“You Look Out and See Everything Is Ugly”: How a Barnaul Resident Took Charge of the City’s Grassroots Urban Activist Group
October 17, 2019
In a series of monologues entitled “Close to the Heart,” Takie Dela hands the microphone to residents of Russia’s regions whose personal involvement and willingness to act are gradually changing their local communities. The star of our second installment is Barnaul resident Yegor Galkin, head of Spire, a local grassroots group.
How do I want my city to look? How can I change the space in which I live? Five years ago, a schoolboy from Barnaul sought answers to these questions, learned about the work of Spire, and became interested in urban planning.
Yegor Galkin. Photo courtesy of Mr. Galkin and Takie Dela
Spire, a grassroots group, emerged in 2013 amid the popularization of urban planning in Russia. Its founder, Sergei Ustinov, is a well-known big data expert: he created a nation-wide map of road accidents in Russia. In 2013, the group established its presence on social networks and started doing walks in the city and making photographs. I joined the project in 2014, which was when we launched a map of grassroots proposals in Barnaul. This has been our group’s main focus.
We developed a large interactive map of Barnaul where any resident could leave his or her proposal for beautifying and improving the city. Any user could vote these proposals up or down. Based on the results of the voting, we would send requests to the authorities. We wanted to interact directly with Barnaul city hall and the government of the Altai Territory, but we were ignored. We had over 500 proposals, for which 3,000 votes were cast on our website. Those were huge numbers for Barnaul. After a while, some of the proposals were implemented. This was due to our written requests, but also because some of them were too obvious to ignore.
We still are not in a direct dialogue with officials. Instead, we have learned how to work through the media: they hear us and react. If we have found an irregularity, they try to fix it. For example, the city had a contract for erecting fences, but they were not erected, although they existed on paper. After we wrote about this, the fences went up the next day. I am against fences, but an irregularity is an irregularity.
Our work can be divided into several categories: planning (like the map of grassroots proposals), fighting for green areas, work on the city’s master plan, and daily work by experts, including environmentalists and urban activists. They find irregularities in the city’s improvement and road repair projects, check them against the official paperwork, and publish their findings. This is all done for free: we have no funding. Our desire to change the city and our initiative drive everything we do.
When urbanism first came to Russia, people didn’t know what it was and how it could improve their lives. When they went to Europe, people sensed things could be different in Russia. We quickly found a common language with people like this. We would tell them what we could do in Barnaul to make life more comfortable, such as introducing dedicated bus and bike lanes and improving public transport.
At first, many people had a hostile reaction to these ideas. They said we needed to expand roads to accommodate more cars. Every group that tackles urban problems is confronted with this reaction. When we started talking about public spaces, however, we found lots of new allies.
Everything always begins with the individual: how would I like to see the city? Personal comfort is important. That was why it captivated me. I began studying the subject, reading a lot and looking at different proposals and projects. Now it is a scholarly interest because I am studying political science. Urban planning and urban reform are impossible without politics. I am curious about the evolution of cities, demographic processes, and gentrification’s impact on urban development. I’m a grassroots urban activist and I want the city to be better.
We have been fighting for Barnaul’s green areas. In 2015, we did our first big project about city parks, which dealt with their current state. While everyone in Moscow knew what was happening in the city’s parks, people in Barnaul didn’t know anything. In 2016, we did the project again, this time in cooperation with a local news website and professional photographers. We made a video using quadcopters. And we spelled out the problem: nobody was taking care of the parks. Some of them had been subjected to deforestation, while others were so badly neglected it was dangerous to go there.
Barnaul has a population of 700,000, and there used to be six city parks. Now there is one official park that is still open. The other parks lost their official status and no one has been managing them. This is a big problem for Barnaul. We are surrounded by old-growth forests, but there are few green spaces in the city itself.
The bulk of the people who subscribe to our group’s social media pages signed on when we raised these issues. People voiced their support and willingness to engage in joint action. Half of Emerald Park was logged, sparking a lively protest over the fact that the city’s green areas were neglected. Whereas there had been no reaction from the authorities in 2015–2016, the issue has finally been raised at the regional level in 2019. Recently, we had a round table at the Altai Territory Legislative Assembly on the topic of green areas in the city.
We raise the hot-button issues in Barnaul. If they are written about, people know about them, and city officials have to react. Our experts are so good that when city hall officials hear their names they freak out. All of the publications posted on our social media pages are read by the prosecutor’s office and the investigative agencies. If there are irregularities, they conduct inquiries.
We have now been trying to establish relations with the district councils. We are getting ready to present our draft project for a park area, a project we did in keeping with all the canons of urban planning. We did surveys of the area in summer, autumn, winter, and spring, as well as research on how people navigate parks. The project for this park will soon be open to feedback from any and all residents of Barnaul. I think it will be interesting and beneficial. I don’t recall that a grassroots undertaking like this has ever been implemented in the regions.
Judging by polls, people want to see quality. The canons of urbanism and notions of proper improvements to amenities can be captured in the phrase “quality infrastructure,” meaning infrastructure that is sound, convenient, comfortable, and safe. People have the same idea: they want to live in a safe and pleasant green space. There is popular demand for quality urban improvements.
An important thought for all grassroots groups is that you need to do what you do and do it well. If you see a problem you need to make sense of it and talk about it. You have to recruit experts and not be afraid of communicating with the authorities, of building a dialogue with regional parliamentarians, city councilors, and district councilors so everyone has a stake in solving the problem. You have to voice your proposals and, most importantly, spark the interest of groups that can impact decision-making. Merchants, authorities, city councilors, political parties: you need to interact with everyone. An urban activist is a person who thrives on interaction and dialogue.
Translated by the Russian Reader