Urbanists Comments

Beer on Tap and Social Connections

Arkadiy Gercshmann
(blogger, who raised the original question - D.L.)

What does make people live in cities and the world urbanize? Simple answer is: the opportunities. To find a job, to learn something, to find a partner, to attend theatres, etc. All this is much easier to do in a city than in a village or out in the fields. But all these opportunities are compromised as long as people stop communicating, when social connections, that generate these things, stop emerging.

There’s a good reason why the new urbanism puts stress on pubic spaces and variable and vibrant cityscape: they generate new contacts between people and creates opportunities for businesses. Business meetings can happen in a cafe, in the main square; school classes can be held outdoors; neighbors can gather in the yard - there are lots of ways a city and its human capital can be enriched, but they won’t be if everybody stays home drinking.

One can understand why people do so in the remote suburbs (with very dense high rises - D.L.): the very cityscape pushes them into the only comfortable and safe place, their own apartments. To meet people they can travel to the city center, or to the nearest mall, but this is time consuming and too unpleasant. Why is this their only option? Because the cityscape outdoors is very agressive: the yard became a huge parking lot; instead of a street with bike lanes and coffeeshops there’s a dusty noisy highway with underground passages; instead of good public transport there are chaotic and nasty minibuses. You want to get out of such place and stay home, have some beer sitting before the TV, or travel only in your car and ignore the surroundings. The car limits your new social connections too by the way: it’s hard to meet someone when you’re sitting inside a metal box.

Unfortunately, my observation and this research too, have confirmed that our current urban planning makes people and cities devolve. Overcoming this will be very hard and will take not only to change the urban planning, activities and streetscapes, but people’s minds as well. The most frightening is that adults got used to this way of living, and youngsters can’t imagine a different city. It does not take long to demolish a bad suburb, but changing the people does.

Get Some Life

Dmitri Lebedev

My main conclusion of this research, quite unexpected, is that the beer shops are abundant mostly in the suburbs built in 2010-s. There’s many more beer-on-tap shops per capita than on average, and we can’t attribute this to an increase in commercial activity: in these suburbs, the other sectors are in fact less active. I devoted 2010s in a separate epoch because in these years, Russian construction sector got addicted to subsidized mortgage and free land lots on the fringe (both measures were boosting the nuber of square metres built).

This practice got criticized early in the vey beginning, by independent professionals, who pointed out that this is a recipe for a ghetto. These new suburbs have not yet repeated the fate of Pruitt-Igoe: their population is doing reasonably well and has means to live. But the stage for personal degradation has been set.

I can’t suggest a particular measure against the beer-on-tap shops. Probably, a soft limitation is enough: shorten their opening hours, limit their areas. All these measures were working pretty well in the late 1980s and in the 2000s, when liquor sales at night were forbidden. Probably it makes sense to transform some of them into bars. At least, a good majority of violence and drunk violence happens in the private setting between relatives or friends, and they are less probable in public.

It could also make sense to stimulate other kinds of meeting places, like restaurants (simplify licensing) and culture centers, where people could meet and occupy themselves together.

Now when it has been mentioned, this is a big question: what can you do in the leisure time near your home? Where can you leave a fulfilling life: meet friends, make appointments, attend cultural events. All these words mean socializing. In English, there’s a term for this: “to get a life”, which has no equivalent in Russian (and a literal translation sounds silly). If someone does not socialize, he “has no life”. In English these both are equal.

In Russia, this topic is a blindspot when we discuss the real estate, and when discussing it, people often resort to mere trivializations or fatalism: “there’s nothing you can do”, or slogans: “you should try harder”, “you won’t be alone if you set yourself a goal and pursue it”. Meanwhile, real estate is discussed mostly around the following:

  • “infrastructure” of the neighborhood, which merely means a kindergarten, a school and a hospital. All these can free your time, but not socialize an adult. We still expect that you need to drive miles from your neighborhood to get to some activity.
  • prasing the “ecology” of the fringe, people forget how much emissions you create while driving that far, and how much of that you inhale in the congestions.
  • the “underclasses” and “mentality” tags are put on those in the run-down neighborhoods, while instead we should be discussing what made all the well-off people move from there.
  • architecture styles are still blowing many minds, so many discuss whether or not to paint their high-risers a bit brighter

Many constructors businessmen visited many European cities and want to recreate those cityscapes, atmosphere and the level of comfort. But so far most of them just copy the style, the perimeter blocks, the finish materials, but not the real content.

The real content is not objects, but the common use cases, the life scenarios of the city. So far, we have almost no language to describe this, nor tools.

Jane Jackobs has been quoted in Russia for almost 7 years, but it seems that her discourse has not rooted. That’s explainable, since she wrote about American, not Russian cities. The big discussion of the scenarios has been started by Sviatoslav Murunov in 2014, who claimed that in any Russian city, an average dweller is unhappy, and the only happy people are the activists, members of the informal communities, those that in the West are taken for granted, but were eradicated by communists in the USSR.

We still have to create or borrow the language and measurements for the city quality. We’ll have to change the construction codes and change master plans, to create vibrant streets at human scale. In all the discussions and researches we have to put the main question, which is also the criterion of city quality: can an adult have meaningful and fulfilling daily life there?