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Moscow an Emerging Global City

Edward J. Blakely / Dec 22 2011

For Release Thursday, December 22, 2011

Edward J. BlakelyMOSCOW – American movies usually depict this city as a dark, drab and dangerous place.  In most of the plots there are big burley neckless mafia as central characters in these thrillers.

But the real Moscow isn’t any more like the old gangster movie depictions than New York or Chicago. In fact, Moscow is an easy city to fall in love with. The Czars may have been brutal but they had pretty good architectural taste. On this old framework Moscow is actively and very smartly trying to become one of the world’s mega-global cities.

Early in December, on the edge of Russian winter, Moscow put on a spectacular Global City Forum featuring a stunning panel of international experts from all over the world, especially from China. Whatever differences Russia and China have nationally, there are no barriers among the big cities of China and Russia.  Both nations are embracing the notion that city-regions are the drivers of the new economy.

Indeed, as China urbanizes to industrialize, Moscow is urbanizing because of the de-industrialization of the Soviet factory towns that dotted central Russia.  The early post-Soviet era attempts to resurrect steel and fabrication industries are over. This transition from an old managed economy to a new innovation entrepreneurial economy is, of course, far from easy.  Unlike China and Japan, Russia has no history of small factories to draw on. It does have a very rich culture of craftsman and artisans who can make almost anything from wood and glass. But these fine arts are in competition with cheap knock offs from the developing world. The acceptance of low quality substitutes for handmade luxury items baffles many Russians.

But there’s no choice: Russia must meet the challenges of the modern world.  So, Sergey Sobyanin, the new mayor of Moscow, and his team are setting a course to change Moscow from the sleepy Soviet managed city to one that will compete with the rest of the world.  This explains the invitation to Chinese cities is to play key roles in the transformation of Moscow.  As the Russians acknowledge, almost no cities in the world are growing faster and smarter than Shanghai and Beijing.

Mayor Sobyanin is taking some very bold to make Moscow a city of brains instead of factories. Moreover, the mayor, with central government permission, is expanding the boundaries of the city to make a region about the size of Greater London or the New York region.  His rationale for this expansion is to control unwanted and un-needed peripheral land uses – for example single family suburban housing that will gobble up more land and extend auto based infrastructure.  Instead, the inner ring of the city, with its unused and under-used rail land and surplus heavy industry-oriented infrastructure, is seen as ripe for redevelopment into the kind of more knowledge intensive industrial activities that have emerged in Chicago’s core over the last decade.

Sobyanin and his team want to get much of the non-essential government work out of the core of the city into new surrounding nodes, in much the way Washington, D.C., has been able to do.  Taming the automobile, in a city where the car is the symbol of wealth and mobility, with streets carrying as many as eight lanes, is the most challenging agenda for the mayor. These are daunting tasks.

But the most difficult challenge for Muscovites is the struggle over the destiny of their fledgling post-Soviet democracy. The national elections during the first week of December led to strong demonstrations in the centre of the city.  More than 60,000 people of all ages and classes called for a re-run of a very tainted electoral process, flawed – according to international observers – by apparently large scale ballot stuffing and voter fraud.  Many locals witnessed these electoral abuses and reported them in the press, on television and via social media. It’s clear that before a great city is re-planned, some semblance of democratic electoral processes will need to be installed.

But Moscow has good bones. The rivers and the Kremlin give the city a natural flow.  The imported Parisian architecture is a good building block for urban renewal.  Failed modernist architecture of the ‘50s-70’s is crumbling on its own.  Moscow is calling for an international competition in late 2012 to set out the direction for change. A new physical plan for the city is essential.

But the real test for Moscow will be whether it can generate distinguished civic associations like SPUR (San Francisco Urban Renewal) or the Regional Plan Association (New York) to guide, protect and energize the city so that it can be what Peter the Great set out to make it—one of the great cities of the world.


Edward J. Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre in Sydney, Australia is an internationally known leader and scholar of urban policy.  For more background on Moscow as a global city, see Blakley’s website: columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted December 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. Chinese cities have decentralized cores and integrated local governance throughout urban territory. This has been key to the growth of urban economies in China, which regionalism phobes in US remain unaware of. Will Moscow have the same? It seems it can evolve its present system. It currently has 10 administrative okrugs and 123 raions (districts). The latter have self governance powers. It seems like the Moscow system was inspired by older Parisian structure. It even has Prefects in the system. Difference between Chinese cities and Russian one is submunicipal bodies have much more freedom in China.