Learning to change Ukrainian cities

Author : 112.UA 112.UA

Respondent : Marieke Berkers

Source : 112 Ukraine

“I would plea for a city in which the car gets less space and the pedestrian and bicycle more”, - Marieke Berkers
12:38, 21 April 2016

Since its establishment in 2008 in Kyiv, CANactions platform has become one of the biggest Ukrainian movements aimed at spreading the world-best practices in the field of Architecture and Urbanism for Ukrainian environment improving and development. CANactions School for Urban Studies,located in Kyiv, is an experimental educational institution, aimed at the exploration of Ukrainian cities, identifying concepts and defining actions for urban development – on strategic as well as tactical levels. Ukrainian students receive knowledge and skills in order to transform our cities to the pleasant, safer and attractive space for the benefit of all the inhabitants.

Marieke Berkers, Architectural Historian and the tutor of the CANaction School talks about the benefits of studying Architecture and Urbanism in Ukraine, the interests of Ukrainian students, as well as appreciates the modern Kiev urban look and shares her thoughts about some infrastructural issues of the capital of Ukraine.

Do you agree with the fact that the appearance of the city strongly influences the attitude of its inhabitants? What is the role of the citizens in changing their city and how important is their active participation?

I do agree. Therefore I would plea for a city in which the car gets less space and the pedestrian and bicycle more. That would lead to a healthier city: less pollution and more people sporting and walking. Active participation is important, but to organize a well-functioning system of people participating in a formal way takes a long time. I was one of the leaders of the Amsterdam organization in which the people of the city were asked to help making plans and advises for the board of the city: Stad-Forum. We had very close connections with the alderman responsible for spatial planning. This way of working has a long tradition in Amsterdam and it took a long time to experiment to find out what was the most efficient and successful way to work. I worked with people of Belgrade, Madrid, Vienna and Paris in projects active participation. And I also learned every city is different. So I have to be modest in giving advice without knowing the dynamics. But in general: changing the city starts with small initiatives. Start making small gardens, safer playgrounds, organize debates about urgent issues. Look at projects that are already taking place and see if - with a small addition - you can add program or make smart connections in between existing projects. Start growing a network and make an agenda together, about things you’d like to change. Communicate ideas with journalists and the city government.

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Projects related to barrier-free environment are being implemented very slowly in Ukraine. Many elements of the infrastructure are not designed for the elderly people and people with disabilities. Have you been a witness to successful introduction of barrier-free environment and infrastructure improvement in other countries? What is preventing Ukraine to succeed in realizing such projects?

I’m a little bit careful with ambitions in making the city too much barrier free. In the Netherlands I contributed in a program where we were developing strategies for public spaces that are friendly for people who move slowly, like elderly people. In this project we spoke thoroughly with experts of elderly care and medics specialized in diseases like Alzheimer. A very wise lesson-learned was that moving is extremely healthy for elderly people. If elderly people stop moving, the downfall of their health goes very quick. Elderly people do have a chance they fall quickly, but exactly therefore they should keep exercise their ability to react quickly and move smoothly. So they should be stimulated to keep taking small stairways, or make a daily stroll towards for instance the bus stop. Of course public transport should be accessible for disabled and elderly people. Public buildings as well. There’s still a lot of work to do in Kiev to make these facilities accessible for everyone. But next to that also think about social programs. Help the elderly people move, by taking their arm for example! More in general I think the car is very dominant in Kiev. If you aim a more bicycle- and pedestrian friendly city, you work on a city that’s more pleasant for everyone, elderly people and disabled people included.   

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Since 2014 a large number of murals have appeared in Kyiv. Do you think it’s a positive and original phenomenon of Ukrainian of modern urbanism? Can these elements become a visual highlight of the city?

I do think so! What stuck me about Kiev is that the scale of buildings and street is very large. But it doesn't feel like that, especially not in the central areas of town. That’s because there’s a lot of activity on street-level: shops, (mobile) coffee-bars, people making music, strolling in the parks et cetera. Those functions and activities make the city alive; a pleasant place to move around. Programming the public space and adding art or murals adds to this vivid character. These interventions invite other people to contribute in making public space more pleasant, alive and therefore safer and attractive as well.

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Could you please tell us a bit about your experience in CANactions School?

The program of the Studio’s organized by CANactions School for Urban Studies step-by-step leads towards possible solutions for urgent questions in Ukraine. In Studio#2 for example we focused on possible futures for postindustrial cities. The sequence of steps to be taken is very accurately planned. And this works very well. I was involved in the research phase. Students defined their research questions and during a field trip to Kramatorsk were able to gather information. It made them realize you first have to gather sufficient, usable information before you can start thinking about concrete solutions. Also the school works with a wide range of international guest tutors. A great system as you keep the team fresh and you can be very precise in asking the right expert for a specific part of the Studio. It also enables the students and the school to enlarge their professional networks, as they meet different people from different backgrounds like design, economy, politics or heritage during the period the Studio takes place. 

What have you found the most fascinating about Ukrainian students? 

They are very passionate and motivated to work on urgent problems in Ukraine. Many of them were quite critical about the way politics, spatial planning and economy is working right now. But they choose to react in a positive, active way by attending a school in which they can develop new strategies how to improve matters in the country in a resilient way.

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