Burrow City versus Hipster Urbanism
Sociologist Victor Vakhshtayn on why Moscow is a metropolis for newcomers
August 1, 2015
Why do Moscow residents not trust each other? Why do they not want to live here? Why is Moscow still “rubbery”? Who perverted the concept of hipster urbanism and why? Lenta.ru discussed this with Viktor Vakhshtayn, director of the Centre for Sociological Research at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) in Moscow and a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences[.]
You have repeatedly said that one percent of the population in Moscow trusts each other, meaning this is a society of mutual distrust. But what is Moscow really like in terms of interpersonal communication?
Victor Vakhshtayn: When sociologists talk about interpersonal communication in cities they usually mention two interrelated topics.
The first is the problem of public spaces, places where urbanites meet face to face. It is thought that such spaces shapes the identity of the city, because this is where its inhabitants face each other not as colleagues, friends or drinking buddies, but namely as urbanites. In Moscow, (as, indeed, in many large Russian cities), the problem of public spaces is very serious. In recent decades, they have either been privatized and redeveloped or strategically destroyed. The example of Moscow’s Manege Square, a source of constant concern for the authorities, is telling in this instance. When the Okhotny Ryad shopping center was being designed, the architects were tasked with making it impossible for large numbers of people to gather in this space. The problem was solved elegantly. The square was made the roof of the [underground] shopping center, which, however, did not prevent protesters from spontaneously mobilizing a few years ago.
A city that has no public spaces is rigidly divided into home, work, and transit. Your life is divided among apartment, office, and subway, car or commuter train. Hence the horror of the entryways in Russian apartment buildings, and the specific perception of the city that architects dub “burrowness.” (Bedroom communities are containers for burrows, and the subway is the crossing point between apartment-as-burrow and office-as-burrow.)
In recent years, much has been done in Moscow to bring public spaces back to life, but now the process of revitalization have stalled. We partly have ourselves to blame: the theme of public space very quickly began to be perceived à la the hipster urbanism of Richard Florida and Jan Gehl, meaning in terms of things like bike lanes, lawns for doing yoga, and eating cotton candy outdoors. The people who returned public spaces as a focus of discussion and planning preferred not to recall that the prototype of such spaces is not the promenade, but the Greek agora and the Roman Forum. Khimki Forest and the field in Troparevo-Nikulino are much more public spaces than Sokolniki Park.
But what about local communities?
The problem of local communities is the second talking point about communication in the city. Two thirds of Moscow’s permanent residents were not born here. More than half of them do not own their own dwellings. The average apartment rental lasts between two and three years. In other words, this is a city of nomads constantly on the move between rented encampments and the steppes of the office blocks. That is why it is nearly impossible to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people live in Moscow? According to official statistics, the figure is twelve and a half million people. But economists have calculated that twenty million people consume food daily in Moscow. It is hardly the case that twelve million people are eating for twenty million.
So the argument that Moscow is overpopulated has to be corrected. The nomads have not overpopulated the steppe. At worst, they have trampled it.
The metaphor of a city of nomads also nicely describes Moscow’s relations with the surrounding areas. When Pavel Stepantsov and I attempted to measure the density of social ties in Moscow and Moscow Region, we discovered that an alienation belt had formed round Moscow. In the surrounding towns, no urban life as such is left. Moscow attracts all the resources (primarily, of course, human resources).
So talking about local communities, as urbanists in Moscow like to do, is just ridiculous in such circumstances. As recent studies by the Moscow Institute of Sociocultural Programs (MISCP) have shown, local ties and identities have been preserved primarily in New Moscow and Zelenograd Administrative District. But these are the areas that are the least urbanized.
The price for the nomadic lifestyle is people’s total mistrust of each other and the place where they live. Moscow is a rare metropolis where parents see their children to the subway and ask them to call when they get downtown. People see their own neighborhoods as more dangerous than the city center, although statistics show the exact opposite: most crimes are committed in the central districts. According to our study “Eurobarometer in Russia” (RANEPA) and the latest research by MISCP, half of Muscovites do not know the neighbors on their landing, much less in their stairwell. More than sixty percent believe that returning home late at night is either dangerous or very dangerous. About a quarter of the Russian population believe that people are not such malevolent creatures, and they can generally be trusted, but in Moscow this figure tends toward zero. (More precisely, only one percent of Muscovites believe people can be trusted.)
Hence the expectations for courtyard culture and local communities as little factory for the production of trust in the city. The argument that we need to work with local communities has become the new ideological cliché (like a few years earlier the argument that we had to make this city an interesting place to live). But I would caution against such community optimism. City and neighborhood are antonyms. As a final illustration, I can give you fresh data from MISCP’s project “Mechanics of Moscow.” It turned out that people feel anxious about their places of residence if they don’t know any of their neighbors by sight and have no acquaintances living in the neighborhoods. The feeling of insecurity wanes if they recognizer neighbors by site and develop a few weak, friendly ties. But when strong ties of friendship emerge in people’s habitat and their number grows, the feeling of insecurity and mistrust of the area is again high. When neighbors and friends are the same people, it is the first sign of ghettoization. In the end, the urban community’s ultimate is the ghetto, not the courtyard.
As a person who considers himself a Muscovite, you think that twelve to twenty million residents is a normal figure for Moscow and doesn’t need to be reduced, that the city and its transport system can serve so many people?
Again, nomads cannot overpopulate the steppe. If you cannot say for sure whether twelve or twenty million people live here, it is strange to speak of overpopulation. Is twelve million people a lot? What about eleven million? How many people is normal? At what point does it begin to be a lot?
It’s not a matter of infrastructure or service, but the impact people make. The economic rise of Moscow in the 2000s was in part an effect of its overcrowding and hyperconcentration of resources.
Okay, your stance on the issue of the number of people living in Moscow is clear. But this raises another topic: the capital’s population is constantly increasing. You yourself mentioned the economic upturn of the 2000s was triggered by the influx of new people in the city. Hence the conclusion: if Russia has this center of gravity that is constantly growing, is it worth leaving everything as it is and keep expanding the city? And then everyone will want to move to Moscow, it will expand, and in thirty years or so, it will be twice as big. In this case, is a metropolis where, thirty years from now, forty million people, for example, a problem? And is it necessary to address this issue, for example, by moving some administrative offices and headquarters of major companies, developing other cities, and making them more appealing places to live?
That’s a good question. But first, let’s deal with the economic history. There was an American urban planner Robert Moses, to whom we owe much of the look of modern New York and the whole despised ideology of modernist urbanism. Moses was a bit like a New York Luzhkov, but with a better understanding of the urban economy. He understood that the main competitive advantage of the metropolis is the hyperconcentration of heterogeneous resources in a limited area. His idols were the density, speed, and mobility that make the city a “growth machine.” The more human, economic, administrative, and cognitive resources are compressed in one place, the higher the return, the faster the pace of urban development.
Now let me digress a bit. In 1997, a UK parliamentary committee led by Ron Dearing tried to answer the question of why Scottish universities were consistently outperforming English universities on all fronts. It turned out their competitive advantage was historical: the first (“ancient”) universities of Scotland—Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and St Andrews—were founded as centers of English political influence, and hence they were built in the major cities of the time. Conversely, the English universities of Cambridge and Oxford were established far from the bustle of the city, in the image of the monasteries. When rapid industrialization kicked off in the nineteenth century, urban universities stood to gain due to their location. They become resources for the economic growth of their host cities, and the cities, resources for their development. This is why ideology of hyperconcentration—having the all universities, factories, people, money, and power in one place—is not so absurd and outdated an idea as it might seem to a normal person.
Moscow today is a hypermobile city, 1870s Edinburgh and 1950s New York at the same time. I hesitate to say 1930s Vienna, although in some respects, this parallel is also not without grounds. The city’s economic growth in recent decades is not so much the cause as a consequence of the influx of migrants. Moreover, the migrants are very different: they include qualified young professionals willing to work for thirteen to fourteen hours a day to pay for food and rent, and unskilled migrant workers, who have become targets of exploitation unknown in Marx’s time. People who with a contemptuous grimace hold forth today about the “problem of migration” are usually the same people whose incomes and rapid career growth have been secured by the influx of migrants, who took the jobs they otherwise would have had to take.
Decentralizing Moscow is not just a utopia. It is a dystopia for a city that is a melting pot of people, money, power, and knowledge. As long it is being stoked with firewood, it can afford to grow. Forty million? Even fifty million people is possible if nothing changes. But change is inevitable. It can be triggered by both internal and external factors.
The external factors are more or less clear, and we are now seeing their effect on the city’s economy. The internal changes begin with the question, What it is like to live in a melting pot? What is it like to raise children and ensure a decent life for elderly parents in a melting pot? When such issues arise, then the stage of economic history in which the city is a machine of economic development is over.
Rising prosperity has side effects such as increased expectations for the quality of the urban environment. People no longer want to live and die in an office or on a construction site. The above-mentioned “Eurobarometer in Russia,” recorded an interesting effect two years ago: Moscow’s appeal had begun to rapidly decline, and within Moscow even more rapidly than outside Moscow. A rather remarkable group of potential migrants who put the quality of the urban environment above economic opportunities had taken shape. Economist Sergei Guriev and I then came up with a project: calculating the value of the ruble in Moscow. Because if you make money in a city where you don’t want to spend it, if you feel deeply unhappy and leave whenever possible (for example, on the weekend) for somewhere far away, it is possible that at some point you would prefer to make less money but in better conditions. And then the Moscow ruble is worth less than, for example, . the Petersburg ruble. Alas, for obvious reasons [Sergei Guriev’s emigration from Russia – Lenta.ru], the project has not been implemented.
This, then, is an interesting point. If the capital’s appeal is shrinking, the quality of the urban environment does not satisfy people, could Moscow in thirty years become a city for migrants only? As you say, one big office, only on a larger scale, where the houses have been turned into dormitories for workers and employees, and Muscovites themselves, no longer wishing to live in this office, en masse become rentiers and depart, for example, to comfortable suburban agglomerations or Thailand? Many are already doing this now. Will Moscow 2045 be a city unfit for normal life?
No, of course not. By 2045, Moscow will be radically decentralized. All the organs of state power will have been transferred to Petersburg and Vladivostok. Left without work, migrants will disperse to other cities and countries, and the residential areas, inhabited mainly by indigenous Muscovites, will all fit inside the Boulevard Ring. People will again visit each other at home and move around the city on foot.
But what will be left for them to do when unemployment is at seventy percent? By the way, there is a remarkable study, done at Columbia University, on how the pace at which men and women walked changed when there was mass unemployment. It was found that during the most severe years of the Great Depression in the United States, men began to walk more slowly around the city, and women, more quickly. Because women, unlike men, did not have less to d0.
Both scenarios we have described, yours and mine, are probably products of a morbid Muscovite imagination and have little to do with the urban reality. But yours is more realistic, with suburban Moscow dachas playing the role of Thailand, bedroom districts standing in for workers hostels, and the very meaning of normal life in the metropolis rapidly mutating. It is this situation that brought the ideology of hipster urbanism, probably the best thing that has happened with Moscow in recent years, onto the scene. But this is a separate and a slightly sad story.
I will elaborate on the topic by mentioning two talking points. The first is changing perceptions of law enforcement under these circumstance. According to “Eurobarometer in Russia,” forty-three percent of Moscow residents believe that “the police are a threat to ordinary people, perpetrating lawlessness and violence.” (Fifty-one percent of respondents hold the opposite opinion). This is even more than in the Republic of Dagestan (34%), which holds the second place in our sample.
Another talking point is who in Moscow feels most like Muscovites. According to our data, it is not people who were born in Moscow, but those who came here over ten years ago. They have the strongest Muscovite identity. They are the most active users of the city (from museums and exhibitions to citywide celebrations). It is they, rather than the notorious hipsters, who have shown the most lively response to transformations of the urban environment in recent years.
The main thing to remember is that these people arrived in Moscow ten to twenty years ago not for a “normal” life but for the sake of self-realization. And it is they who now define Moscow.
I understand that you are not a big fan of hipster urbanism. What is bad about it?
To be honest, today I regret that a few years ago I came up with the phrase hipster urbanism. Then it was necessary to more accurately capture the object of our study: the impact on specific urban spaces of the metaphor of the city as a stage, which had gained a foothold in the language of policy makers and officials. I naively supposed that if this concept were terminologically defined in an academic paper, the risk of erosion would be minimal. However, the phrase hipster urbanism caught on first as a cliché in critical journalism, then as a self-designation. Sergei Kapkov [Moscow’s former culture head] then decided to give a lecture on hipster urbanism. Some people in Samara, responsible for the reconstruction of the embankment, authoritatively reported they were working in terms of hipster urbanism. These words can stand for anything today. They do not refer to anything specific and only vaguely link Kapkov’s Moscow and abstract hipsters in a loose associative unity.
Essentially, the modern city is less an arena where social groups, stable community or collective agents clash, and more an arena where languages, models of representation, and different urban ideologies clash. The metaphor of the city is the hard core of ideology; it determines how people see urban space, and what decisions they take in regard to it. Imagine officials from two rival departments at a planning meeting on “mayor’s Tuesday” dealing with city parks. For the some of them, the city is a giant organism in which the parks have been the given the place of “green lungs.” The parks are tasked with producing oxygen. Accordingly, they should be financed in terms of the number of green spaces. For the other officials, parks are public spaces, the city’s “stages.” And they should be financed according to the number of activities staged there, the number of people who attended them, and the public eventfulness they generate. The conflict of metaphors will have real consequences for the city.
At some point, the hipster metaphors—city as stage, city as generator of experiences, city as a set of events—suddenly comes into competition with the two Big City metaphors of the twentieth century: city as growth machine (modernist urbanism) and city as generator of inequality (Marxist urbanism). Moreover, in Moscow the hipster ideology beat out the other ways of thinking about the city for a short period. This is a very curious phenomenon that remains to be researched.
My criticism of hipster urbanism concerned the rhetorical strategies it employed (the way it substituted societal [obshchestvennye] spaces with “public” [publichnye] spaces, its use of vague clichés like creative class and livability), its blind spots (its inability to discuss, for example, migration), and its superficiality and unbending utopianism.
But today, it must be recognized, it is a quite workable ideology that changed the look of the city. Now, when a very different rhetoric and semantics has engrossed the minds of city managers, hipster urbanism looks like the last conquest of public policy. It reminds us of those glorious times when decisions were still determined by the clash of metaphors and ways of thinking, and even city managers needed to answer the question, What is a city?
Under these new cultural circumstances, I will defend the achievements of hipster urbanism to the last.
How do you think the city has changed under the impact of newcomers from the Russian provinces and migrants?
That is a funny way of putting the question. You used the words migrants (apparently from Central Asia) and newcomers (apparently from the provinces). I do not want to upset you, but the newcomers are also migrants, and the migrants are also newcomers. And, given the statistics I cited above, the category of migrants and newcomers must encompass two thirds of the adult population of Moscow, including the Russian president and the mayor of the capital. I find it difficult to answer the question of how their migration has impacted the image of our city.
In general, the notion of the city and migrants as two opposing forces (something like the Eternal City of Rome and the barbarians besieging it) is mistaken, to put it mildly. Because the city equals migration. This just applies to Moscow a bit more than to other Russian metropolises.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade ASK for the heads-up.