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A UB Student's Winning Plan to Reimagine a Siberian City

Students from around the world descend upon Russia to help city planners in Irkutsk

Release Date: March 9, 2012

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Matthew Wattles, a senior in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, and his planning team--the only Americans among students from around the world to have participated -- were the winners of the 13th session of the International Winter University (WU) competition, held at Baikal International Winter University of Urban Planning Design from Feb. 11 to March 4 in Irkutsk, Russia.

The WU, which is built around a different theme each year and held in partnership with Irkutsk State Technical University; Les Ateliers, France, and the Union of Architects of Russia, asked students from around the world to offer Irkutsk's city planners and politicians fresh ideas to address the city's uncontrolled urban development, to bring its expansion under control and to promote better development programs.

"The main goal of the Baikal International University competition programs," says Daniel Hess, PhD and associate professor in UB's Department of Urban and Regional Planning, "is to encourage participants' interest in creative work by involving them in regional investment projects like this one, in which students from around will get the world practical experience in solving some of Irkutsk's very real urban planning issues. Another goal is to promote a professional urban planning culture among them."

The subject of the competition this year was "Suburbanization: The City and Ecology" and architects, urban economists, ecologists and students in several disciplines from 30 countries worked in a planning studio where they addressed the suburbanization problems faced by Irkutsk's population of nearly 600,000 on the shores of the oldest and deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal.

Hess explains that in the Soviet era, residents of Siberia's Irkutsk were not allowed to own land and most of them lived in Soviet-style concrete block apartment buildings within city limits. With the end of the Soviet Union, however, people quickly began to leave those apartments and build their own homes on the edge of the city.

The problem is, he says, that they often built them anywhere they wanted, in whatever style appealed to them and with little regard for the design of the "neighborhood" or the status of surrounding infrastructures.

"There was no plan so development was uncontrolled. Homes were built without consideration for what was across the road or down the street or whether a particular building complemented the one next door or whether land was used well or poorly," said Hess.

"Students certainly were able to see an example of unplanned growth and its consequences at this event," he adds.

As is typical of planning studios, students assessed the situation, and then worked in groups to produce well-researched proposals for change: suggestions as to how the city can grow a little bit smarter and how to involve residents in the planning process.

During the final week, a jury of other planning and design professionals, including Hess, was there to help the students professionalize their presentations and to critique them for content and quality.

"The students then presented their proposals to the city of Irkutsk," Hess says. "I am very proud of Matthew Wattles' proposals and presentations. His work was a credit to UB and to our School of Architecture and Planning.

"As for Irkutsk, I do think the spatial extent of the city should grow," Hess says, "and there may be a need to reduce density in the central part of the city and spread people out. But managed growth is healthy growth and the students explored and presented plans as to how it can best be imposed here before things get out of hand."

Hess was approached to participate in the competition after presenting a speech last year in St. Petersburg on ethnic segregation in housing in Estonia during the Soviet period and since. He spent his sabbatical in Estonia last year as a Fulbright scholar and has dedicated much of his recent research to this topic.

Wattles, a senior environmental design major in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, is a Buffalo native. Because he was the only American attending the Winter University, he says, "I felt like an American ambassador."

He expressed excitement to have participated and even delayed his graduation a semester to insure his eligibility for this workshop -- an independent study project for which Hess was his instructor. As part of his application process, Wattles had to demonstrate his understanding of the subject so he conducted a research outlining the suburbanization of Buffalo.

"Once a center of industrial production for the former Soviet Union," said Wattles, "Irkutsk and its environs now suffer from economic decline and population loss. In this sense, Irkutsk shares many similarities with the Rust Belt of the United States."

Hess says, "The city of Irktusk benefits from the Winter University program, since it has collaborated with the local university on it for 13 years and key participants include city government and chief city planners. In fact, the mayor and other city officials are among those who attend the presentation sessions and consider the proposals."

In their off hours, the students had time to investigate and engage what is arguably one of Russia's most beautiful regions -- a land of many rivers and rolling hills within the taiga or boreal forests of eastern Siberia. Wattles, an avid rock climber, got some practice on the Siberian rocks.

Both agree that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"A Fulbright Scholar award allowed me to stretch my research in new directions and to new sites," says Hess. "I am thrilled that I had the opportunity to attend the Winter University in Siberia, because it gave me the chance to give a student direct involvement in my scholarship in a fascinating location."

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