In search of rebirth, Moscow rips up pavements
In an effort to solve the problems of congestion and traffic, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is on a mission in clean up the city brick by brick.Moscow -- Piles of bricks by the road, the endless throb of drills and a quarter of the city's pavements torn up. It's been a traumatic summer for Muscovites unable to escape the Russian capital for the holidays.
The vast construction works all over the city are replacing Moscow's battered grey pavements with neat grey and red paving stones more reminiscent of a placid European city than the edgy metropolis of more than 11 million.
The works are the most visible reform by the new Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, who has embarked on a mission to clean up a city that has at times appeared in a danger of collapsing under its own weight.
He is being watched closely to see whether he can solve the city's deep-rooted problems: snarled traffic, the destruction of its historic buildings and services stretched to their limit by a booming population.
Most ambitiously, he has called for widening of Moscow's boundaries to 2.5 times its current size, overflowing into 160,000 hectares (400,000 acres) of land in the surrounding region.
"We have got to the point where the population density in Moscow is 1.5 times higher than in Hong Kong," said town planner Vyacheslav Glazychev, who is involved in developing the strategy.
"It's a long process, but someone had to start. It's a pity that it's 15 years later than I would like," he told AFP.
Appointed by the Kremlin in October after his predecessor, Yury Luzhkov, was sacked over corruption scandals, Sobyanin was previously Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's chief of staff, after serving as governor in the Siberian region of Tyumen.
He is reserved and seemingly gray, speaking in officialese, in contrast to his flat-capped populist predecessor Luzhkov. His one acknowledged hobby is hunting.
-- 'Moscow cannot develop further' --
As a longterm solution, Moscow city hall wants to create a greater Moscow, or "Big Moscow", in the city's first expansion since 1961. It has released a rough map and frozen sales of land in the targeted area.
It is clear the plan has backing at the highest level. "Moscow cannot develop further within its limits," Putin said. Dramatically, President Dmitry Medvedev has called for government institutions to move out of the city limits.
Central Moscow would in turn become "a historical, tourism area" another expert working on the strategy, Alexander Savchenko, told Ogonyok magazine.
"We think there should be no new office buildings inside the Garden Ring (central ring road), no more than there should be demolition of historic buildings."
But the drive has already seen plenty of controversy.
The pavement works have not impressed many Muscovites, who wheezed their way through the dust and dodged traffic as pavements disappeared for days on end.
While the idea was a good one, it has been poorly executed and rushed, experts said.
"It's quite skilled manual work and the people who are doing it do not have enough experience," Glazychev said. "I'm afraid that a significant part will have to be redone."
According to one joke that did the rounds: "When Luzhkov left, he buried his treasure under one of the pavements and Sobyanin is trying to find it."
The plan to create a greater Moscow has sparked widespread bemusement and suspicion among the residents of the area affected.
"There seem to be no plans to ask the region's residents if they agree with handing over to Moscow districts that are donors to the regional budget," liberal Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin said in a statement.
-- 'Shortsighted' --
Meanwhile, there has been scepticism over Sobyanin's announcement of a freeze on demolitions and promises to include preservationists in the decision making process.
Konstantin Mikhailov of Arkhnadzor architecture preservation group said he had "not seen a single document" on the decision to freeze demolitions" and that after ceasing for a couple of months, they then restarted.
"The city authorities clearly do not intend to coordinate with preservationists. They intend to make decisions independently," he warned, calling the decision "put it mildly, shortsighted."
Sobyanin's first act as mayor was to stand on a rooftop to watch the spectacularly snarled traffic. But "in a year, practically nothing has been done," complained Alexander Shumsky, who heads Moscow Centre for Fighting Traffic Jams, a pressure group.
"Sobyanin is a strong person, he has the will and the support from the federal centre. The question is whether he understands the situation."
The average speed of traffic in Moscow has fallen to 16 kilometres per hour last year. And while Sobyanin has created more parking spaces, he bungled an attempt to introduce bus lanes, Shumsky said.
This being Moscow, allegations of corruption have never been far. As soon as the pavement campaign started, a rumour spread that Sobyanin's wife, Irina Rubinchik, was in the paving stone business, just as Luzhkov's wife heads a construction company.
Rubinchik was nicknamed "Irina the Kerb" back in Tyumen, Kommersant business daily claimed.
But in an interview with the Vedomosti business daily, Sobyanin categorically denied the accusations. "My wife works as a child-minder at a kindergarten. She has never had anything to do with any business."
"We repair hundreds of polyclinics and hospitals... but when we remove a few hundred metres of asphalt, suddenly everyone notices," he said.
Anna Malpas / AFP / Expatica