On my visit to Moscow last week, I witnessed an intriguing sight as I was crossing a bridge near the city centre. A little girl and her mother were walking towards me. As they went past, the girl stooped down to make a snowball, and then she threw it playfully towards her mother. Not very noteworthy, you may think – except that it was minus 6 degrees Centigrade, with a biting wind and eight lanes of Moscow traffic roaring by just metres away from us. You could not have asked for a clearer example of children’s appetite for play, regardless of their circumstances. So how well does Russia’s capital satisfy that appetite – how child-friendly is it?
Having spent just four days in the city – two of them at the Moscow Urban Forum – it would be foolish of me to give a definitive answer. But I saw and heard enough to share some thoughts. A good place to start is with the Forum itself. Now in its second year, the event had all the hallmarks of a high-profile, heavyweight occasion, including a mayoral keynote and a star turn by Tim Campbell, British former Apprentice, and now London’s own ambassador for training and enterprise. So the fact that it devoted one session to the topic of ‘children in the city space’ points to a real interest in children’s experiences of living in Moscow.
That session revealed further positive signs. Yulia Grimalskaya, a senior official from Moscow’s department for family and youth policy, said that in 2011-2 alone, the Mayor had improved or created 50 city parks, 123 artificial skating rinks, 46 workout areas, and no fewer than 1,100 playgrounds. All clear evidence that, as she put it, “Moscow is trying to turn its face to children”.
In another session, Andrey Nesterenko from developers Red Rose set out his company’s plans for a new Moscow district, V Lesu. His sales pitch for this “big and magnanimous” family-oriented development highlighted “education and development for children” and “playgrounds for children of different ages” alongside the promotion of walking and cycling and public transport improvements.
Outside the conference bubble, I came across another encouraging sign: an initiative called the White City Project, which aims to make a central area of the city more liveable and child-friendly. This video gives a flavour of the project’s aims and approach.
So does all this add up to making Moscow a great place to grow up? Not at all. At the conference, Moscow’s chief architect Sergei Kuznetsov gave a damning assessment of the postwar Soviet microrayons or ‘sleeping districts’ where 90 per cent of Moscow’s families live. “Children are living in such faceless environments,” he said, “that it is leading to psychological deficiencies.”
What is more, the city has a huge and growing problem with car traffic. Out in the microrayons, parked cars litter many public spaces. As the comments on my recent blog post show, parents are fearful of the threat of speeding traffic. In the Forum, the topic of traffic was a constant theme. The Mayor of Moscow’s opening speech laid bare the tensions. After declaring that “cars create a better quality of life” he said that Moscow’s most urgent task was “to tackle transport collapse”.
The most fleeting visit to the city confims that it is being overrun by cars. Whilst trying to walk down one narrow city centre street, I found that parked vehicles had blocked both pavements. On another occasion I saw a car driver all but run over a man, as he aggressively asserted his right to park (illegally) on a pedestrian crossing.
Even the new playgrounds the mayor’s administration is so proud of may be less of a blessing than they seem. Several mothers I spoke to complained that these were largely sterile, unimaginative and boring for children. The ones I saw at first hand were not overly inspiring.
Some of the parents I spoke to highlighted another barrier to children’s free play: lack of time. In Russia, as in many other countries, children live in a culture where educational attainment is at a premium, and where they face growing pressure to climb up the ladder of formal learning – from an early age, and whether or not they are ready for it. This can leave children starved of the chance to simply play freely. Indeed one mother told me about a kindergarten she visited, where the programme was highly structured. She was amazed to see that the children were desperate to stay on, even at the end of a long day. Why? Because they knew that their only opportunity for free play was after 6 pm.
In my session at the Moscow Urban Forum, I invited the audience to recall their own memories of childhood, and specifically their favourite places to play as a child. Asked whether these places were out of doors – and out of sight of adults – the vast majority of delegates said yes. Just as in London, Edinburgh, Tokyo, Melbourne, Ottawa, Utrecht, Brussels, Auckland, Cardiff, and every other city where I have posed those questions. It was clear that, once revived, these memories of everyday adventures beyond the anxious gaze of adults were full of significance and value.
Adrian Voce, who succeeded me as director at Play England, also spoke at the session. Introducing his take on the rise and fall of government interest in play, he shared a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic exploration of human spirituality, The Brothers Karamazov, that beautifully captures the power and value of a good childhood: “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”
Everyone I spoke to in Moscow was aware of the contrast between their own childhoods and those on offer to children today. Russians were in effect asking themselves “what sacred memories will this generation of children carry with them into life?” – and were not happy with the answer.
I may have the chance to return to Moscow; to explore how it can bequeath its future citizens rich, resonant memories of growing up. If you have any creative ideas for encouraging the city to raise its aspirations for children, I’d love to hear them.
Update 25 February 2013: My visit generated some interest from websites and the media. Here are some links to interviews and feature articles (all in Russian). Thanks to Nadia Pavlovskaya for sending me these links.
Update 8 May 2013: here is one more interview (in Russian):