FACE TO FACE

Anton Kulbachevsky:

Environmental quality in Moscow is improving

We sat down for an interview with Anton KULBACHEVSKY, head of the Moscow Department of Environmental Management and Protection. His department deals with all environmental issues, including greening the city, environmental education for residents, and ensuring compliance with environmental legislation.

Mr. Kulbachevsky, as we know, the Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin has resolved to make Moscow a liveable city. What does this mean for your department?

It’s no secret that ecology permeates all spheres of city life. So a comfortable, liveable city means a quality environment. It’s more than just about air, water, soil, and green areas. This concept includes environmental aspects like a sustainable urban economy, a developed transportation system, and public spaces where people can relax, spend time together, exercise, and partake in leisure activities. I’m talking about pedestrian areas and new streets that were cleaned up as part of the “My Street” program. New trees were planted and sidewalks were expanded. Not to mention the fact that these places are brimming with all kinds of festivals for people of different age groups during the summer. Over the past seven years we have truly changed the city’s image, making public spaces more welcoming. This is probably the most important thing. It helps people stay in a good mood. There are more reasons to smile, and people become kinder.

I really like this idea you keep coming back to, that improving the environment makes people kinder...

Of course they’re much kinder! Because a person who is barred from public life and interacting with others becomes egocentric and irritable. In the 90s, a lot of negativity accumulated in Moscow. There were cars all over the city, there were traffic jams everywhere, and construction projects that were not very well thought out. Lately we’ve managed to break this disastrous trend. But most importantly, as things like transportation infrastructure were undergoing changes, there have also been education initiatives. Because people were psychologically unprepared for a lot of the changes and innovative processes in the capital.

What do you mean?

For example, we made a pedestrian street and blocked off car traffic. Of course, this was an immediate inconvenience for people who drive. By the way, something that’s interesting is that as urban residents we can inhabit different realities throughout the day. When you’re behind the wheel, you often scream “Where are you going?!” at pedestrians. When you get out of the car and start walking, you’re frustrated by people driving. (Smiles) There aren’t many people who can see the big picture. But for our department this is absolutely necessary. This is why we constantly work with our colleagues from the Department of Transportation on systemizing car traffic in Moscow, cleaning up parking spaces. This has already cut down on space for cars in the center. Why do we spend so much time talking about transport? Because 90% of harmful emissions into the atmosphere come from transport.

It’s important to understand that pollution of air quality, water, soil, declines in the quality of green areas – all of these are related problems. If we don’t think of them this way, it can lead to health problems for our citizens. Here is a depressing figure: 30% of illnesses are related to environmental issues.

After looking at the official numbers, I was shocked to find that green areas occupy 54% of Moscow. That’s an impressive figure. There aren’t many mega-cities in the world that can match it, right?

Right, in Paris this figure is about 20%, and in Beijing it’s 4%. Overall, if you take mega-cities with populations over 10 million people, we’re in first place. And when we’re talking about this 54%, we’re talking about what we refer to “Old Moscow.” If we include New Moscow, the figure will be closer to 90%. But even Old Moscow still has potential. Right now, we are not only renovating old buildings, but also industrial zones. These industrial zones give us the opportunity to increase the figure to 60%. I’ve already talked about the program “My Street,” which brought green areas back to the city’s historic center. We’ve also launched another program called “A Million Trees,” which enables us to improve the quantity and quality of trees and shrubs in Moscow courtyards. Every single resident appreciates this.

The famous Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, whom you know personally, had a lot to do with the transformations we’re talking about...

Jan has a wonderful kind of symbiosis with his wife. He is an architect, she is a psychologist. Together, they have created a new field – comfortable urbanism. Jan Gehl was one of the first people to proclaim that cities must be comfortable for people. Before him, few people have thought of this. This was back in the 1960s. I think his native city of Copenhagen was lucky in this sense. The capital of Denmark is a global leader in terms of many environmental indicators, such bike lanes.

Yes, I met Jan in Toronto in the summer of 2011. Prior to this, I had not encountered him or his work. I listened to his presentation at a conference. In 45 minutes, Jan Gehl was able to give me information that I had clearly been lacking. That lecture opened my mind, and my perspective shifted to the point that I started looking at the city through the eyes of an urban developer, not just another Moscow resident who was born here.

Now I can’t disengage from this perspective. Even when I’m just driving and looking around, I keep noticing that there are certain drawbacks. If I see that something is wrong, I immediately start calling the people in charge so they can fix it. I make 20-30 phone calls like this a day, depending on what I see around me. But the calls aren’t always necessarily about something bad. Every once in awhile I just have thoughts that I want to share with my colleagues.

I am familiar with Gehl’s point of view. He thinks that improvements can be made in any city, even in Greenland. But do you think that Moscow will lose its flair by adopting techniques borrowed from abroad?

No, not at all. Yes, Jan Gehl thinks that any city can be transformed for the residents, but every city has its own flair. So Moscow will always be Moscow! You know, we have been looking into a lot of foreign experience, we hold an urban forum every year where we talk about what we’ve done and look at what’s happening in other cities… I can definitely say that not all urban development solutions can be applied to Russia. I’ll say more. Since 2006, Moscow has been part of the C40 – a group that connects the biggest megacities in the world, addressing issues such as transportation, waste, construction, utilities, and the environment. We have received around 10,000 offers across all spheres of urban life through this association. But not all of them can be implemented in our capital. A maximum of 200-300 can be adapted to Moscow. I’ll give you an example. Swedes pay 500 euros a year for waste disposal, while we pay one thousand rubles a year. Of course, this isn’t the only difference between us. We have different mindsets, history, traditions...

Yes, everything you’re saying makes sense. Overall, how would you describe the environmental conditions in the city today? Are you happy with it?

I’ll never be completely satisfied, because that’s my job. Plus, it’s important to understand that no matter how many improvements we make, there will always be environmental problems in a big megacity like Moscow. But to answer your question: Moscow is becoming a comfortable city in terms of the environment. We are proud of the fact that we’ve been able to break a negative trend. Over the past seven years, we’ve made a big breakthrough through urban construction policies, improvements in transportation, energy conservation, restructuring the urban economy… That is, we did this with the help of the usual methods that all cities have implemented. The progress is tangible. We have managed to reduce the amount of harmful emissions from cars by 120,000 tons. This is an incredible success, since the number of harmful emissions from cars has always increased. We were able to break the trend for the first time. We were hovering in the same spot for a few years, and then the number dropped.

But I clearly understand that we can’t only rely on traditional methods that have been used in the past. In order to reduce emissions by another 30% (about 300,000 tons by 2030), we need to start using the latest green technologies. They already exist and are being tested in other cities, and they arrive here as well.

What are these green technologies?

There are a lot of them and I can’t list them all. Even smart transportation systems are also green technology. They reduce how much driving people have to do, people spend less time in traffic, and this leads to a reduction in harmful emissions. The metro system is also a green technology. The Moscow Central Circle also improves air quality. And water purification systems, aren’t they green technology too? Of course they are. I’ll say it again: all of us have to understand that pressure on the environment will continue to increase. Without technological breakthroughs, we’ll start spiraling downward again.

Could you tell us about the kind of environmental education that is provided in Moscow?

The group it affects the most is children. The point is to re-establish contact between people and nature, which is severely lacking in big cities and depriving people of a truly special connection. We have opened several eco centers. They’re equipped with the latest technology. Children go there to learn about the environment in a game format. We’re trying to help them start thinking in environmental terms. That’s the first thing. The second is establishing contact with nature. The kids study in school, then come out to see how mushrooms and trees grow in real life… You know, not all children in Moscow know where potatoes come from, some of them think it’s made in supermarkets! (Laughs) Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but we get so wrapped up in life that we don’t take time to foster a love of nature in children. We work with school programs. By the way, we have a good rapport in this sense with the Moscow Department of Education, they like and value us there.

Do you have any time to explore the city yourself? Or do you find out about things from driving around and reading the news?

Actually, I often walk to work. It takes me about 15 minutes to get from my office on New Arbat to Tverskaya 13. But I also take my bicycle and electric scooter out. I have to admit, I like driving less and less when it comes to getting around Moscow.

How do you see Moscow in 15 years?

I see Moscow as a “smart” city, comfortable, friendly, where people are happy to take walks, socialize, and lead fulfilling public lives. A city that increases the number of green areas, where the problem of waste management has been resolved, where the water is clean, and the historic center has been preserved… But this is no fantasy. We’re already doing all of this, and will continue to do so in the future.

 

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