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Regular version of the site

Urban Footpaths Find Support

HSE graduate Fyodor Novikov suggests an innovative way of urban planning .

The Moscow Times, 27 July 2009 

The impromptu paths found around the city catch the attention of an aspiring urban planner.

Look at Moscow from the air and you'll see a network of little muddy tracks, skipping over metal railings and concrete barriers, and ignoring the official, paved paths.

Urban planning student Fyodor Novikov said he never really noticed them until he came back from a year studying in the United States.

"I came back from New York for my vacation, and I saw a lot of weird stuff that I was just used to before," he said. He began taking photographs of his neighborhood and ended up with 200 pictures of paths.

Now, he has started a campaign for the rights of such unofficial paths.

In early July, he launched a web site called Dorojkimoskvi.ru , where people can send in photographs of paths and leave their names in support of his campaign.

So far, more than 200 people have signed up.

"The whole reason for the existence of those small paths is that people don't know how to draw paths," Novikov said.

Dressed in a striped shirt, jeans and loafers, Novikov speaks fluent English and is doing a Masters in urban planning at New York University, following an economics degree at the Higher School of Economics.

Walking around his home area of Prospekt Vernadskogo, he pointed out a path faux pas - a pointless pedestrian area with tiny concrete flower beds.

Nearby, he praised a small square with grass and trees that is crisscrossed by a network of curving paved paths.

You can tell it works, because the grass hasn't been trampled on, he said. "After they paved it, no one cuts corners anywhere else." When paved paths are set at right angles, people always cut the corner, he says.

Other paths are too narrow, which means that people step off the tarmac. The track then gets wider and muddier in what Novikov calls a "cascade effect." What Novikov wants is for the city authorities to take notice and incorporate his ideas into their planning.

Officials tend to be hostile to spontaneous paths, he says. His web site shows how paths are planted over or blocked by little calf-high fences but to no avail.

Some areas of the city do have good footpaths, but there's no leadership from the center, he says.

He believes that the problem is something that the Moscow authorities could fix, though.

"I really hope this problem is realistic to solve. For some naive reason, I think I could have some support from the city," he says.

When he started thinking about paths, Novikov realized that he didn't have any scientific data on what they should be like.

He is doing a summer internship at the State Research Institute of Town Planning on Prospekt Vernadskogo. And it was here that he found a man who probably knows more about paths than anyone else.

Alexander Romm, a courteous man in spectacles, pulled out his five-volume book on the theory of paths.

Carefully typed and bound in 1983, it has never won acceptance from city officials and isn't taught to town planning students, despite Romm's best efforts as head of a research center at the institute.

To explain his ideas, Romm took a sheet of paper and drew a road with a sidewalk running along it and an office set off the road.

Traditionally, planners will build a path to the office at 90 degrees from the sidewalk, he said.

But in real life, people will always veer off the sidewalk at an angle.

To research this, he mapped about 40 sidewalks with tracks leading off them. What he found was that the human paths weren't at all random.

People veer off at an angle of almost exactly 30 degrees, he said.

He thinks that this is because of the way our eyes work - once we see our destination out of the corner of our eye, we head toward it unless there's an obstacle in the way.

He then went on to work out angles for more complex paths but failed to convince city officials and planning experts to change their ways.

Thanks to Novikov, his ideas are now enjoying fresh attention. As he spoke last week, a television crew called asking to meet him.

Romm flicked through aerial photographs from Google Earth saved to his desktop: Bucharest, Madrid or Paris, everywhere you see the same tracks at the same angles.

"We were told it's something about us Russians, that we're disorganized, we don't follow rules," Romm said. "Now, I've seen real pictures from all over the world on Google, and it has radically changed everything."