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.”

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.