Visitors to Moscow could be forgiven for thinking that the city’s Garden Ring was named as something of a joke. The road, which is 16 lanes wide in parts and encircles the very centre of Moscow, features hardly a blade of grass or a single flower for most of its 10 miles of length.
Long ago, in the 19th century, the ring road’s wide expanse was home to verdant foliage and impressive gardens, but Stalin’s replanning of the Soviet capital saw the greenery disappear in favour of the current concrete hoop, lined for much of its length with overbearing Stalinist architecture.
Fumes waft from traffic jams a dozen lanes thick, while at night boy racers drive their sports cars at truly terrifying speeds.
But this summer, as part of an urban regeneration programme transforming the whole of Moscow’s city centre, there is a plan to put the garden back into the Garden Ring, narrowing the road and making it a more pleasant place for pedestrians. The Tsarist-era pleasure parks will not be making a comeback, but the plan is to plant 3,000 trees along the road, shading the pedestrian areas from cars and giving a new feel to the city centre.
The first part of the work, covering about one-third of the ring road, will take place this summer, along with a major overhaul for about 70 other streets.
“The main goal is to make the city less dirty, less loud and more pleasant,” said Anastasia Gordeeva of Strelka KB, an urban planning consultancy group, which has coordinated the projects for the Garden Ring and many other central Moscow streets. “Recently many people have stopped driving their own cars and started using taxis; the next step is to get more people walking.”
Dozens of Russian and foreign experts were involved in drawing up a thick stack of regulations on how to overhaul Moscow’s streets, taking into account the city’s specific climactic, architectural and historical conditions.“There are 3,500 streets in Moscow and we have categorised them into 10 types. For each type we have drawn up guidelines; everything from the angle at which light should fall from the street lamps, to which manhole covers should be used,” said Gordeeva.
For most of the long rule of mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s development was criticised as corrupt and chaotic, with little attention paid to quality of life issues or urban planning. Under Sergei Sobyanin, who took over in 2010, the city authorities have begun to take planning issues more seriously. A number of city parks have been completely renovated, most notably Gorky Park, while new pedestrian areas, a local equivalent of Boris bikes and the advent of taxi apps such as Uber have all changed the way people get around the city.
Last summer, an overhaul of the city centre began, as many central streets were remade with wider pavements and bike lanes.
But despite the positive changes, the improvement programmes have not been without their controversy. Many frustrated residents woke up to find their neighbourhoods turned into chaotic building sites without any warning. Whole segments of the centre became dusty no-go areas while the work went on.
In February, the city government removed more than 100 kiosks, shopping centres and cafes built without proper planning permission, literally tearing them down overnight with bulldozers. Again, the logic was persuasive, but the execution was questionable and the dramatic destruction caused controversy. The hope is that the next wave of urban development will proceed a little more smoothly.
“The main thing is to make sure that people know when things are happening and know how they can avoid the works by taking alternate routes,” said Gordeeva.
Also slated for renovation this year is New Arbat Street, a 1960s-built concrete artery that cuts through what were once quaint low-rise alleyways to create what was meant to be the most modern and futuristic street in the Soviet Union. Now, its tall, crumbling apartment blocks and vast concrete expanses make it look more post-apocalyptic than utopian.
The city hopes to finish the urban rejuvenation programme by 2018, by which time many of the capital’s central streets will have been overhauled