Residents’ rights

On Saturday I stopped by a rally in a small square near the Kievskij train station being held by opponents of a plan to expand the highway and transit system through their neighborhoods.

Moscow, like many expanding urban centers, has major problems with housing and traffic. In short, the affordable housing is all being built around the ever-expanding edge of the city. More and more people commute in using a mix of transit options–the subway and electric trains are packed every rush hour, and millions go by car. Which means millions spend hours every week sitting in stopped traffic. City planners struggle to find a way to accommodate all these people in a city choked by traffic jams.

Of course, phrasing it that way implies that the first priority of city planners is to solve the logistical problem of traffic efficiently. Muscovites don’t necessarily assume this to be the case.

The rally included more than 200 people, gathered outside on a cold, windy weekend day. Most were residents of the areas to be affected by the plan, along with some members of the liberal-democratic party Yabloko and (according to an announcement) a few members of the city and federal governments. I asked one woman standing near me why she was here. She answered that she was trying to protect her grandson, to protect the health of all of our children. This plan would put a highway right under her apartment window. Can you imagine (she asked me) what that’s going to be like, having all those cars stopped under our windows every morning?

There was ecology. There will be–oncology.

In turns, individuals stepped up to the microphone to express their concerns. One of the main themes seemed to be a concern about process: it wasn’t just that they disagreed with the construction plan, but that they hadn’t been part of the process at all. Officials had simply made up a plan–the cheapest, easiest way to solve the transit problem–and then informed residents that it would be happening. Several speakers reported that some kind of petition in favor of the project had been passed around the area–and signed by people who worked there, not residents. One suggested those looking for signatures had targeted migrant workers, specifically–the immigrants, often from Central Asia, who typically do landscaping, street cleaning, and maintenance work in Moscow. The agreement of local residents had been falsified.

Furthermore, the plan had hardly been announced–information had been published in newspapers nobody received. Public meetings had been held in rooms too small to hold all the people who came. One speaker stated that this was all an infringement of residents’ rights. Another young man, who introduced himself as a citizen activist, noted that this top-down decision-making process was ‘the typical path of the authorities, but we are going to fight it!’ We follow the law–and the authorities should, too.

Reconstruction? Felling trees? Boat landings on the river? Ask the residents first! (And without falsification please.)

There were more than a few allusions to the possibility–or near certainty–that the officials involved in these construction plans were corrupt. Everyone knows the construction companies have made fortunes as Moscow has expanded, regardless of the effects of expansion on local residents. Many of these presenters, however, wanted their interests to count for something. As one older man put it, as he spoke forcefully into the microphone, “Moscow is not just for oligarchs and officials. Hands off Moscow!”

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