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How a willow tree changed Russia

Discussion with Anna Grichting on participatory public space design in the Republic of Tatarstan and how it spilled over in all Russia.

Anna is a Swiss architect, urbanist and musician whose practice entails strong participative DNA and a passion about designing with and not against nature. Influenced by childhood encounters with the naturalist Robert Hainard, she thrives for an architecture which takes into account all living organisms in a balanced development. Her international career has brought her from ephemeral architecture projects negotiating public space in Switzerland and Ireland to research on borders and their architectural specificities in Cyprus. She also taught at the Qatar University where she worked on the food-water-energy nexus and creating a Living Laboratory as well as practical gardening projects to raise awareness amongst students about the thematic of urban agriculture.

It is as a jury member for the Aga Khan Architecture award in 2019 that Anna Grichting discovered the Public Spaces Development Program of the Russian autonomous Republic of Tatarstan and its fascinating stories of public participation.

Tatarstan is an autonomous Republic in Russia. Its position at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, fostered a unique multi-cultural and multi-religious population, with a high percentage of muslim citizens. The Republic also enjoys a strong industry and its ground bears fossil energy treasures - it is believed to be one of Russia’s most important oil producing regions.

In 2015, Tatarstan launched an ambitious public space improvement scheme : 246 public space projects developed within 5 years, from parks to waterfronts and squares, from the Republic’s capital - Kazan - to rural towns and villages. And all of that for less than half the cost of Moscow’s controversial Zaryadye Park.

However, what is now a success story about place-making, local craftsmanship and public participation, started quite badly. During the make-over of the Uritsky Park, one of Kazan’s oldest public spaces, in july 2015, a worker chain sawed a 185 year old willow tree. It was the first project of the scheme and a public scandal immediately broke out. It turned out that people were extremely attached to that symbolic tree. The uproar that shook the locality was strong, people came together to express their sadness and shock around the dead trunk.

Luckily, the Public Spaces Development Program succeeded in learning from its own mistakes. The program manager, Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova, then 28 years-old, decided that public participation would become one of the pillars of the scheme, mandatory in all projects. The willow tree changed the nature of the tatar government’s ambition and finally spilled over all Russia. Indeed, in 2017, a similar scheme with participatory approach was set up at the national scale and the program became a benchmark for new national public regulation.

Besides the inclusive approach of public participation, the scheme also aimed at reinforcing local economies and smoothing the urban-rural migration of young people by creating attractive work opportunities for local businesses and new firms. Indeed, most of the designers and contractors in these projects were local enterprises. The scheme helped develop a vibrant scene of young architects, landscape architects and urban planners and empower small towns’ civil servants to develop quality public space projects using local resources.

These public spaces were also planned for year-long use, adapting to heavy snowfall and spectacular temperature differences between summer and winter.

Impressed after her journey in Tatarstan, Anna Grichting came back with a question: could the approach of the Tatar Public Space Development Program become a model for local authorities around the world?

With this idea in mind, she decided to do more research on the program and write a book from its output : The willow tree that saved Russia. She led around 100 interviews with different actors and stakeholders. The result - not published yet - is a manual focusing on 6 key actions underlying the Tatarstan model of public space design: Participating, Producing, Communicating, Reflecting, Managing and Partnering.

We look forward to the book!

Summary of Anna Grichting's urbanology talk 22 November 2022


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