As the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases – where oil and gas account for roughly 90% of its national energy output – Russia has a dubious reputation when it comes to managing environmental issues.

Fossil fuels are the lifeblood of the Russian economy, inextricably linked to the performance of national currency, the rouble. Then there the country’s longstanding environmental problems to consider, which date back to the Soviet era, including pollution, nuclear waste and deforestation.

Covering one-eighth of the world’s entire land mass, Russia can no longer ignore its environmental responsibilities. This is a truth that appears to have bled into public consciousness. According to a recent survey, conducted by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, 94% of respondents expressed concerns over environmental pollution.

There is slight indication that the Kremlin is taking note. Earlier this year, Ruslan Edelgeriev, a climate change advisor to President Vladimir Putin, intimated that the country was on the cusp of ratifying the Paris agreement, which would see it formally join the landmark climate change accord.

If Russia is indeed serious to help keep average global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as set out by the Paris agreement, it will need to incorporate greater level of sustainability into all walks of life.

This includes architecture.

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Tatar force: plans for Russia’s “third capital”

Located on the left bank of the River Volga, within the Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan is often referred to as Russia’s third capital city – after Moscow and St Petersburg, respectively. A key industrial hub during Soviet rule – its numerous factories produced tanks and planes during the Second World War – the city today is home to several industries, including mechanical engineering, petrochemicals and IT.

Early last year, Rustam Minnikhanov, Tatarstan’s president, issued an open invitation to international architects to create a new eco-district in Kirovsky, a low-density residential area that can be reached from the city centre in 20 minutes by car. The plan, according to Minnikhanov, was for the “establishment of a non-urban lifestyle in the urban environment”.

After several competition rounds later, in November London-based practice JTP announced its bid to create a 760-hectare new eco-city district had been selected by a jury consisting of Minnikhanov, as well as Kazan’s Mayor Ilsur Metshin and an assortment of local architects.

All in the blend: international experience and local knowledge

Invited to enter the competition by Knight Frank Russia, JTP did so as part of a consortium, whose partners include: XTU Architects (France); Arkhitekturny Desant (Russia, Republic of Tatarstan); TERRA SCAPE (Belgium); and OXO Architects (France).

With prior experience of working in Russia, alongside the mix of international presence afforded by other members of the consortium, JTP had the right set of the credentials to the take the project on from the outset, insists Ivana Stanisic, an associate and senior architect with the practice.

“We’ve done quite a lot of strategic projects in Russia – particularly around Moscow – over the last 15 years, so have quite a lot of experience of working in the country,” she explains.

“So, our strategy for the competition was to take the lessons and knowledge learned from those projects and apply it to Kazan. We also looked to apply our knowledge from wider European master planning projects, too.

“Together with our French and Belgian colleagues, we had the relevant experience for the job, but Arkhitekturny Desant also played a really important thanks to their local knowledge. It was a case of making the most of international and local experience found across the consortium.”

Into the woods: the ecopolis concept

Much of the project’s design is centred around Kirovsky surrounding woodland.  JTP plans to use “green fingers” of forest to create clusters of lower-density homes, as well as higher density villages around the main routes to the site, on which once was dotted a number of munitions factories.

“The forest itself is already broken up by the site’s former use, which was for warehouses storing ammunition,” says Stanisic. “Due to certain past requirements, these warehouses had to be a certain distance from each other, meaning there are already scattered clearings in the forest.

“So, the strategy was always to preserve as much of the forest as we could, and use existing clearings and the historic roads that connect them.”

The project is informed by a concept known as “ecopolis”, as laid out by the competition’s organisers, who, according to Stanisic, “wanted to set a precedent in Russia for a town to be built on eco-principles”.

“Some of those were about preserving the forest as much as we can, but also creating a sustainable community, aware of where they live and how they live, and embed this strategy into everyday life,” she says.

With its proposed walking and cycling routes, which will connect each and every neighbourhood in the district, ecopolis is as much about community as it is environmentally-led. This is perhaps the most salient point: that urban sustainability has the power to create better health and wellbeing within neighbourhoods.

“In addition to having a sustainable strategy – in terms of infrastructure, sustainable transport links – it is about having both soft and hard principles and embedding them into people’s lives,” explains Stanisic.

“Another one of the key principles is that everyone should live close to this open green space, which should penetrate every part of the development and enable people to lead healthier lives, whether it be by growing vegetables, being in nature or walking.”

Progressing the project

Stanisic is tight-lipped on the project’s latest status and scheduled completion date.

“We don’t know the date for completion at the moment,” she says. “We had a meeting at the beginning of this year with the competition organisers, who are now looking to progress the project further.

“They are also choosing a local architect to develop the details, and we have been in correspondence with them over us overseeing the future phases of the detailed development of the vision.”

If and when Kazan’s eco-district sees light of day, it should serve as an antithesis to the Russian stereotype of smoke-stacked vistas and proclivity for the black stuff – and, instead, one of a modern city with a modern outlook on its environmental obligations.