Development Wants What Development Gets

The conventional definition of over-development typically applies to the fringe of a city: it impacts pristine land, adds to soil erosion, contributes to pollution in storm-water run-off, loss of habitat, loss of entire ecosystems, etc.  But when it occurs in the center of a city, we drop the pejorative prefix and unreservedly laud it as development – a process that often destroys something just as important to our well-being as the natural environment: the human environment.

Read Rowan Moore’s October 24th article in The Guardian, Samara: the disappearing wooden city on the Volga, and you can see what a hyperactive version of our beloved private development can wreak on a beautiful city center.  Moore describes Samara as a jewel of a Russian city, one that mixes historic wooden homes, constructivist worker’s clubs, and art nouveau mansions.  But all of that is under threat from rampant private developers looking to turn a quick profit off of bland, uninspired condominiums and shopping malls.  A familiar story to any American for sure, but the scale of privately funded urban destruction is multiplied to the nth degree in post-Soviet Russia.

The essential problem, according to Moore, is the role of government, or the lack thereof.  Either the regional or city governments outright ignore development abuses that are right under their noses (like the now-familiar arsons that are used to clear prime real estate), or they are in bed with private interests, to an extent that would make even the most corrupt American bureaucrat blush.  As Rowan states:

“…following the election of the current mayor Viktor Tarkhanov in 2006, the city appointed several associates of the company SOK, which since the mid-90s has aggressively taken over several businesses, to positions of influence. According to Vasili Sergeev, on the website kompromat.ru, ‘several members of the group specialised in murdering for money, drug trafficking, and extortion.’ Sergeev reports that the deputy head of property, the head of the department of architecture, the head of the department of transport and four others had SOK links. Such people are unlikely to let some old wooden houses get in the way of their plans.”

Yes, you read that correctly: there are Russian developers who specialize in murder.  In March of 2010, the Chief Architect of Solikmask was shot dead.  As a strident defender of the city’s historical center who frequently refused building and demolition permits, it is suspected she was murdered by a developer group.

Even just a cursory glance of Russia’s urban situation, courtesy of Rowan Moore, blatantly spells out the dangers of a path that far too many countries and cities around the world are following.  When we hand over too much of our urban space to an invisible hand we lose more than real estate: we lose a shared beauty, history, and humanity.  We lose the ability to create cities that grow sustainably while retaining their core identities, identities that all citizens of a city have a right to.

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