Returning from a summer vacation in Europe, I understood that adding more economists or lawyers is not enough to make Ukraine a better place to live. Instead, the country needs better and more empowered urban designers to make public spaces more comfortable, accessible and open.
Europe’s streets, squares and parks are designed for the people. They are full of life and attract crowds. Most importantly, they are a testament to different way of thinking, where the comfort of citizens is the utmost goal.
Don’t get me wrong. Ukraine has plenty of parks, town squares and open spaces. But they mainly function as stages to monuments rather than places for people to enjoy life. Rarely are they closed off for traffic so citizens can quietly sip their coffee, more often being clogged with cars and smog.
Effective use of public space determines quality of life. It can aid communication and build communities. It’s what makes Europe European.
The lack of high quality public space is what keeps Ukraine a post-Soviet state, tainted by gray and cluttered city streets, with uncomfortable, gargantuan squares unsuitable for human use.
What would I like to see more of in Ukraine?
Take, for example, the lawn in front of Berlin Cathedral, the main Protestant church in Germany. I saw it crowded with tourists and locals sitting and lying on perfectly trimmed grass, reading books or talking with friends, enjoying the slight breeze from a nearby fountain. There were no “do not walk” signs on the lawn; it was like an oasis in a hot and bustling city.
Are Ukrainians warned not to lounge on park lawns? Not usually. Perhaps Soviet mentality still reigns, with people thinking: “If there is no sign saying I can sit on the lawn, perhaps I can’t.”
Whatever the problem, Ukraine’s cities either need more European-style space, or citizens willing to use it.
While admiring a glass and metal dome on top of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament reconstructed after World War II, people practiced yoga in the twilight sun on a lawn facing the building.
Moreover, many European cities have downtown squares closed off to traffic. People can come to rest on a bench or under the umbrella of a cozy summer cafe. You can see this in the eastern Polish city of Krakow, the small Dutch towns of Haarlem or Netherland’s Delft, or a piazza in the Mediterranean city of Rome.
Playgrounds for kids are a separate topic. One I saw in downtown Berlin consisted of quaint colorful figures and resembled a cubist piece of modern art rather than a simple playground.
Meanwhile, downtown Amsterdam houses a chaotic wooden composition, with a metal slide and a few swings made out of a decorative fisherman’s net. It fits well with the rest of the square where one can see the famous “I Amsterdam” letters, an artificial pool, metal benches in minimalist style and pebbles instead of asphalt.
A playground in Rotterdam, Netherlands’ main port, is shaped like a bright blue-and-yellow ship.
The railway station in Holland’s Leiden was also impressive. It was not busy and stressful like many others, but rather feels like a comfortable living room. There are soft benches on a green carpet and swings for kids. There was a TV screen on which people calmly watched the London Summer Olympics while waiting for their train.
It is not difficult to transform Ukraine’s post-Soviet streets, squares and parks into inviting and cozy open spaces. But we need people who will design this new space.
Do many universities in Ukraine offer courses in urban design and urban studies? I am not sure. Or is it that they do exist, but their graduates are redrafted to satisfy the profiteering interests of tycoons and politicians who care little for public needs.
If I had to choose my future profession now, I would seriously consider becoming an urban designer, one with an activist streak needed to overcome vested interests so that Ukraine can become free society with lots of open, free space for use by ordinary citizens.
Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Faryna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.