01 July 2022, 14:15
Government-Community Dialogue in City Reconstruction — World Lessons for Ukraine

In 100 days of the large-scale russian-Ukrainian war, our country has suffered significant destruction. According to preliminary estimates of the authorities, 350,000 objects, millions of square meters of residential, educational, medical and sports infrastructure were destroyed, thousands of kilometers of roads and railways were damaged. Cities such as Mariupol, Volnovakha, Rubizhne, Popasna, Lyman, Sievierodonetsk were completely destroyed by the occupants. At the same time, russian troops caused significant damage to dozens of cities, including ChernihivKharkivIrpinOkhtyrka, and Borodianka.  

Given the magnitude of the destruction and the time it takes to rebuild, the state is already taking the first steps towards post-war reconstruction. For example, the Parliament and the Government adopt the laws and regulations necessary for the restoration of settlements. In addition, the Ukraine Recovery Fund and the National Council for the Recovery of Ukraine from the War were created, the United24 fundraising platform was launched to collect donations, in particular, for the reconstruction of the country.  

Neither expert circles stand aside. Thus, domestic architects have united and created a Coordination Headquarters working on the restoration of settlements, economists have developed a note on what the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine should be, and creative specialists from around the world are engaged in the reconstruction of cities or individual structures.

Despite the destruction and losses, our country has a chance to make its cities better than they were before the war. Not only our own vision, but also the experience of other countries, will help us with this. After all, the past can show us approaches to reconstruction, ideas that need to be replicated or avoided, as well as who and how can be involved in this process. In this material, we will assess how the authorities and activists acted during the reconstruction of European cities, as well as provide recommendations on how to make the process of Ukraine's restoration successful. 

Rotterdam: destruction as a chance for a new city

As a result of bombing by German aviation in May 1940, more than 25,000 houses were destroyed in Rotterdam, and the total area of destruction amounted to 104 hectares, which is 145 football fields. The level of damage was so large that the city decided to clean up the city center, rather than rebuild the ruins. The reconstruction lasted for more than 20 years and provided for a significant reconstruction of the city without reproducing or preserving historical monuments. Building contractors and investors believed in modernism and Rotterdam's new look.  

Although architects began to develop a program to rebuild the city almost immediately after its destruction, the occupation until the end of the war in 1945 prevented any significant reconstruction. The plan of rebuilding (“Basic Plan”) of Rotterdam, which was developed by Cornelius van Traa, was adopted by the City Council on May 28, 1946. It involved the transition from an intertwining of narrow streets to spacious ones, an increase in open spaces, as well as zoning the city. Thus, there were office institutions and shops in the central part of Rotterdam. Enterprises and factories were moved to special industrial areas, and housing was mostly planned on the outskirts. 

The feature of the rebuilding of Rotterdam was the eviction of the poor outside the city into a kind of settlement camps. About 8,000 residents were excluded from the urban space because of the desire of the authorities to build a new, successful city without the poor. 

Overall, the enthusiasm for reconstruction in Rotterdam was considerable. The authorities have invested a lot in popularizing the reconstruction process. Thus, the course of reconstruction was covered at annual events on Construction Day, in specialized magazines “Rotterdam Builds!” and “The City on the Maas”, in films about reconstruction, sightseeing bus tours, as well as books with photos of the new city. However, de facto, the opinion of Rotterdam residents was of little interest to architects and urbanists. And very soon, in 1960, the townspeople began to criticize the authorities for the new look of the city and the lack of iconic historical buildings.

Dresden: Rising from the ashes

In February 1945, Allied Aviation dropped 1,478 tons of high-explosive bombs and 1,182 tons of incendiary bombs on German Dresden during the first bombing and 800 tons of bombs during the second. As a result of the fire, more than 24,000 houses out of 28,000 were destroyed, many of them were schools, hospitals, and churches. 

The body responsible for rebuilding the city was the Committee for the Reconstruction of the City of Dresden, founded in 1945 by the head of the magistrate Rudolf Friedrichs and engineer Herbert Conert. Undoubtedly, the reconstruction of the city was significantly influenced by the ideological principles of the USSR because Dresden was located in the territory controlled by the Soviet authorities. Some districts of the city were rebuilt in the style of “socialist modernism” not only for reasons of economy, but also for breaking with the past as the capital of Saxony and the stronghold of the German bourgeoisie. Considering this, the ruins of some churches, royal buildings, and palaces, such as the Gothic Sophienkirche, Alberttheater, and Wackerbarth-Palais, were deliberately destroyed by Soviet and East German authorities in the 1950s and 1960s, rather than reconstructed. The new blocks were built in accordance with the provisions of the document “16 Principles of Urban Design”, which in 1950 was approved by the government of the GDR. According to it, the components of urban infrastructure should be large areas and wide avenues for marches and demonstrations. 

At the same time, active citizens played an important role in the reconstruction of Dresden. It was the intelligentsia, traditionalist architects, and active citizens who influenced the preservation of historical heritage in the early post-war years. They manually dismantled the rubble, rescued the surviving artifacts, and even stones, which they then used in the restoration of some historic buildings. Interestingly, even after the unification of Germany, activists played an important role in the restoration of the architectural heritage. Thus, the restoration of the Frauenkirche church began with the collection of voluntary donations, and a wave of public support popularized the reconstruction plan, despite the risk of getting a historic Disneyland in the center of Dresden. 

Warsaw: rebuilding better than it was

During the Second World War, Warsaw suffered the greatest destruction among all Polish cities. It accounted for 30% of the total damage to urban development, and about 85% of buildings were lost in the historic center. The destruction was so great that options were considered to move the capital to Łódź. However, the decision to rebuild Warsaw was influenced by two factors — the return of residents and the position of Stalin, who sought to obtain greater legitimation of Soviet power through the restoration of the city. 

Poland's new communist government launched a large-scale program to reconstruct the city. An important role was played by the then mayor-modernist Marian Spychalski and the Bureau of the Rebuilding of Warsaw, founded by him in 1945. The leadership of the Bureau came from the pre-war left wing and from the side of the Communists. However, the team did not rely on the dictates of power. Moreover, the initiative managed to implement many modernist ideas born long before the establishment of Soviet power.

The Bureau consisted of 1,500 employees: engineers, architects, artists, economists, lawyers, photographers, and journalists. The organization assumed responsibilities that were divided between many institutions in the pre-war times. It covered inventorying the remains of structures and cataloging ruins, protecting the city's monuments, design works, issuing permits for construction and demolition, as well as drawing up estimates and schedules of work for several years ahead.

The main task of the Bureau was not to rebuild the historical center, but to reform the city. Thanks to the work of the Bureau, Warsaw received a clear and well-planned network of public transport, green areas and less dense development, thanks to which the housing of citizens received good natural light. In addition, the scale of the reconstruction turned out to be well calculated — traditional construction and decoration techniques brought the architectural ensemble together, but did not paralyze the development of the capital.

In its internal activities, the Bureau tried to balance the desires of modernists and supporters of historical buildings. At the same time, public opinion was ignored, and there were no instruments of influence, such as public consultations or discussions. For this, the Bureau was heavily criticized because not all citizens liked the new look of the capital.

Skopje: searching for identity

Over the past 50 years, Skopje, the capital of Northern Macedonia, has been substantially reconstructed twice. However, in both cases, this was not the result of hostilities. Thus, in 1963, as a result of the earthquake, about 70% of its territory suffered destruction. The authoritative Japanese architect Kenzō Tange, author of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, became responsible for rebuilding the city center. At that time, Skopje actually consisted of 2 parts, separated by the Vardar River, — an old city whose architecture reflected the Ottoman period of history, and a new modern city with its Christian present. Tange sought to connect these two parts through the so-called “city wall” of apartment buildings. And the area around the river, which, according to seismologists, was the most vulnerable to another earthquake, was to be designed as a green open space for cultural events.

As the scale of the destruction was substantial, the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia attracted the support of other countries. For example, the United States, Denmark, and the United Kingdom presented temporary panel houses, architects in Poland shared their experience in rebuilding cities, and Switzerland helped with the construction of schools. 

Subsequently, in 2010, the government of then Macedonia decided that after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, it was necessary to find a new identity that would remind both citizens and the whole world of the proud past. The idea of the project, which was called Skopje 2014, was to decorate the central part of the city with sculptures, monuments, and buildings that would testify to the historical grandeur of ancient Macedonia, heroes of anti-Ottoman movements and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. In fact, this design involved neither classical nor Baroque symmetry, and the sculptures were scattered randomly. In the end, there was a striking contrast between the center, in which different architectural approaches were mixed, and the areas built in the modernist style.

Instead, such a situation could be avoided if the authorities listened to the activists and residents of the city because Skopje 2014 did not pass without protests and remarks. Thus, the government planned and implemented the project without public participation, and the contractors were companies associated with the Prime-Minister. Moreover, as a result of the construction, the green area of the city decreased by 50%, which affected the city's pollution and it was included in the list of one of the most polluted cities in Europe. Despite all the indignation, the authorities acted quickly, trying to outstrip the reaction of the citizens. As a result, architects and modernists call the reconstruction in Skopje “the darkest of black comedies.”

Lessons and recommendations for Ukraine

Each described city had its own unique experience of rebuilding or reconstruction. The authorities and architects managed to do better somewhere, and some things were significantly miscalculated. At the same time, these examples prove one thing: we can definitely restore our cities from ruins, the main thing is to consider all the advantages and avoid all the mistakes that can accompany the reconstruction processes. To do this, the team of Transparent Cities advises:

  1. To develop not only new plans, but also discuss and improve existing or previously proposed concepts for improving urban space. Thus, some of the planned and implemented post-war transformations were closely related to older and more general discourses about the improvement and transformation of the city that already existed at the beginning of the 20th century. 
  2. To form a new vision both for the whole city and for some of its districts. Determine what needs to be preserved in the city structure, and what needs to be changed, what the buildings will be, and what the territory lacked (green spaces, convenient transport system, etc.). In addition, to think about the meaning of monuments, including to avoid replication of collective trauma.
  3. To involve citizens in the active discussion and even the process of reconstruction because cities are not just a set of streets and houses, they are people and a resource with which they fill this space. Previous experience of reconstruction and rebuilding has shown that the lack of dialogue with residents rarely allows to create cities that are convenient for people, and not for authorities or architects. 
  4. To conduct competitions and discussions among architects and urbanists. Competition of values and ideas will not only prompt creativity, but also find the most effective solutions for the territories and their residents. 
  5. To create an institution that will bring together representatives of the executive power, local self-government bodies, architects, urbanists, and activists. It should develop legislative frameworks, as well as visions and concepts for rebuilding and improving urban space. 
  6. To rebuild sleeping areas and outskirts of cities, considering the principles of sustainable development. For example, to create pedestrian green spaces, use alternative energy sources, increase the energy efficiency of buildings. 
  7. To expand the network of partnerships with countries and cities. This will allow not only the exchange of experience, but also the engagement of humanitarian assistance for the renovation of the affected areas. Thus, 11 foreign municipalities have already expressed their readiness to help Ukrainian cities with reconstruction.

Source: blog of the Transparent Cities analyst Viktoriia Onyshchenko on Hmarochos.