Courtesy City4People
Courtesy City4People

Tactical urbanism has come to Russia. This fall, City4People, a group of young designers and activists, organized an exhibition at the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture, the country’s repository for everything from amazing Constructivist drawings to the immense model that Catherine the Great commissioned for a classicized Kremlin. 

In contrast to the museum's grand schemes, City4People’s aims are decidedly modest. It concentrates on improving sidewalks and finding ways for citizens to affect their immediate environment. The group sees itself as a think tank and public service, promising to “translate and publish good books … bring to Moscow leading experts on urban issues … organized exhibitions, seminars, and lectures.” I doubt many of these activities will have as much effect as this exhibition, which, on the day I visited a few weeks ago, was filled with visitors and debaters. 

Fittingly, City4People displayed its experiments not in the State Museum’s main building, but in the unrenovated annex in the rear, where it was cold enough to necessitate keeping your coat on while you made your way across planks and temporary bridges through the near-ruins, giving you an immediate sense that these projects were building on past unfinished or dilapidated constructions. 

The projects on display were modest. They included ideas about urban gardening; a wall that would collect and organize the notices and advertisements people put up on any vertical surface in Moscow; a proposal to turn one of the areas off a main boulevardnow overrun by cars parked wherever there is a horizontal purpose (a common problem in Moscow, which has no metered parking and few garages)into a pedestrian zone through the judicious use of planting, markings, and barriers; mobile furniture and equipment for Shchukin Park; and even a cheap ashtray to try to curb  outdoor smoking litter. 

As in all tactical urbanism, the projects were incremental and often subtle. They also extended beyond the design of actual objects, with City4People proposing new ways of letting people see, understand, and communicate (via their cell phones, of course) urban ills. One of the founders of the group is a member of a local council and he told me that he is interested in delving further into politics to effect the kind of projects he has helped develop. They aren't just a band of radicals railing against the system: BMW and restaurant chain Movenpick co-sponsored the exhibition, and the group invited both corporate and political leaders to speak to them during the run of the show. Though City4People also included case studies from other European cities and invited speakers from other countries, its focus is without a doubt local. None of the texts were available in anything other than Russian (including on the website—thank heavens for translation software), there is no catalog, and there is little attempt to publicize the events beyond Moscow. This is, I think, a shame: "Think global, act local" is a fine sentiment, but there appears to be a danger of a certain myopia inappropriate for what is, after all, one of the world’s largest and most important cities. I would like to know more about the tactics that City4People develops, how it effects change through a combination of design, politics, and discussion, and what we can learn today from a city that has already produced so many urban visions in its centuries of existence.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.