Amidst efforts to revitalize and improve urban centers, the peripheral areas of cities are often ignored or forgotten. The intense focus on the downtown core means, in terms of land use, that only a relatively small area receives the majority of designers’ attention. "Dvorulitsa" (literally "Yardstreet" in Russian) is an urban development strategy proposed by Russian architecture firm Meganom, aiming to shift that focus. Taking the idea of the “superpark” from the 2013 study, "Archaeology of the Periphery," the yardstreet project presents an alternative method of viewing the periphery of a post-soviet city.
The project currently focuses on Moscow, but the idea is that it could be widely adaptable and applicable to any urban area. Dvorulitsa would create cohesion and consistent development within Moscow’s peripheral residential districts. 95% of Moscow’s total area is considered to be part of this periphery, which is also home to 90% of the city’s residents. Utilizing the existing space between large apartment blocks, the yardstreet takes this empty, uncared for area and creates a comfortable, purposeful space.
Not solely a place of transit, the yardstreet becomes a destination in itself, bringing the district together into a cohesive whole. Each yardstreet adapts to its unique neighborhood context and needs, while the broader network created by these individual yardstreets enables a larger-scale impact on the city. The proposed process for achieving the project is referred to as “thawing,” described by the architects as “creating a new space in the city, gradually establishing its shape and character through a careful analysis of the existing environment, its features and potential.”
The first step is to research the area, then different zones are created to determine its spatial layout. Finally, the yardstreet itself can be designed. Ease of navigation, accessibility, safety, functionality, convenience, and comfort are key priorities. Once the general framework of the yardstreet is established, the residents can then further develop and personalize the design within it. Examples of elements of a yardstreet include: cycling routes and walking paths, cafes, gardens and parks, sports areas, pet areas, playgrounds, community centers, workshops, and more.
The beauty of the Dvorulitsa project is that it accepts the reality of areas that are currently considered undesirable and utilizes their full potential. The yardstreet provides the amenities of the city center while retaining the best qualities of the residential districts: quiet, tranquility, and open green space. By repurposing space that is currently unused, urban land is used more efficiently and the local residents are empowered to take charge and take pride in the land around them.
To learn more about the project and the inspiration behind it, we asked some questions to Yuri Grigoryan, founder of Meganom, and Alena Shlyakhovaya, the project’s leader and initiator.
ArchDaily: What first inspired you to explore the opportunities of the periphery? For example, was it a cultural/social concern, economic, or quality of life observation?
Meganom: It's hard to say that any of the three points listed above are more or less important than the others. Generally speaking, this is a long story, started in 2008 with the "Green River" project, then elaborated with numerous researches and ideas of different offices such as "Old Moscow. The inventory", "Archeology of The Periphery" and others.
The key object of our interest was not the periphery itself, but the whole of Moscow. All these were an attempt to understand what this city is like and how we can (or should) act here along with a clear understanding of its uniqueness (sometimes even in the worst meaning of this word) which also calls for unique tools for changes and development аnd also with a very strong feeling of unconscious love and wish to save the city as it is.
However, it is not strictly a work of urban planning — the theoretical and educational aspects of this project are very important to us, and we are constantly in public conversation with experts of different fields.
AD: Can you describe why the concept of “everyday-ness” is central to this project - and to urban planning and society generally?
M: An image of everyday life, changes of lifestyle, daily businesses or routine in general is the ending point of every great strategy or project. That's what really matters, what we can really feel.
AD: Can you elaborate on the importance of focusing on the natural world and green space - the superpark - as the overall concept?
M: The concept of the superpark is an image of Moscow's possible future. Generally it works not only for Moscow, but for each post-socialist city. The main underlying idea is that the quality of the urban environment depends not from the typology of housing, but from the quality and design of space between the buildings. Talking about the periphery, almost nothing could be seriously changed to turn post-soviet microrayons ["microdistricts" from Russian — ArchDaily] into the best places for life in a megapolis.
The potential of the outskirts is great, but it's hidden and we have to unveil it. We have to stop discrediting soviet mass housing development, but instead we have to see, use and enforce its uniqueness: the scale of open spaces, a feeling of air, abundance of sunlight and greenery, calmness and quietness — all the advantages of life in this great and already very green post-soviet residential park. The superpark already exists, but it just needs to be activated, a bit better designed and actualised for contemporary (no more soviet) citizens.
AD: What do you see as the greatest advantage of utilizing existing spaces? What is the biggest challenge?
The greatest advantages are:
- Such an approach is the least traumatic way of changes and maybe the only possible one when we talk about the greatest and the most inhabited part of the city;
- It's wiser (politically and economically) to appreciate your past as a part of your identity than to claim it all a failure and try to build a new life right from the very start.
The greatest challenges are:
- Scale of urgent changes;
- Political and juridical particularities of situation;
- Inviability of long-term plans (we claim that we should act slowly step by step and be very sensitive to the context and also very adaptable).
AD: Could you explain the role and importance of “thawing” in making this process flexible and adaptable to any city?
M: The core idea of "thawing" is that we try to make as little new as possible. Our strategy is about activating and prioritising existing patterns of citizens' behaviour, development and enforcement of the potential of the existing urban morphology. It's about being very sensitive, very soft and compromising, and also very gradual and systematic no matter what the environment is.
AD: In what ways would this project need to adapt to work in other large cities? How essential is the post-soviet nature of the city?
M: The method itself and the way of form-finding can be easily applied for other environments, but the purpose of space can vary. Dvorulitsa was developed specifically as a semi-public space to fill the gap between two polar conditions of individuals in post-soviet cities: super-private (personal flat) and super open to the public (public or no one's spaces). In other environments yardstreets can become more commercialised, more public for instance.
AD: How do you envision the threshold - where the superpark meets the city? What is the transition like?
M: Even today a transition between the city center and its periphery is gradual enough, there is no rigid border. During the research we've even found a specific typology of city blocks — "hyperblocks". They look like a mixture of conventional ribbon development, free plan of soviet mass housing and densifying development of 1990-2000. Hyperblocks compose something like a "buffer zone" between historical city center and its outskirts. This type of urban fabric is the most complicated and interesting for the project.
AD: What if this project is successful enough to draw more people from the city centers into the periphery? Would that be a positive or negative?
M: The main goal of the project is to make the periphery not a copy of, but an alternative to the center of the city (if we talk about post-socialist cities). That means that both are very different and match different lifestyles. The scenario of total escape to the outskirts is hardly possible.
AD: What do you think needs to happen to ensure these changes stick long term?
M: We like to think that Dvorulitsa is a kind of art project, but it has a lot of different measures: political, juridical, social, etc. The idea can be realised partly, in different ways and stages, it could be just a set of new land use or land division laws. We can assume that the juridical part is the most important for changes to happen.
AD: What broader social, economic, or political changes do you hope Dvorulitsa will promote?
M: Once we've organized a 2-day conference to discuss this question with philosophers, political experts, economists, street artists, etc. So there is a lot to say. To be short, obviously the project is about relationships between government, citizens and city's land. To realise it at full breadth means to change a lot of existing political and social systems.
We can discuss Dvorulitsa in sense of Russian present land-division and land-ownership systems: today there is a lot of no man's land in residential areas (it belongs to the city, but not to people who live there), and that's one of the main causes for city space to be overlooked and depressed; the project calls for toe-to-toe division and also for people to own the land by their houses. "To own the land" means also a responsibility to take care of it, ability to make decisions about what happens there and also to take profit from it. So we can discuss the project as a tool of rethinking/activation of a city's economics in the sense of new taxes, leases and entrepreneurship. But also in a sense of building new communities, civic engagement and consciousness of citizens in general.