For decades, the banks of the river flowing through the Russian city of Belgorod were in a sorry state of disrepair.
“It was hard to get down to the water and it was really filthy in places,” architect Jezi Stankevic said.
Now reeds line the waterfront and teenagers lounge on wooden boardwalks that extend right across the river, overlooked by a wooden amphitheater.
The idea of creating pleasant public spaces might not seem groundbreaking, but it is only just taking root in Soviet-planned cities like Belgorod, about 600km south of Moscow.
Such cities were built with the aim of fulfilling production targets rather than responding to the needs of residents, said Daria Paramonova, of the Strelka architecture firm leading the project.
The Moscow-based firm has been awarded a contract to oversee the regeneration of 40 cities under a government program launched in 2017.
The ongoing drive is “the largest urban regeneration project in post-Soviet Russia,” Strelka said.
It comes as the country struggles to halt a tide of young people moving from the provinces to the capital in search of opportunities.
The notion of “quality of life” was initially alien to residents, whose needs and wishes had formerly not been a priority for city planners, Paramonova said.
“Now we say that what’s important is keeping things human,” she said, stressing the role of public consultations before taking decisions.
Residents of Belgorod, a provincial city of about 400,000 inhabitants that was rebuilt after World War II, attended public meetings and were able to vote online for their favorite design project.
The riverside area where people can now stroll, play sports and walk their dogs, is just the start.
The goal is to extend walkways and cycle paths over 20km along the river. Strelka took charge for the initial stages and is to advise local officials and architects on the rest.
Other cities lined up for a makeover of their public spaces include Russia’s third-biggest city Ekaterinburg; Vladivostok; Grozny, where a new park was created; and Novosibirsk.
Like many Russian cities, Belgorod has seen an exodus of young people since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and closure of many local factories. As a result, budgetary revenues have fallen and regeneration projects have slipped right down the agenda.
While some have questioned how Belgorod will maintain costly new facilities, those using them — from students at a nearby university to young mothers with strollers — said that they have been a hit since opening in November 2017.
“It has really got prettier,” said Yelena, a 38-year-old quality control specialist walking in the spring sunshine. “You’re in the center of the city, but you don’t hear any traffic noise. I’d even call it calming.”
Since 2010, the Kremlin has spent billions of dollars on improving public spaces, particularly through a federal program that has handed out 42.2 billion rubles (US$648.1 million at the current exchange rate) for renovation work.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last year asked the government to double its contributions to create a “comfortable urban environment.”
Paramonova highlighted the positive impact that Moscow’s successful — and costlier — “My Street” renovation scheme has had on getting the provincial rejuvenation project off the ground.
Initiated in 2015, it radically changed the face of Moscow ahead of last year’s FIFA World Cup.
The project’s costs controversially soared to 126 billion rubles and it was tarnished by accusations of corruption by municipal authorities.
However, Muscovites now rarely recall the three summers of noisy, dusty renovation work.
It is tricky to take the same ideas to the provinces, “where there is less money and more problems,” Paramonova said.
However, she said she hopes that Strelka’s work will encourage local architects to develop their own projects.
Making provincial cities more attractive places to live in is crucial to ensuring their survival, local authorities have said.
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