Artem Gerasimenko about the Healthy Cities

Former head of the " Architects. rf" program and a graduate of MSSES, Artem Gerasimenko founded the "Healthy Cities" non-profit foundation. The Foundation will study the impact of the urban environment and normative regulation on the health and physical activity of citizens.

We talked with Artem about how running is connected with architecture, what has become of the strategy for the pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure development in Moscow, and how running has changed not only his professional career but also the lives of many children in orphanages.

— You have been running the "Architects.rf" program, a joint project of the Unified Institute for Housing Development and the Strelka Institute for the last year and a half. What's on your agenda today?

I`m planning to focus on the issue of healthy cities — what in Western practice is referred to as UrbanHealth. I have been actively studying this topic for the last six months -looking for methods, scientific articles. I even started a separate telegram channel for my discoveries and comments on these materials.

I want to somehow systematize this information in the Russian space — to develop some kind of applied product or to collect material in a book. But I will start, of course, with research —  I submitted an application to the Presidential Grants Fund in November: if it is approved, I will be immersed in research during almost all year 2020 – from March till December.

The idea is to develop a physical activity index in Russian cities and learn how to calculate the effect of investing in a healthy lifestyle. This means a positive effect on the mental health of citizens, the social situation, and the urban transport system.

Twenty-six indicators of public health are being tracked in New York and any urban project in London must include quantitative indicators of the impact on people's health.

The idea is to develop a physical activity index in Russian cities and learn how to calculate the beneficial effect on the mental health of citizens, the social situation, and the urban transport system

In addition, I want to break the "gray" statistical mass of conditionally athletic citizens into different groups — to understand their narratives and learn how to work with the requests of each of these groups. For example, there are skateboarders in almost every city — and this is an important source of knowledge about the elements of the urban environment! They are able to enliven any urban space. Therefore, the state should be able to work with them in some other way than in the language of permits and prohibitions.

— That`s not the most obvious topic for research — how did you define it for yourself?

In my first education I am a civil engineer, in my second, in MSSES, I am a researcher and designer of urban changes. And I devote my free time to sports-running, cycling, swimming, skiing in winter. I know from personal experience how much sport can bring to life — it means new friends, emotions, and reasons to travel and learn.

I started running 7 years ago. And one day, a friend who was working at the" Life as a Miracle" foundation asked me to help organize a charity race. At that time, there were much fewer people running-we did a race in Sokolniki, and we were supported by the then Minister of Culture of Moscow, Sergei Kapkov: all the doors were open.

Everyone liked it very much, and then I started thinking about how to hold charity races regularly. I studied the projects of various mobile applications that transfer money to charity for every kilometer you cover. And at some point, I was at a lecture by Elena Olshanskaya from the "Volunteers to Help Orphans" foundation, where she told me that the main thing that children need in orphanages is not money, but role models, regular communication, and live support. But it does not work in a single-mode — it is better not to go at all than to come once, on New Year's Eve.

At that time, we were already running as a whole group — and I decided to gather people to regularly run with children from orphanages. Everything began to add up to the overall picture — I registered an NGO, which I attributed all my previous achievements to, and I indicated "To make the life of cities and people in the more active and healthy" as a mission. More information can be found on the project's website.

— You have already worked on the design of urban changes in your other project, the Urban St'14 bureau.

I started Urban St ' 14 at the end of MSSES together with a fellow student — I couldn't wait to try out the techniques learned at the school. For several years, we were engaged in pre-project research, conducted surveys and engagement sessions with citizens-we collaborated with Moscow parks, the Tsaritsyno Museum-Reserve, the Moscow Department of Culture, and private developers. The last major project of the bureau was a study of the competencies of city managers for the RANEPA, which we conducted together with Citymakers.

Urban St ' 14 brought a lot of experience and fun, but the money was not enough to devote myself only to the bureau.

— Was it easy to negotiate with a state institution to train children? You couldn't claim to be professional athletes or even teachers.

It all depends on the individual: if they see the value, the potential of such an initiative, is not afraid that something will go wrong, they are ready to accept you.

We took a serious approach to recruiting volunteers and were trained ourselves — we went to seminars with a psychologist, everything was verified at the start. Some of my friends who we used to go to, for example, a subbotnik in a nursing home, said that they didn`t want to go to the children, because children are a big responsibility: if you come and meet children, it is more difficult not to come next time. And if you arrived several times, it is even more difficult to disappear later.

And many of those who came with a willingness to do something poorly weighed this responsibility initially. Or after several times they said: "I don't see the effect." And it can't be right away. The effect of giving a toy to a child, who replied "Thank you" — is a quick effect. And it is much more difficult to achieve for this little person to have an adult friend, a role model, it is a different effect.

Naturally, everything is formalized legally — this is not a story of the category "We want-well, come". We submitted personal lists on behalf of the charity foundation, with copies of personal documents, etc. We gradually agreed with new institutions —we had training sessions in just 5 or 6 orphanages.

— You said that you don`t" work with children", but are friends with them. And in the stories of the project participants, there is a characteristic monologue of one of the volunteers, where he describes which children came to his first training: many of them smoke, don`t have goals in life, they have little idea how the real competitive world works. Were there any cases when the project changed something in the life or the personality of one of the guys?

Well, new volunteers come to us — the children introduce themselves, talk about themselves. When a person is asked "Tell us about yourself", they will say either what they really think, how they perceive themselves at that moment, or what they think their interlocutors want to hear.

At some point, our guys, who usually said "I'm Vova, I love dancing, I don't like math", started saying "I'm Vova, I love sports, I run regularly, I'm preparing to run 10 km". That is, they have a self-identification, like athletes, people who purposefully engage in sports.

I can't say that we have changed someone's life: to change the life of a child who grew up in an orphanage, it is necessary that he never got there back. But many guys — both children and volunteers will always remember this experience, because it's an emotionally powerful story, especially when you go to them month after month, year after year, every weekend.

The effect of giving a toy to a child, who replied "Thank you" — is a quick effect. And it is much more difficult to achieve for this little person to have an adult friend, a role model, it is a different effect.

I can judge for myself-I initially thought that I would set up work in each orphanage and move on. But I realized that my personal attachment to the children is stronger than the desire to replicate the project — I couldn`t overcome it: I was interested to see how these children grew up over the 4.5 years of the project. Many have left the walls of the orphanage, started an independent life — some of them still run and write about it, sometimes we discuss it with them.

We had not only running — but also cycling, basketball, and trampolining. And there was one guy: he loved the trampoline so much that he then went into parkour, he is so eager to jump. The person got some additional interest in life, which was not present in the orphanage.

Another thing we tried to bring in was to give the kids more confidence. For example, learn to speak loudly — about yourself or to tell other people "Now raise your arm, bend your leg". At the last "Sociorun" in Fili, the newcomers were trained by the same children from orphanages who had previously started running with us. When there are 20 people in front of you, some of them adults who seem cool to you, and you tell them to "Raise your hands", and they repeat after you, it gives the child a sense of self-importance.

- There are a lot of amateur communities. At what point do people in such communities want to "combine business with pleasure" and take on the social burden? You could just run with your friends — why make a hobby a tool for influencing the external environment?

It's different for everyone. When you overcome longer and longer distances - 5 km, 7, 10, 20-it gives you a huge charge, you are overwhelmed with emotions and you want to share them with someone.

Charity has become common, popular, and normal in recent years. Even 6-7 years ago it was different - it was not clear who and how to help. Some people were walking with an accordion in trains- I did not want to help: it seemed that this was some kind of deception.

And when I realized that I could help without constantly shipping money or giving away clothes, but by sharing my energy and time, I felt it made sense. And if every person has the opportunity to give something, I can give exactly this.

The most interesting thing is that my desire to gather people to run with the children led to the fact that I mastered a bunch of additional skills. In the beginning, I didn`t know how to write any text for social networks, or design a website and I had no other resource than to start doing it myself for the "Sociorun". Despite the external simplicity, there are quite a lot of operational things: training volunteers, processing applications, document management with orphanages, feedback, the academic quality of this work.

I am now a triathlete and the sport has taken up a significant part of my daily life. And this is a completely different optics of urban space perception. Attention to your health, a mindful attitude to yourself provokes the same perception of what is happening around you. You begin to notice: it`s dangerous here, it`s inconvenient there, here construction works are conductedincorrectly, and here the depressive street, it presses on you psychologically.

— You participated in the development of a certain strategy for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure development. In what capacity? Where was it applied later?

The strategy was developed in 2014 by Mostransproekt together with foreign consultants. It offered a vision of how to work with pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure to make it more comfortable, safer, and to make the way to move around the city on foot or by bike more convenient and preferable for Muscovites. I came there as the project manager.

We made interesting discoveries: for example, we had a map of the urban space connectivity, which clearly confirmed (in relation to Moscow) the theses known to many urbanists. For example, that a highway splits an urban space into two unconnected parts (they become unconnected). It's the same with railways-especially when there are several threads running.

It turns out that Moscow, because of its radial structure (highways, railways are located radially), all consist of unrelated enclaves. There is no need to talk about walking or cycling accessibility — the main transport that people choose when living here is a car.

It is quite expensive to extend public transport to many areas. There is a question of the density of the access points  distribution to the transport infrastructure, that is, the distance between metro stations in Moscow is very large. In Paris or London, the stations of the same branch line can be located just around the corner from each other.

Our strategy implied a way to look for and find similar problems — for example, high accident rates at transport hubs. As a rule, it is formed at ground crossings on outbound highways. Here people live, and here they have a point of attraction — a road between them that you need to cross every time. But they don't want to go downstairs or through an air passage, and they don't want to go down into a dark passage that causes a sense of anxiety, either. As a result, they go straight down the road, which often causes accidents, sometimes deaths. This supports the hypothesis that a multi-lane highway in the city is a poor infrastructure solution that only leads to an increase in deaths.

Attention to your health, a conscious attitude to yourself provokes the same perception of what is happening around you. You begin to notice: it`s dangerous here, it`s inconvenient there.

And we worked with the bicycle infrastructure within the Green Ring project-we designed a bicycle route with a length of 80 km, which was supposed to connect all the park areas between the Third Transport Ring and the MKAD. The ring made it possible, no matter where you lived in Moscow, to quickly get on it and get to the park by bike.

With the complete absence of a bicycle infrastructure at that time, it was difficult. And to lay a network of bike roads around the city is a complex project: the number of points of attraction that need to be connected on one route is incredible. Parks are more obvious and accessible in this regard, so the Green Ring should have connected them first. All this was designed with the participation of experts from Canada and the Netherlands, who also studied and gave advice. Alas, the way the city government works in Russia is that there are always a lot of ideas and plans, and the decision to implement them can either put an end to them or give a super-acceleration. The "Green Ring" ended up in the gray area of attention.

Attention to your health, a conscious attitude to yourself provokes the same perception of what is happening around you. You begin to notice: it`s dangerous here, it`s inconvenient there.

And we worked with the bicycle infrastructure within the framework of the Green Ring project-we designed a bicycle route with a length of 80 km, which was supposed to connect all the park areas between the Third Transport Ring and the MKAD. The ring made it possible, no matter where you lived in Moscow, to quickly get on it and get to the park by bike.

It was difficult to take the complete absence of bicycle infrastructure at that time. And it`s a complex project to lay a network of bike lanes around the city: the number of points of attraction that need to be connected on one route is incredible. The parks are more obvious and accessible in this regard, so the "Green Ring" should have connected them in the first place. All this was designed with the participation of specialists from Canada and the Netherlands, who also studied it and gave advice. Alas, the way city government works in Russia is that there are always a lot of ideas and plans, and the decision to implement them can either put an end to them, or give a super-acceleration. The "Green Ring" ended up in the gray area of attention.

At the same time, "My Street" program was launched in Moscow, which was done by the City Department of Capital Repairs. It also had a lot of talented solutions — the difference was that the starting points were chosen differently. "My Street" started in the center and went to the outskirts, gradually reducing the number of changes (we see that in Izmailovo the streets didn`t become the same as in the center).

In other words, the program transformed the face of the city, its center, and increased its attractiveness for tourists and businesses. Our strategy was based on the concept of security-looking for points where urban areas are not connected to each other, and a lot of people get into unpleasant situations in order to do something there in the first place.

— You studied in the "Urban Environment Development Management" program at MSSES. Can we say that urban planning and socio-cultural design are interrelated?

At MSSES, much attention was paid to socio-cultural design, because the fair thesis that you can build anything, but this doesn`t mean that life will go according to the scenario that you`ve laid down during construction, is confirmed by many examples from world practice. Only parallel programming of the urban environment and its socio-cultural development give a consistent result.

I recall the lectures of Sergey Eduardovich Zuev — the special emphasis was placed on the philosophical understanding of urban transformations, a deeper understanding of the processes. That is, engineering in a broad sense, not only at the level of building construction.

The main work in MSSES is that you analyze a lot, synthesize conclusions. That is, you take the next step in understanding processes and phenomena

According to my first education, I am a civil engineer, a designer of civil structures. But I have always been interested in the humanitarian side of the issue, so the MSSES perception perfectly fell on the technical background.

Another important aspect of studying at MSSES: the main work here is that you read a lot, analyze, synthesize some conclusions. That is, you take the next step in understanding processes and phenomena. This story is more about conceptualization than about the actual management of urban development. Or, better to say, the management tool here is the ability to set the vector of development, to develop a roadmap by studying the best practices and understanding where the pitfalls are and where the opportunities are.

The regions in Russia are very different, and their susceptibility to change depends what the local decision-makers are focused on. There is anUrban Environment Quality Index in Russia for a year now, itis operated by the Ministry of Construction of the Russian Federation. This is a complex indicator that is calculated based on 30 indicators. If you look at the values of this Index for Russian cities, you can see that in the vast majority of the index markings are not green (which means that everything is great), but yellow or red — the urban environment quality level is not at all high.

It is easy to agree with this when you travel around Russian cities and see that many of the things that require improvements are elementary things. They don`t require huge investments or long years to implement — just turn on your head and give the right order.

Why do people, for example, not ride a bicycle in their area? There are no bike paths, no lighting, or any other infrastructure elements-there is a request to do all this. And this is a system-forming thing: unless any urban space — transport, residential yards, offices, state institutions, shops — is be designed, based on the fact that they should be comfortable for anyone from 6 to 80, it will be an uncomfortable urban environment.

Creation of such an environment is economically justified for the city and the country. A dysfunctional urban environment puts a strain on mental health — one study in the United States found that the state loses up to $50 billion annually due to the struggle of American citizens with depression and other emotional disorders. It's simple.

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