October 2011 » FEATURE

Urban Design: Russian Style

In the new town of Yuznyi near St. Petersburg, UDA is helping Russians fulfill the dream of home ownership in a pleasant neighborhood.

By Paul Ostergaard

St. Petersburg and Moscow are experiencing rapid growth as Russians migrate from rural areas to urban centers for work and opportunity. This rapid increase in population has placed great demands on city infrastructure and housing, forcing Russians to find new ways to manage and accommodate growth. Private developers have been preparing plans for new towns near the urban centers of both cities to meet the needs of an expanding population.

The Evolution of the Modern Russian City
The Russian city has evolved over the last century from the creation of attractive urban neighborhoods to the construction of isolated high-rise towns similar to the worst of public housing in the United States. The traditional form of urban housing in Russia, as in many other European cities, is apartment buildings. During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Moscow and St. Petersburg built new precincts of "perimeter block" apartment buildings five to eight stories in height, with courtyards and ground floor shops. Combined with city parks, churches and mercantile buildings, this form of urban housing resulted in very beautiful urban neighborhoods. These precincts were connected to the urban center with subways, trams and boulevards.

During the Stalinist era, larger development blocks and wider city streets were built, incorporating more landscaped open space around the buildings. Apartment buildings were spaced further apart to create a landscaped park setting at the expense of well-defined urban streets. Although lacking in street access, these communities were integrated into the structure of the city. Many of these urban precincts are highly valued today for their tree canopies and large gracious apartments.

From the 1950s to the present, new towns with high-rise apartment buildings have been built in remote locations around the city centers. Buildings are arranged in park landscapes rather than traditional urban blocks, completely disconnected from streets. This seemingly random pattern of towers results in a formless and windswept landscape. The powerful tradition of streets as great public spaces formed by beautiful buildings has completely disappeared in these new towns.

Today, both St. Petersburg and Moscow are surrounded by high-rise concrete housing developments, isolated from the downtown core. The cities continue to build high-rise residential buildings, but the pace of construction is not keeping up with the demand for housing. Families are forced to share apartments and wait for years before getting an apartment. The environments created by these new housing developments are inferior to the traditional urban centers. Because of the lack of public urban space, families feel isolated and disconnected. Regional transit systems are strained beyond capacity and highways are congested to the point of failure. With the rapid increase in car ownership in recent years, the streets and courtyards of the city centers are congested with traffic.

An Alternative Form of Urban Development
Russians have begun to consider low-rise wood-frame technologies and single-family house construction as an alternative to the high-rise concrete buildings surrounding the cities. Developers of low-rise housing believe they will be able to outpace the high-rise projects and will be more responsive to the needs of homebuyers. The high-rise precast concrete building industry is a remnant of the state-owned housing industry and is limited in its construction capacity.

Young development entrepreneurs see a need to offer an alternative to the old system and have begun to build manufactured housing plants to make wood-framed panelized construction, similar to the homebuilding industry in other parts of Europe and the U.S. Russians have consulted with the Germans and Finns and have recently reached out to the American open-wall framing technology. Although the technology is promising, Russians lack the experience of creating low-rise neighborhoods and towns.

Russians have a long tradition of single-family houses in the county as a place to escape the city during the summer months. Traditional Dacha villages have been around for centuries and are treasured places of refuge for city dwellers. The typical house is located on a small plot of land surrounded by a high wall for privacy. Families maintain gardens and grow vegetables, and some raise farm animals.

Dacha villages are usually located next to forests where families go for picnics and hikes. The rapid expansion of new development around Moscow and St. Petersburg is engulfing these traditional Dacha villages and forests. New single-family houses are gradually replacing the older Dachas and changing the nature of the villages. Because Dacha villages follow a distinctly rural pattern of development, county roads are becoming more congested. The walled plots and dirt roads are not suitable for urban environments. Russia simply does not have a tradition of single-family urban neighborhoods.

Lessons Learned from America
The majority of urban neighborhoods in the United States consist of single-family attached and detached housing. American urban patterns are less dense than the traditional European and Russian city; however, a unique form of urbanism in the United States has evolved that creates attractive and pleasant neighborhoods of great variety and character. The essence of a great American neighborhood is the character of the street as public space. Houses with architectural variety, front porches and attractively landscaped front yards are arranged along streets designed with sidewalks, trees and streetlights.

The pattern of streets creates an interconnected network often in the form of a grid. The best neighborhoods have small development blocks and many streets that connect to parks, schools and neighborhood centers. Although American urbanism is lower in density than European urbanism, the importance of the street as public space shared by everyone is critical to the success of both. Start Development, a new company based in St. Petersburg, is one of several new developers interested in fulfilling the new Russian dream, the opportunity for home ownership in a pleasant neighborhood. Because of the lack of lower-density neighborhood design and construction in Russia, Start Development was drawn to look to the United States to learn the art of creating attractive urban neighborhoods with single-family wood frame house building technology.

Start Development invited our firm, Urban Design Associates (UDA), to prepare a master plan for a new town south of St. Petersburg, near the historic town of Pushkin. Start selected UDA because of our extensive experience with the design of New Urbanist communities in the United States and previous new town planning experience in Russia.

UDA teamed with Gillespies, a Glasgow, UK-based landscape architecture firm to help them prepare the Russian plan. Based on their experiences in the Moscow region, UDA and Gillespies approached this project with an understanding of Russian planning and traditions. The objective was to prepare a vision for a new town on 3,700 hectares (14.2857 sq. miles) of land with a team of experienced designers who could bring to the St. Petersburg area an international perspective and familiarity with similar projects. The conceptual master plan, financed by Start, a private developer, has been used to inform and influence the creation of the official master plan prepared by the government of the City of St. Petersburg.

The New Town of Yuznyi
Yuznyi is designed as a new satellite town in the St. Petersburg region, composed of districts, each with distinctive neighborhoods and unique features. The town will offer a range of housing choices from single-family houses in landscaped neighborhoods to apartments in mixed-use town centers. Each home will be served by transit and will be within easy walking distance of neighborhood shops, services, schools and parks.

The town will feature a university campus, industrial and office employment centers and hospitals. Districts will be linked together by an integrated network of open spaces, trails, waterways and recreational areas. The town will integrate internationally recognized sustainable development standards including advanced storm-water management, energy distribution, mobility options and energy-efficient buildings.

Yuznyi is located just south of Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar's Village), one of St. Petersburg's numerous Imperial estates. The park and palace ensemble of Tsarkoe Selo is an outstanding monument of Russian art and culture with a worldwide reputation. The town of Pushkin, north of Yuznyi, is located in the midst of Catherine the Great's Summer Palace and the Imperial Estate of Pavlovsk.

The Yuznyi site has great significance related to battles fought in the St. Petersburg region during World War II. The reverence and treatment of memorials and battlefields is similar to the relationship of American Civil War battlefields on the East Coast of the United States. The design of Yuznyi's open space system is heavily influenced by both eras. Historic roads, buildings and monuments provide rich cultural resources and have influenced the urban form of the new town. The plan includes the restoration of forests lost during the war.

The over-arching aim of the landscape strategy is to create a 'garden city' – an attractive place that is green in character and provides a range of spaces for people to enjoy. It is important to recognize the importance of forests to the Russian people – they are part of the natural ethic of the region. Yuznyi is intended to be set within a forest landscape. Forests are important both in winter and summer – in summer they provide natural shade from the sun and in the winter they become shelter from more extreme weather conditions. All year round they provide an ecological resource for habitat and recreation. The landscaped areas of Yuznyi include wetlands, city parks, institutional lands, streams, ponds and lakes, linked together with trails connected to neighborhoods.

Yuznyi will be organized as a series of neighborhoods, each with supportive services for their residents. These services will be located within walking distance of most homes in the neighborhood, reducing dependence on the automobile. Each neighborhood will have a school, kindergartens, a neighborhood center, emergency and health services, and sports and leisure areas located in nearby parks. Many services will be clustered in the neighborhood centers, a traditional urban pattern found in towns all over Russia.

Two of the larger neighborhood centers are located at existing commuter rail stations that feed into St. Petersburg. Apartment buildings with ground- floor shops and services are located in the core of the neighborhood centers. In neighborhoods surrounding the cores, housing forms transition to single-family houses.

The New Single-Family House
Single-family houses must be designed to be affordable within the context of the Russian housing market. The mortgage industry is in its infancy in Russia compared with western European countries, and many prospective homeowners will purchase new homes with personal savings and loans from family members. As a result, new homes are very price sensitive and must be sized and designed to match the buying public's purchasing power.

The typical affordable two-story townhouse is around 600 sq.ft in Russia as compared to 1,200 sq.ft. in the U.S. The typical single-family three-bedroom house is around 960 sq.ft. in Russia and 1,550 sq.ft. in the U.S. Start Development is building new houses using factory built technologies. Many of the house components are factory-built panelized systems to maintain a high quality of craftsmanship. The houses are designed for high energy efficiency to minimize utility costs, an essential sales requirement.

Development Challenges
Other dynamics challenge the ability of the developer to deliver a product that is affordable, attractive to the market place and aesthetically pleasing. The Russian developer is responsible for upfront development costs for infrastructure that are not commonly found elsewhere. Gas and electric companies often compete for new customers in U.S. developments by funding and building utility lines and services to individual lots. They recover those costs over time from their new ratepayers.

This capitalist approach has not caught on yet in Russia, and developers have to fund those primary utility installations. In addition, outdated Russian building regulations require minimum spacing between buildings that exceeds those required in typical western cities, driving up the size of residential lots. Parking areas and garages are required to be separated from buildings, forcing unusual block and building configurations.

Market surveys show that Russians place greater value on the back yard than the front of the house. As a result, the market prefers parked cars in the front yard to preserve the size and flexibility of the back yard. The ability to create attractive streets with architecturally interesting houses is compromised with this parking arrangement. There are many examples in the U.S. of poorly designed affordable townhouse developments with this configuration, something we are trying to get away from in favor of more traditional neighborhood street design.

Start Development toured new affordable mixed-income neighborhoods in the United States and saw great examples of carefully designed house façades, landscaped front yards and attractive streets. The developers saw the virtues of alleys and rear-loaded lots. Yet they are struggling with development costs, as well as the cultural preferences of the Russian buying public and its opposing desire to create attractive streets and public space. Start Development is very much aware of this dynamic and will continue to push the envelope. They have the advantage of sound advice from American and Scottish urban designers and the cumulative lessons of suburban and New Urbanist development patterns in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Yuznyi is an ambitious plan for the St. Petersburg region. The projected development to accommodate a population of 250,000 people will take years to build out. The first phase of development is located next to two commuter rail stations and an intersection on the M-20, a highway that feeds into St. Petersburg. This first phase will be built for 24,000 people, and construction should begin within a couple of years.

The Yuznyi master plan creates a framework for development that is based on sound town making and regional planning principles. These principles form a solid foundation to meet the needs of an evolving and dynamic market place. Yuznyi has been designed for young developers eager to learn the best urban design practices, overcome barriers to development, and build an exciting new town for St. Petersburg.TB


Paul B. Ostergaard, AIA, is managing principal, Urban Design Associates, Pittsburgh, PA. He is responsible for numerous traditional neighborhood projects as well as the architectural design of many buildings. UDA teamed with Gillespies of Scotland to prepare the Concept Plan for Yuzayi in St. Petersburg. The UDA team members for this project include Paul Ostergaard, prinicipal in charge; Joseph Nickol, project manager; David Csont, Megan O'Hara, Caitlin O'Hara and Joseph Skibba. The Gillespies team members include Brian Evans, principal in charge; Chris Swan, Fiona Dickson and Veronica Watt.

 

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