Sociology of Courtyard Design: A Conversation with Petr Ivanov

by Peter Sigrist

Petr Ivanov is carrying out ambitious research in his Moscow neighborhood. He and a group of young volunteers have combined Web technology with social surveys to gather input from residents of four tall buildings around a woeful courtyard. The survey results will inform a redesign project aimed at improving this public space.

Petr Ivanov, an independent researcher and activist from Moscow. Source: Varvara Tchumakova

Petr's neighborhood, Troparyovo-Nikulino, is a "sleeping district" in southwest Moscow, one of many apartment-block constellations from which masses of people commute to jobs in the city center. Much of the public space in these areas is plagued with poorly regulated construction, advertisement and vandalism. In addition to quality management, there's a pressing need for attentive design that goes beyond questionable improvements by local authorities (mainly limited to colorful recreation equipment). In the following interview, Petr discusses this situation and his approach to addressing it.

The research site, a housing complex at 38 Academic Anokhin Street. Source: Google Earth

Can you tell us about your current research on public space?

The goal of our project at 38 Academic Anokhin Street is to find out what improvements people would like to see in the territory around their homes. We went door to door to talk with residents and ask them to fill out a survey; if they declined, we asked if they could fill it out at a more convenient time and place it in one of the boxes we installed in each entranceway. Along with desired improvements, the surveys asked residents about how they use the courtyard, how they think others use it and what they view as appropriate and inappropriate use. We also collected demographic and historical information to add new dimensions to our understanding of the community.

Outside the courtyard at 38 Anokhin.

What inspired you to take on this project?

While working on my master's dissertation, titled "The Courtyard in Moscow's Sleeping Districts: Geography, Practices and Perceptions," I found some interesting phenomena and methods to explore in future projects. That was the first moment of inspiration. The second came last September in discussions with Vladimir Nikolaev, my dissertation advisor in the Department of Sociology at Russia's Higher School of Economics, and Yuriy Milevskiy, an instructor in the department of urban studies. We talked about the social surveys of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree in British cities around the turn of the 20th century, and how we might adopt a similar approach in Moscow. The courtyard at 38 Anokhin offered a fortunate opportunity to combine these inspirations in a real project.

Entering the courtyard.

How did you select the site?

I can't say that I really selected it. Yuriy Milevskiy and I started writing a research proposal to try out social surveys at a micro scale. Around the same time, Kiril Samodurov — an activist from Troparyovo-Nikulino — mentioned the need to improve a gloomy walkway at 26 Bakinsky Komisars Street. We thought of surveying the neighbors around the walkway as part of a community-based redesign.

An underused walkway at 26 Bakinsky Komisars Street.

Then Gleb Vitkov — an architect who's leading a design project focused on Moscow courtyards — asked if we would conduct our survey at 38 Anokhin, not far from the walkway. He and his team were interested in finding out residents' wishes for improving the territory around the complex.

Entrance to one of the buildings that surround the courtyard at 38 Anokhin.

How did you go about collecting data?

We visited each household in the complex, drawing upon Soviet-era industrial sociology (especially "The Handbook of Sociology" edited by Gennady Osipov) in surveying as many residents as possible instead of using a predefined sample. With the submission boxes and announcements that included a QR code linked to an online version, we managed to survey about 20 percent of all residents over the month we had to complete this stage of the project. We're now organizing focus groups to discuss improvement possibilities in more detail.

A view from above the courtyard last November. Source: Kiril Samodurov

What are some of the challenges you encountered along the way?

It probably doesn't make sense to go deeply into the organizational difficulties; it's obvious enough that there should be paper to print questionnaires, and people to help complete them. We took care of these logistics through crowd-sourcing, thanks to wonderful volunteers who really invested themselves in the project.

Petr and another volunteer in front of a steel door. Source: Petr Ivanov

As for research challenges, I should probably mention the full range. First is the steel door. It's difficult for me to estimate the number of refusals, because I don't know how many people came to the door, looked through the peephole and, seeing a stranger, decided not to answer. The steel door encourages suspicion. I imagine people thinking, "Did I install a steel door because of that person I see on the other side?"

An automobile service station along the perimeter of the courtyard.

Even when people opened the door, we had to prove that we weren't selling vacuum cleaners, that we didn't want to make people believe in Jehova, that we weren't working for Putin or for the U.S. Department of State, and that we weren't trying to rob anyone. Convincing people of these things was sometimes impossible.

One of four run-down utility sheds on the lawn.

The third problem: prior bullshit. It turns out that two years ago employees from the State Agency of Engineering Services conducted a resident survey, but there's no indication that it was published or used in any way. So a lot of people were understandably reluctant to participate.

Exercise equipment and a soccer field.

The most interesting problem was the closed nature of the community. At first it seemed there hardly was a community. Despite the compact living situation, effective means of communication with and between residents are virtually nonexistent.

Empty benches for children and adults.

Were there any surprises?

Yes! One resident gave a moving speech — full of references to Baudrillard, Derrida and Guattari — about how the fountain installed in the courtyard by the prefecture is a false improvement. Another created a beautiful flower garden and pond around her building's entrance.

A new fountain wrapped in green plastic, one of many false improvements by the local prefecture.

Besides contributing to the participatory courtyard redesign, what do you hope to accomplish through this research?

I hope it will lead to future projects that include social surveys to help retrofit public space. It's also helping me determine which methods to use for a study of neighborhood communities, which I hope will become a series of excursions through the city. This might be called something like "Exploring Community in Moscow."

Kids using the soccer field and playground.

How can research be integrated successfully into top-down and bottom-up approaches to urban development?

Many people with the power to bring improvement seem oblivious to resident concerns, and many residents aren't aware of their rights. Housing communities are often highly atomized, leaving people without much leverage against administrative negligence. Authorities complain that they don't receive feedback while residents complain that their wishes are ignored; there's almost no productive dialogue.

Cars parked along both sides of the street that circles the courtyard.

Neighborhood activists interacting with the government seem like, if not guerrillas, then at least very dangerous elements. And even when guided by good intentions, planners tend to make bad decisions when they don't understand the people whose lives they affect. We hope our research will help change this situation for the better.

Advertisements greet people at another entrance.

We invite residents to exercise their rights to the city, and we offer city officials the feedback they need to make socially responsible decisions. Local government budgets include funding for sociological research; if this research is directed toward visible neighborhood improvements, it's possible that the relationship between residents and authorities will shift in a positive direction.

More advertisements and cars outside the complex.

How would you describe the significance of your project for urban development in other parts of the world?

It's hard to say, as I don't thoroughly understand the specific forms of urban development in other countries. But in comparison with work being done outside Russia, our idea for involving residents in planning is just a start.

Plants in one of the building stairwells. Source: Petr Ivanov

What are your future plans?

I'd like to expand opportunities for residents to have a say in planning the public space around their homes. In the near future we'll be carrying out similar projects in other buildings around the city. In addition to "Exploring Community," my longterm plan is to do a total social survey of Troparyovo-Nikulino that builds upon the data we've collected so far. I hope this will help strengthen the community and make our neighborhood a better place to live.

Credits: Photos by Peter Sigrist unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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  1. Fascinating project. The name 'sleeping district' stands out, as if it means something more than bedroom community, as if these communities are dormant, disconnected but still full of the potential to wake up.

  2. exploring community is a brilliant idea! it could help connect groups with similar concerns in different parts of the city. maybe they can coordinate using the internet. it would be interesting to document and map their presence, the only risk i can see is turning them into turist attractions, like a wildlife expedition. but learning from and building networks between different communities sounds very promising.

  3. I like the way this study went for total coverage, seeking input from as many residents as possible. Even if it doesn't provide a representative sample, going door to door, talking with people directly, providing signs in the entrances, offering alternative ways to fill out the survey, etc. gives anyone who wants to the opportunity to have their say. This seems well suited for design research.

    It actually sounds like a perfect opportunity for crowd-funding a landscape architecture project, since everyone shares in the state of the area around the buildings.

    Political mobilization would also be important to get the municipal authorities to do something about the sheds, advertisements, etc.

    1. yes, and maybe even the buildings themselves. seeing them made me think, if only they could be cut in half, reducing the scale that seems to block a lot of sunlight. i'm sure that's not possible, but even a facade upgrade with quality material could really help. crowd-funding something like that would likely be a lot more challenging.

  4. Urban Ecology in the Bay Area has a lot of experience with community research for design projects:

  5. I'm wondering what the impediments are for residents themselves to initiate the courtyard improvements. Is anyone who lives in the building working on this? If not, what's holding them back? And how did an auto mechanic service end up there?

    1. That's a very good question. In fact there are several activists that are real agents of comminication between local residents and the government. But the problem is that they do not communicate with each other, and each of them has their own view on common good. Thus not all of the problems of courtyard improvement could be solved, either with research like ours. For example, we can find a problem with the courtyard being a transit space for local automobilists, but only through organistion of local residents the courtyard may be fenced. The problem with the auto mechanic servise is a mmm strange one. The Ministry of Civil Defence gives its vault for rent to the auto service for already ten years or so and in fact the auto service takes part in courtyard improvement process - for example it pays for the water to make ice on the hockey-box in winter. But again, although the residents are angry with the autoservice, they are unable to unite and work this problem out.

    2. Thanks for this interesting reply, Petr. It sounds like the repair shop is in a repurposed bomb shelter? I've seen this in my neighborhood and wondered who made the decision to sell or rent the space, and who receives payment. In this case it seems that the residents should. Icing the soccer field is insufficient compensation for the occupied space. It could at least be used for resident parking.

    3. Peter, in fact it's not about the redidents to receive payment, because the shelter is the property of Ministry of Civil Defence. And, since we do not have any mean of forming and expressing the will of the neiborhood (I presume we can't even use the term "neiborhood" here, "failure society" would be more appropriate), it is up to Ministry to decide how to deal with it's property.


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