Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Spreading the burden

The authorities of Moscow city and the Moscow region will meet this month to sign the final agreement on a project to more than double the size of Moscow by extending the city’s south-eastern border deep into the outlying area.

But the project’s aim, to spread Moscow’s political and economic center across two points instead of the current one, has inadvertently renewed discussion about the urgent need for decentralization in Russia as a whole.

Currently some 8 percent of Russia’s 140 million-strong population is concentrated in the capital and the figure, which does not take the mass of unregistered citizens into account, is steadily rising as more people leave crippled former-industrial towns in the regions in search of work.

Opinions over the effects the Moscow expansion project will have on Russian decentralization are split. Those who support the development, dubbed “the tie” because of its elongated shape, say it is a valid start to the decentralization process because it will shift the concentration of power away from the heart of the Moscow.

As well as creating additional living space for Moscow’s booming population, the project also seeks to relocate government offices and business centers to the new zone to solve the city’s massive congestion problems. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has said the federal authorities might be moved to their new home as soon as in five years.

Viktor Sidnev, the former mayor of Troitsk – a small town that will be swallowed up by the development project – said that the expansion will level out employment disparity between the Moscow region and the city.

“Some 13,000 people in Troitsk are economically active, but only 2,000 of them can be employed locally. The rest have to travel to Moscow for work every day,” Sidnev said at a recent discussion on the expansion project at Moscow’s Nikitsky Club.

Alexander Epstein, director of the Regional Studies Institute at the Higher School of Economics said at the same event that the employment disparity between Moscow and the Moscow region accounts for much of Moscow’s crippling congestion problems, since it forces many people in the region to commute to the city every day. He said that while there are around three working places for every five economically active citizens in Moscow, there is only one for every 500 in the Moscow region.

Furthermore, since the new expansion zone spans the area between two major airports, Domodedovo and Vnukovo, the project has significant potential for attracting businesses.

“The concept of creating business centers around out-of-town airports has been successful in many other world cities and Moscow’s airports can offer much more space than Moskva-City,” Cushman and Wakefield Analyst Alexander Zinkovsky told the discussion group.

The Moskva-City development, which sought to create a financial district west of Moscow city center, has been widely criticized for its lack of transport infrastructure and failure to reduce the traffic burden in the city.

Others argue that the money being pumped into the project to redevelop the 16,000 square kilometers of land marked off by the Moscow authorities could be better spent improving the economic attractiveness of the country’s hundreds of decrepit former industrial towns.

“We are in a situation in which almost 20 percent of the entire population of Russia has moved to Moscow and its suburbs,” said Andrei Bokov, president of the Russian Union of Architects. “There are five times fewer people living in the Novgorod region today, for example, than there were a century ago.”

A string of forthcoming international sports events, including the Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup, will spur investment in several towns west of the Urals, but many observers fear that other Russian cities, especially those in Siberia and the Far East, are being neglected. Ideas for potential solutions to the decentralization issue at the discussion group, however, were thin on the ground.

Andrei Chernikhov, deputy head of the International Architecture Academy told The Moscow News that discussion about how best to decentralize Russia goes back decades. He said that in the 1970s, the Brezhnev regime put forward a plan to break the capital into several autonomous districts, each with its own administrative center and mayor.

“The idea was to break away from the circular system that Moscow is based on, but it was turned down due to fears that the mayors wouldn’t be able to agree with each other on city-wide policy issues,” Chernikhov said.

A more recent proposal involves moving more than 27,000 hectares of heavily industrialized land in the city to the west Russian Smolensk region to free up space for redevelopment in Moscow.

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