In November 2019, Internationaler Arbeitskreis e.V. in partnership with Center for Society Research (Cedos Think Tank) supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany organized educational exchanges for urban grassroots activists from Ukraine and Germany. The project was titled the Dialogue for Cohesive Cities. For several years in a row, Cedos Think Tank has worked to popularize the idea of the just and cohesive city whose core values are equality and social justice. In 2018, What is Just City was the topic of the first Ukrainian Urban Forum which took place in Kyiv.
To follow up on last year’s results, we invited 20 activists from various Ukrainian and German cities to participate in two educational trips. For a week, participants from 8 Ukrainian cities met with urban grassroots initiatives and non-governmental organizations in Berlin, Jena and Leipzig. This was followed by a response visit by German activists who met with civil society representatives in Lviv, Kyiv and Zaporizhia. During the trips, the participants shared their impressions and thoughts about the exchange programs via social media pages with the hashtag #dialogue_for_cohesive_cities.
This article completes the media component of the educational exchange project. In the previous six materials, we used the examples of Ukrainian cities to reveal various aspects of (un)fairness in contemporary urban milieu. In this article, we talked to some organizers and participants of the educational exchanges about their understanding of the idea of the fair and cohesive city.
Cities are created by people. In fact, a city is a spatial form of the social contract. People apply their own ideas of fairness or unfairness, accessibility, and equality to space. Speaking about the just and cohesive city, we should first ask the question whether it can exist under the current political, economic and social circumstances.
«I believe that the idea of the just city is utopian, because it can only be implemented by a just society. Unfair city spaces, in fact, just reproduce the inequalities that exist in society,» says Philipp Zimmermann, a German urbanist and participant of the educational exchange «Dialogue for Cohesive Cities». He is working on a research of how inequality and marginalization of social groups is reflected in the urban space. In particular, he studies how anti-migrant sentiments are exacerbated in public transportation.
«I have talked to Arab immigrants who use public transportation in Leipzig. They regularly face racist discrimination in public transport. It’s a usual phenomenon in the German society, but public transport is also a tense and conflicted space. The daily experience of public transport shapes the urban identity of these migrants, and they look for their own ways to gain the right to the city and the right to accessible transportation.»
Access to housing is also one of the urban inequalities, explains Philip. In many cities, affordable housing is located in polluted areas. A low-income person can rent an apartment near a road or a factory which pollutes the air. Accordingly, if someone has low income, they lose access to clean air, high-quality drinking water, and sometimes to leisure and public spaces, although these things should be accessible for everyone.
«Solving these problems requires broad approaches which affect the society at all levels. And these problems can be mitigated with urban planning policies. Kyiv, in my opinion, is a very interesting city in this respect. Here, you can see how urban heritage is transforming, and the new middle class is inscribing new inequalities into the urban space,» adds Philip.
In short, a cohesive city is a city where diverse social groups have equal access to social amenities: education, public spaces, transportation, housing, water, food, clean air. But there is a «but» here. If something is convenient, comfortable and accessible for one group, it may violate the rights of another group. In the opinion of Anastasia Bobrova, the coordinator of the educational exchange program and a Cedos analyst, a city can, after all, approach the cohesive status if decisions are not made to benefit the privileged groups.
«Kyiv is a relatively car-centric city. Roads are widened here, interchanges are built. But car owners are already a privileged group. In addition, car infrastructure harms the other city residents, makes it harder for them to travel on foot, pollutes the air. It sounds absurd to me that we as a society want to give up our health and comfort in favor of one privileged group of people,» adds Anastasia.
What Ukrainian cities lack in order to be considered cohesive
- Citizen participation in decision making
City decisions must be made jointly: by government bodies and city residents together.
«City residents should be responsible for their city and participate in the processes of both planning and implementation of city development strategies,» says Olena Afanasieva, a Kherson activist and participant of the educational exchange. She is working on the project of revitalization of a three-storey building which used to contain the ventilation workshop of the machine manufacturing factory in Kherson. In half a year, the building will host the Turbine Art Platform, where lectures, forums, concerts, exhibitions, seminars, workshops, poetry readings and other events will be held.
One of the forms of this influence on decision making are competent NGOs which can promote their ideas. Kherson, notes the activist, already has these organizations, and, if needed, they can consolidate and collaborate.
However, the process cannot be unilateral. That is, dialogue presupposes that governments involve city residents in decision making. Most Ukrainian cities have problems with that.
«In Kyiv, for instance, reconstruction projects are often revealed to the public when they have already been implemented. Or they just change something quietly without informing the people. This was the case, for example, with the ground-level road crossing in Pushkinska Street,» recalls Maryna Bludsha, a cycling activist and participant of the educational exchange. During the renovation in Pushkinska, it turned out that the design project did not include a ground-level road crossing; activists organized a protest, and soon the Kyiv City Street Administration gave an order to arrange a proper crossing. The story did not end there: it turned out that a bicycle lane was installed in the street which ended abruptly several dozen meters before the crossroads.
- Barrier-free city
The absence of barriers, just like accessibility, is a broad concept. However, one of the key infrastructural components is the lack of possibility to move around the city without jumping into underground or above-ground crossings, without looking for a way out of «baffling traffic interchanges,» explains the cycling activist.
«In addition, we have a lot of tall curbs and few ramps. When someone is riding a bike, walking with crutches, with a baby stroller or in a wheelchair, or when someone is just tired, simply moving around the city is exhausting,» adds Maryna.
«This means that Kyiv is a car-centric city, for which automobiles are a higher priority than pedestrians,» explains Tim Wenzel, a German cycling activist and participant of the educational exchange. «In Germany, particularly in Berlin, you can only see underground crossings at subway stations—they actually lead into the stations.»
- High-quality public transportation system
If a city is car-centric, we need to create the conditions in which driving around would be less convenient than taking public transportation or riding a bike. «Infrastructure is valuable when it connects places where people work to places where they live,» explains Maryna Bludsha.
Biking infrastructure is one of the transportation features which all Ukrainian cities lack, especially Kyiv.
«They’ve started building the cycling infrastructure, but in the five years of the last mayor’s term of service only one full cycling route was built. Not everyone lives in Troieshchyna, so it’s not enough to have one cycling route. Also, there aren’t enough bike parking spots in public places,» explains the activist.
For example, in Leipzig, according to Anna Kalash, an activist of the Lviv NGO Better Sykhiv and a participant of the educational exchange, they clearly prioritized among different types of infrastructure: pedestrians, cyclists, public transportation (particularly trams), and only then car owners. «If it takes you 20 minutes to get to work by tram and 40 minutes to drive there, how quickly will you switch to trams, which will have a normal schedule, cost less and be comfortable?»
- Non-commercialized public spaces
If public space is a place created for the mass presence of people, it is not necessarily publicly accessible. And even if it is publicly accessible, it’s not always free. These lines are fine but important.
As a result of urban policies, public spaces are transformed and change their functions. Government bodies give up green areas for construction projects, closed office centers appear instead of parks. These spaces stop being accessible to everyone, because only a limited circle of people with passes can go there. The situation with shopping malls is similar: everyone can theoretically go there, but not really.
«If you think about it, this type of space remains public only to those who have money,» adds Anastasia Bobrova. «It becomes closed for the marginalized groups: homeless or low-income people.»
The need for city spaces which would be free and public is urgent for most Ukrainian cities. Anna Kalash from Better Sykhiv emphasizes that although the city has parks, it still lacks spaces equipped for people with disabilities or for parents with baby strollers.
A few years ago, residents of the Sykhiv residential neighborhood in Lviv, together with activists from the organization, successfully defended their right to the local park. A shopping mall was planned to be built in its place. In the end, the «right to the city» was defended, the shopping mall was never built, but the community chose a rather peculiar means to save the place from further attempts at development. A statue of Virgin Mary was installed in the middle of the park.
The German activist Philipp Zimmermann notes that religion often plays a serious role in Ukrainian urban planning. «Statues of saints in public spaces are an effective partisan tactic to restrain the spread of broad commercial projects,» notes the activist. On the other hand, this story may feel ironic, says Anastasia Bobrova, because the Church itself is often an active developer.
However, even if public space exists, it doesn’t mean that it’s accessible and open to everyone, emphasize the activists. And because public space is actually a part of the general infrastructure, it can also be affected by other factors. For instance, it often suffers from vandalism.
«This problem exists in Kherson. There aren’t enough public and cultural spaces in the city in general, and the ones that exist suffer from vandalism. This, in turn, is a result of low cultural level. So it produces a vicious circle: if there are no opportunities, there is no development; if there is no development, there are no opportunities,» explains Olena Afanasieva.
- Public bathroom network
There have been attempts to arrange public bathrooms in the biggest Ukrainian cities, and some of them were successful. Kyivvodofond, for instance, created a map of public bathrooms in Kyiv. Of the fifty bathrooms marked all over the city, only a dozen are actually operational. And even those usually require a fee to use them and do not work around the clock. One of the ways is to come up with an alternative.
Ivan Verbytskyi, the director of the Cedos Think Tank, explains: because Ukrainian municipalities are incapable of building public bathroom networks, all restaurants and cafes in Ukraine have to allow everyone who comes in to use the bathroom, even if they don’t plan to order anything. «It’s an element of solving the problem, but it doesn’t solve it completely. There are people who cannot use this option. For example, homeless people,» explains Ivan.
What German cities lack in order to be considered cohesive
Both in Ukraine and in Germany, the problem of inequality in cities exists: there are groups of people who win from social changes and groups who lose, emphasizes Ivan Verbytskyi. While the city develops in one direction, another direction can lag behind. For example, Berlin’s development as a creative and innovative city has made its real estate more expensive.
- Affordable housing
In Berlin and Jena, there are initiatives and organizations which fight against rising rents. Jena, the most expensive town in East Germany, has the community initiative Sozialewende whose goal is to reduce rents, adds Maryna Bludsha.
«These requirements probably exist because renting an apartment here is not a shadow business, like in Ukraine; it involves official contracts between tenants and landlords. The latter are usually private companies in which 80% of shares are owned by the city administration. Only a select few can afford to buy an apartment in Germany; about 80% of people rent housing. And this is not just because real estate is expensive here, but also because there are very few apartments for sale, since it’s more profitable for housing operators to rent them out. In Jena, renting a square meter of housing costs 6 to 10 euros, and the rent is periodically increased,» explains Maryna.
«Every three years, rent in Jena grows by 15%—it’s a system of rent control at the city level. Before, the number reached up to 20%, but the local grassroots initiative’s struggle helped to reduce it at least by 5%. But even this amount is too high. It’s interesting in contrast to Berlin, where rent growth has been frozen temporarily now. They’ve designed a bill which would hold the rent at 9 euros per square meter. For the people who already rent housing at higher rates, there’s an option to appeal to the municipality with a demand to reduce the rent,» says Anastasia Bobrova.
Among Ukrainian activists and NGOs, this topic is not articulated, although it is no less relevant for Ukrainian cities.
«This fall, the Cedos Think Tank conducted a study of state social policies and found that 43% of people in Ukraine do not know what they would do if they lost their current housing. Only 16% said that they would be able to rent another apartment. 89% of the respondents cannot afford to change their place of residence because they don’t have the money. This problem exists because we don’t have a public and social rental housing market,» adds Anastasia Bobrova.
- Better quality cycling infrastructure
At first it seems that, compared to Ukraine, German cities should not complain about bad cycling infrastructure. Berlin is almost considered to be a cycling paradise, you can see bike traffic jams here during rush hours, and even babies ride in bicycle carriages. But this is only the first impression.
«German cities are, of course, more comfortable, inclusive and barrier-free than Ukrainian cities, but they also have similar mobility problems, albeit at a different level,» explains Anastasia Bobrova.
For instance, activists from the local cycling initiative Changing Cities fight for making bike lanes safe for everyone—from children of 6 to people over 80 years old. They are convinced that the cycling infrastructure that exists in Berlin today is not sufficiently safe. Every year, 9 to 15 cyclists die in Berlin; drivers here also break traffic laws and park on bike lanes.
How German cities solve their structural problems: experience of Leipzig and Berlin
- Shrinking cities
One of the problems faced by German cities is their shrinking, explains Ivan Verbytskyi, the director of the Cedos Think Tank. In the 1990s, people started to leave East German towns en masse. The urban space was changing in accordance with the migrations.
In the Berlin neighborhood of Marzahn, for instance, the top few floors were knocked off nine-storey buildings, turning them into three- to four-storey buildings.
«In Leipzig, they just demolished dozens of apartment buildings and optimized the social infrastructure, because its maintenance was no longer justified,» explains Ivan.
The problem of population outflow is no less relevant for Ukraine, especially for smaller cities. «But, in contrast to German cities, they still plan their development as growth rather than attempting to effectively manage the shrinkage and to gain benefits from optimizing the infrastructure,» adds Ivan.
«The story of Leipzig’s development. It’s dramatic and successful at once—and it’s very similar to what’s happening in Kherson and many other Ukrainian cities now. The reason for the decline of manufacturing in Leipzig was objectively very good: the Berlin Wall fell. But it became a problem for the city, because people started to leave for West Germany in droves. Leipzig was left with shutdown factories and empty buildings—it’s what we’re experiencing now,» says Olena Afanasieva. «Leipzig was saved by smart planning and creative approaches; it’s also important here that the ideas of cultural revitalization were equally well understood and supported both at the government level and by the owners of the crisis industrial facilities.»
One of the locations of this kind was the textile factory Baumwollspinnerei. At the age of 130, it was transformed into an art space for artists.
«In Kherson, the cotton factory also closed, but nothing appeared in its place except for a shopping mall; all the buildings were just destroyed, a huge territory is now in ruins,» adds Olena Afanasieva.
- Depressed neighborhoods
The Berlin City Hall once conducted a study of various city neighborhoods and discovered a few which were the most depressed; after this, it hired NGOs to help with self-organization and cultural life in these neighborhoods, says Ivan Verbytskyi.
«What is impressive here is the approach to planning—the way indicators of well-being and the neighborhood’s comfort for its residents are designed at the city level. Based on these indicators, they determine the neighborhoods which need additional resources and efforts to be allocated for their development,» explains Olena Afanasyeva.
One of these depressed areas was Marzahn in East Berlin. It was developed in the 1960s—1970s. When the Wall fell, many people started moving out of there to West Berlin or other cities which provided more job opportunities. The apartments were left empty, real estate prices fell, crime was on the rise.
«If we try to compare it to Kyiv, this neighborhood is like a Berlin Troieshchyna. In addition, it is home to the highest number of voters of AfD, a neo-Nazi party,» says Tetiana Honcharuk, a co-organizer of the educational exchange program.
In recent years, Berlin has been trying to build infrastructure there and allocating subsidies to it—particularly to pay for social and cultural projects. A hostel has been arranged on the last floors of a local nine-storey building, a homework group for the local children has been organized in the basement, and a neighborhood cafe has opened on the ground floor, where the locals bake pies and offer tea to visitors. The space has been designed together with children and elderly people, involving them in some of the main facilities. For instance, the children completely designed the hostel.
Anna Kalash adds: «In our usual understanding, an activist is by no means a ten-year-old kid. But it’s the right approach: the children are taught from a very young age that their opinion matters, they see their dreams turn into reality.»