
I got my first degree, in Economics of Construction, at a university in Ufa. When I was writing my graduation thesis, I became interested in global construction practices and trends. I wanted to learn more about it, started looking at various master’s programmes, and found HSE programmes. I remember the exact day and hour when I first read the description of the Urban Development and Spatial Planning programme.
I remember how it literally game me jitters, and I immediately knew that I wanted to study here. This is probably exactly what happens when you find your thing
At school, I was fond of economic geography, social science, and history, which is probably why the theme of cities attracted me. I never regretted my choice.
It’s hard to say what I loved more about my student life. It was probably everything: every lecture and every project. My two years of study at HSE University were pure happiness, and I had never imagined that studying at university could be so thrilling. I lived in the Dubki dorm, and often spent three hours commuting to listen to a 90-minute lecture. But I never thought that it could be a waste of time, since those lectures were extremely valuable. In addition, I loved suburban trains: I would read a lot or discuss something with other students. I have great memories of that time, and even remember the names of the stations – Nemchinovka, Kubinka – beautiful Moscow region toponyms.
Our programme had a perfect team of teachers: the best Russian practicing professionals in urban development Alexander Puzanov, Oleg Baevskiy, Sergey Sivaev, Grigory Revzin, Edward Trutnev, and, of course, Alexandr Vysokovsky. That’s why we were immediately in the thick of all urban processes. As someone who came with a five-year background of study at a technical university, it was also essential for me to get a social science perspective and to see how the same processes can be viewed from the viewpoints of different disciplines.
The master’s programme in Urban Development and Spatial Planning is the first educational project by the Graduate School of Urbanism. The programme trains highly qualified specialists in urban spatial planning and legal zoning. The programme graduates work in public and municipal administration, development, urban consulting and infrastructure.
The Graduate School of Urbanism also offers an English-taught Master's programme in Prototyping Future Cities.
On My Career After Graduation
After graduating from HSE University I went back to my home city of Ufa. Together with colleagues from the UrbanBayram organization, Olga Sarapulova and Alexandra Katasonova, we formed an initiative group at the city administration to develop the city strategy. The knowledge I got at HSE University helped me get to work right away. I participated in analysis, developed technical specifications, and talked to a lot to people from different departments and companies, as well as city residents. The interdisciplinary approach to cities, which is the core of the programme at the Graduate School of Urbanism, helped me find common language with everyone.
On Berlin and Urban Renewal in Moscow
I first came to the German capital in 2013. I studied in the master’s programme (Maria graduated from HSE University in 2014 – editor’s note) but had never left Russia before. Alexandr Vysokovsky once told us that an urban developer should study at least 40 cities in different countries. During the break, I left to study the cities.
In the very beginning of my journey, I found myself in the suburbs of East Berlin in the prefabricated housing district of Marzahn. I remember it feeling surreal: the buildings were the same as in Russian cities, but at the same time, everything was completely different. The buildings were carefully renovated, and between the five-storey buildings, cherries were blossoming in the yards (it was spring). It was obvious that people had made an effort to make these neighbourhoods look good. I loved them.
Since then, every time I find myself in a new city, I go to the suburbs. Sometimes, I even skip the city centre
When Moscow declared its five-storey-housing retrofitting plan, I lived in Perovo. After the residents’ vote, many buildings in the district were included in the plan for demolition. I was disappointed: I had already fallen in love with the place. In the master’s programme, we learned that the urban environment evolves gradually as a result of human interaction with the physical space of the city. In Perovo, I could see the environment developing gradually. This is valuable, and a lot can be done to promote this process. I believe that demolition is too simple of a solution. For me as a planner, it was important to understand what else can be done with prefabricated housing districts. Then, I remembered about the buildings I had seen in Germany, and I decided to learn about how such projects are implemented.
Several years later, I went to Berlin as part of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation German Chancellor Fellowship. This is an exciting programme that gives young people from Russia, USA, Brazil, India, and China (and, starting next year, also South Africa) the opportunity to spend a year in Germany and carry out their own project in partnership with a German organization. The project can be research or practice-based .
My host organization in Berlin was the Competency Centre for Mass Housing. This is a non-profit organization that brings together experts working with neighbourhoods and mass housing: architects, engineers, planners, as well as representatives of municipalities, housing companies, and co-ops. Together, they advocate for the need to support mass housing districts in Germany and the EU at large.
On Real Work
Today, I continue cooperating with the Competency Centre for Mass Housing. For my colleagues there, it is important to maintain cooperation with professional communities in Russia and post-Soviet countries. Mass housing districts exist in all countries, and such cooperation can be an effective tool for sharing best practices, better understanding problems, and searching for solutions. Housing is a good topic for international dialogue: on the one hand, it is outside ‘big geopolitics’, but on the other, it is an understandable and important question for everyone.
Last year, the HSE Faculty of Urban and Regional Development organized a Forum of Urban and Regional Development called ‘Tools for Professionals’ in Perm. Our Competency Centre participated in the Forum with an exhibition about approaches to mass housing district development in Germany. The competency centre is able to provide all the data from the exhibition to anyone interested in organizing a similar event in their city. To obtain the information, one has to apply on their website.
On Russian Mass Housing
Working with German colleagues taught me, first of all, that prefabricated buildings and districts are not a problem. Like any other buildings in the city, they need investment for modernization and maintaining a good technical condition. Urban development in Russia is focused on new construction, but it is no less important to regularly maintain the housing that already exists in the cities. And here, the German experience is undoubtedly useful, both at the stage of analysis and tool development, and in terms of specific solutions, technologies, financial mechanisms, and ways to organize construction work.
In Russia, apartment owners are often blamed for doing nothing. But it is essential for the government to create conditions in which the owners’ communities can act effectively
The complexity of the Russian situation is that after the free privatization, prefabricated buildings host a diverse community of owners. It is difficult to agree on building modernization. While the situation is the same, for example, in the Baltic countries, effective housing modernization programmes have been implemented there successfully for over a decade. Such programmes are gradually improving, and more and more buildings are deciding to renovate. By the way, the Baltic states closely cooperate with Germany on this issue: there are joint educational programmes and research projects.
On the Book and the Interest in Mass Housing
During my research work in Germany, several traits of the German urban planning system seemed particularly important to me as an urban planner.
First, housing policy in Germany is aimed mostly at existing housing. The main goal is to adjust the existing buildings and districts to the new social, economic, demographic and environmental challenges and residents’ needs. Regarding the prefab districts in particular, the city administration understands that today it is impossible to build the same amount of housing as quickly and cheaply as under the socialist regime. That’s why they do their best to maintain these territories.
Second, social policy plays a major role in urban planning, which is particularly important in multi-storeyed housing in the suburbs. Developing the educational environment, creating conditions for healthy lifestyles, caring for older people, and supporting disadvantaged residents are often more important than how the buildings look.
And finally, it is interesting how the system of working with mass housing has evolved since the 1990s, what trends and events impacted it. I believe that understanding this process is useful for other countries that will have to create systems to support existing housing in future. I thought that a book is a good format to investigate the conceptual ideas to the fullest, as well as to give specific examples. Now, the book is available online. For me, it is important for it to be read by future urban planners, and first and foremost, by students in our master’s programme.
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