Moscow: problems of a megapolis

We have a super-centralized government system where the best jobs and funds are concentrated in Moscow. This is prompting rational people to move to the places where they can make the most money and have better career prospects. People will continue coming to Moscow as long as Russia remains a super-centralized state. interview with Natalya Zubarevich, director of the regional program of the Independent Institute for Social Policy and professor of the chair of Russian economic and social geography at Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Geography Department.

Moscow is an overcrowded megapolis that continues to attract more people. Almost 40% of jobs are located downtown and every day a torrent of cars and metro passengers gets stuck in rush hour traffic. Does Moscow need decentralization?

It is Russia that needs decentralization rather than Moscow. The Moscow agglomeration is overcrowded both for objective reasons, because mega cities always attract people, and because of specific features of Russia that are largely a consequence of the current political regime. We have a super-centralized government system where the best jobs and funds are concentrated in Moscow. This is prompting rational people to move to the places where they can make the most money and have better career prospects. People will continue coming to Moscow as long as Russia remains a super-centralized state.

Are there any meaningful consequences of Moscow’s expansion? Has this measure taken part of the load off Moscow?

No, the load is still there. The decision on Moscow’s expansion was spontaneous. All experts on urban studies objected to it. This decision received a very negative response because it was so arbitrary. The idea of adding one sector to Moscow is perplexing. The authorities do not know what to do about it, because if they let it go, real estate agents will actively develop the new territories, turning them into residential districts and making the problem still worse.

The addition of a territory twice the size of Moscow will turn the capital into an even more powerful vacuum cleaner – it will attract even more people from all over the country. This decision is unlikely to ease Moscow’s burden, but rather, will clearly make it even more super-centralized and will attract to it even more people and capital.

Are Muscovites ready to move to the region?

Of course, they are not ready for this. Only those people who are unable to afford housing may be tempted to do this, all the more so since it is easy – institutionally the New Moscow is the same as the old capital and grants its residents the same guarantees. However, large-scale housing construction on the new territories without a job transfer will further aggravate the problem of daily commuting from home to the office and back.

I believe some people will move to the New Moscow, but slowly, due to infrastructure restrictions, because in Russia the idea of status is very specific – the closer to the center you live the higher your status is. Architectural critic Grigory Revzin put it very well: “The court moves to Versailles after the King. The King does not move.” Administrative units will be forced to move outside the Moscow MKAD Ring Road.

Moscow is gradually borrowing European urban development trends, but environmental protection is not yet popular. Why is such an important problem being ignored?

This is the case because our society is poor and we are beset with more urgent problems. For instance, high construction density is also polluting the environment. Experts have justifiably lashed out at the construction of a high-speed motorway from Leninsky Prospekt because of its adverse impact on the environment.

Russia is lagging far behind others in environmental protection. This is a feature of poor societies. Wealthier residents find niches that allow them to live in environmentally safer places. They resolve this issue privately rather than collectively, where society compels the authorities to pay more attention to environmental issues. It is still easier to achieve results by doing something on your own in Russia.

Has the city changed much over the last few years? Has it become more attractive for business people and tourists?

I don’t think the city has changed much. I believe the rules of the game for small and, to a lesser extent, medium-sized companies have somewhat improved. Nothing has changed for Big Business, because the companies close to Luzhkov have been replaced with firms that are close to major federal bosses, and these "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine" transactions do not improve the investment climate. Moscow has been and remains important for trade – the opportunity to obtain maximum profits more than compensates for poor institutional arrangements. The city has become less feudal at the mayoral level, but still remains very post-Soviet.

I don’t see any benefits for tourists. There are practically no signs in foreign languages in the city and it is difficult to travel there without knowing Russian. Moscow’s infrastructure leaves much to be desired – there is a huge shortage of relatively inexpensive three star hotels, unreasonably high prices in restaurants and cafes with no guarantee of quality, air polluted with fumes from traffic jams and a general undertone of hostility from the locals.

One of Moscow’s huge problems is that its managers know nothing about the city. They do not use the metro and don’t visit regular outpatient clinics. How can management be effective if the authorities are ignorant of Moscow’s problems?

This statement is a bit populist. I think that Acting Deputy Mayor for Social Development Leonid Pechatnikov or Acting Head of the Department of Education Isaak Kalina know what is happening in clinics and schools. It's true, Sobyanin does not travel by metro, but bosses have never used public transport in Russia. There’s nothing terrible about this given one particular condition – well-organized feedback. Right now Moscow is a bit ahead of the average region, but the Moscow authorities understand the need for this.

How can Moscow be saved from transport collapse without damaging its architectural and cultural heritage?

Moscow is a city that should focus on the development of quality public transport. There is no other way. I approve of paid parking lots and other innovative ideas of the Moscow Government. At the same time, they have to deal with Luzhkov’s difficult legacy, and have their own shortcomings. It is necessary to establish logistical centers where people can safely leave their vehicles and switch to public transport.

What should be done to counter uncontrollable migration and the inability of the authorities and the Federal Migration Service to resolve this issue jointly?

My proposal is very simple. Instead of fighting guest workers, Russia should strictly monitor employers to check whether they comply with the rules for using migrant labor. Guest workers must be legalized, have insurance, receive official salaries and so on and so forth. This is the only way of minimizing the slave labor that allows employers to make so much money.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.