A Russian Parks Program Creates Over 350 Public Spaces and Nurtures Local Design Talent

Costing less than glitzier parks in Moscow, the Tatarstan initiative is revivifying the local design and manufacturing bases with a “teach a man to fish” approach.

An embankment on Kaban Lake in Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital city. Kaban consists of three lakes stretching north to south, with connected ducts. These are the largest in area in Tatarstan. The concept of this project was based on the creation of a single Kaban Lakes Water Park, uniting the three lakes’ embankments. Courtesy Foundation Institute for Urban Development of the Republic of Tatarstan

In places without an established design force, there have historically been two opposing approaches at play: hire experts from abroad or nurture a local design community, a la “give a man a fish or teach him how to fish.” In the Russian republic of Tatarstan, located at the intersection between Europe and Asia, a recent Public Spaces Development Program has created over 350 parks in five years—by choosing the latter approach.

The program, which is one of six recipients of the 2019 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, is led by 29-year old Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova, whose experience as an advisor in Moscow’s Gorky Park rehabilitation caught the attention of the President of Tatarstan in 2015. Almost five years later, the program has set a new standard for design processes in the country with its endeavor to involve not only local architects but also the local community.

“What we’ve managed to achieve is a totally new model of relationship between the state and the people because we managed to make our people the actual client,” says Fishman-Bekmambetova. “With participation, you minimize the probability of failure.”

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City Lake beach in Almetyevsk, a city of 156,000 about four hours southeast of Kazan. The city had lacked a comfortable outdoor area, prompting its inner-city lake to be cleaned and its shoreline redeveloped. A wooden path lines the water and strings together facilities like a fitness pavilion, open-air pool, sauna, playground, boat house, and more. Courtesy Foundation Institute for Urban Development of the Republic of Tatarstan

Ironically, the program began with a failure, when a century-old weeping willow was cut down in the capital city of Kazan’s Uritsky Park. This was in 2015, and Fishman-Bekmambetova’s team had unknowingly ripped off a beloved landmark tree, leaving locals in dismay. But the team has learned from their mistakes. Ever since, the local community has been involved in the design process through consultations and workshops. In fact, it is now mandatory to involve citizens in the development of public space that receives federal funding in all Russian cities.

All told, about 28 public spaces have been created in Kazan, and over 300 more in cities, town, and villages spread around the republic. Mind-blowingly, this entire initiative has come at half the cost of DS+R’s Zaryadye Park in Moscow (the park’s final budget reportedly reached $433.3 million). “It is very expensive and it is very inefficient to invite professionals from outside,” notes Fishman-Bekmambetova.

To train local creatives, she set up ArchDesant, an architectural bureau that was incorporated into the Public Space Program. From this office, ten independent practices emerged, with architects averaging 25 years old. Rich with specific know-how in designing public spaces and parks, some of these practices took the lead on parks across the Republic, like Kazan’s White Flowers park, designed by Project Group 8.

Kaban Lake embankment, Kazan. The embankment comprises a set of water gardens using phyto-filtration, which relies on the natural processes of plants and microorganisms to clean various hazards and toxins in water and sediment. Courtesy Foundation Institute for Urban Development of the Republic of Tatarstan

But “choosing local” didn’t stop with selecting architects. The approach also helped grow the local manufacturing industry from a handful of manufacturers to almost 40 today; and using locally sourced materials helped cut down on import costs, not to mention carbon emissions.

The impact, of course, is more than environmental. In the town of Laishevo, ArchDesant designed a 9-hectare landscaped beach that is one of only four ADA-accessible beaches in Russia (two of which are in Tatarstan). Meanwhile, in the town of Tyulyachi, a wooden pedestrian bridge was built to provide a safe route for schoolchildren in high tide season.

Tyulachka River in the village of Tyulyachi. The much-polluted river was situated within an overgrown ravine; its floodplain was cleaned and stone dams were built to raise water levels and increase aeration. The banks now have various rock and plant species plus a new wooden footbridge. Courtesy Foundation Institute for Urban Development of the Republic of Tatarstan

After Kazan’s Gorkinskо-Ometyevsky forest renovation was complete, the price of real estate nearby went up by 17 percent, says Fishman-Bekmambetova: “This is an economic stimulus for private developers to invest in public spaces.” Still, this program was largely funded by the Tatarstan government, along with support from oil and petrochemical companies, smaller businesses and, as of 2017, the Russian Federation.

All throughout the parks, the approach remains consistent: landscaped embankments, public art commissions, contemporary playgrounds, and cultural pavilions. But most of all, the Public Space Development Program shows a long-overdue ambition that counters the earlier, Soviet-Union trend toward private ownership and refocuses priorities on humble yet quality public spaces.

You may also enjoy “Junya Ishigami’s New Park Turns Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum into a Public Offering.

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