Russian activists are using a community website to fight local corruption

Russian graffiti. Image: Beautiful Petersberg.

How do you improve your neighbourhood in a country as corrupt as Russia? Well, in some of its biggest cities, activists are using a website designed to report and address corruption in their local community.

Beautiful Petersburg – or Красивый Петербург, if you prefer – was developed by activist Krasimir Vransko to highlight the way in which political officials were failing to use their community budgets effectively: by allowing rubbish to pile up in the streets, for example, or by failing to repair vandalised areas.

The site encourages users to upload photos of problem areas in their neighbourhoods; overflowing bins, lack of disability access to government buildings, parks used as dumping grounds, that sort of thing. Less than two minutes after submitting the problem, a request for action is forwarded to the relevant city department, after which the officials have 30 days to respond. These problems range from the minor (painting over graffiti and shovelling snow), to major structural changes (repaving roads and installing access ramps across an entire borough).

A map of some of the problems users have highlighted in St Petersberg. Image: Beautiful Petersberg.

Corruption is a serious problem for Russian politics. In its 2014 ranking, Transparency International rated the country 136th, down from 127th in 2013. Back in 1999, Transparency International Russia founded a number of centres dedicated to collating and investigating allegations of corruption:  including land parcelling, budget mismanagement, anti-corruption educational programs and election monitoring.

Run as a non-profit, non-partisan organisation, TI Russia has achieved a lot – but it’s been unable to prevent burnout in community activists. Politicians and protestors are regularly threatened and forced into exile; activists describe campaigns dragging on for decades with very little change; and as Russia’s Transparency ranking falls, disillusionment is common. 


That’s where Beautiful Petersburg comes in. “An individual’s environment is important,” explains Anatoliy Kanioukov, an assistant to the Deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, and a coordinator on the Moskovsky and Leningrad regions of Beautiful Petersburg. “When you see the area around your house full of litter, broken playground swings, cars abandoned on front lawns, untreated potholes, it impacts your mood and you start to wonder if it is worth taking care of your own home.”

The activists behind Beautiful Petersburg wanted a more consistent and reliable response to urban problems, while simultaneously demonstrating to citizens that it was worth following up on relatively minor issues. “Within 26 months, the citizens sent over 65,000 requests and over 20,000 issues were resolved. One request is a small good deed – but 20,000 small victories have changed the face of the city.”

The movement behind Beautiful Petersburg has grown year on year: activists have been offering on-the-ground support to local groups protesting park closures, and investigating funding misappropriation within government building projects. Success stories are displayed prominently on the website and the project has received attention from high-profile Russian activist, Alexei Navalny who recently sought political asylum in the UK.

Despite the name, Beautiful Petersburg has active groups in Moscow, Novosibirsk and many other highly populated areas. All requests are displayed on a map of the affected area; and citizens are able to see their neighbours reporting the same issues.

This is a game of strength in numbers. This constant affirmation that change is possible and that the government can be held to account is a new way of thinking for many Russian citizens.

When asked what’s next for Beautiful Petersburg Kanioukov, says that the website is only the beginning. By demonstrating how powerful individual voices can be online, activists are hoping to fundamentally change the way Russian citizens view public spending.

Many assume that the corruption within Russian politics is insurmountable. But as Kanioukov says: “Through caring for the surrounding space a person becomes a master in his backyard, his town and ultimately his country.”

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.