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
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
"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
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
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
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."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, a flagship institution in the State University
of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus.
UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests
through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional
degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a
member of the Association of American Universities.