Short Report for Media
Beer vs Coffee. Does Urbanism Influence Our Habits?
In September 2016, the media and social networks of the Russian Tyumen city were agitated after blogger Arkadiy Gerschmann criticized the city. He travelled there and visited the new residential neighborhoods and bluntly condemned them in a post. Here’s a shortened quote from it:
There are just 27 identical 17-storey towers in an asphalted field. Would one want to go outdoors in such a place? No, you’d like to buy a thicker door, park your car as close to the entrance as possible, to slip quickly and not see this nightmare. No wonder that the most basic commodity here, according to the market, is alcohol.
Then he shows a photo of beer-on-tap store, which are widespread:
Is there a reason to worry about? I think so, because there’s as much beer commerce as in the degraded neighborhoods, while the residents are definitely not alcoholics or derelicts. These people buy cars (which is less common in Russia), they are able to have mortgage and pay for the estate. Usually, they are young people or adults with small children. How could they consume so much beer?
Red circles: houses completed in 2010s. Yellow circles: Khruschov period (1957-1969).
Circle size indicates the no. of residents.
The first statement that I tried to prove in this research is that beer-on-tap shops are more present in the “sleeper” modernist blocks.
The other suggestion by architect Dmitri Oschepkov, was that city center can be highlighted with coffeeshops, which turned out to be correct. Assuming that, I wanted to test that the traditional urbanism works better as city centers. This means that blocks built in traditional European layout should have more coffeeshops.
A simple count of beer shops within a radius is affected by the density of the place. To remove it, I calculated specific values, that is I summed the number of apartments and divided beer shops by the sum, then multiplied by 10,000, to get the specific value per 10 thousand apartments, which is easy to operate with. The specific value is called diffusion.
It turned out that the diffusion of beer shops is the highest in the new modernist blocks of the 2010-s that are located far from city centers. Exceptions are run-down neighborhoods closer to the centers.
Another concern was if the new buildings have ground floors more often designed for retail, hence all sorts of retail are more active there. To rule this out, I calculated the same diffusion values for grocery stores and pharmacies. It turned out that their diffusion is either the same or decreases in these new neighborhoods.
Construction Epoch and Commute Time
In order to simplify observations, the houses were grouped by their construction year, in epochs. Each epoch had distinct approach to urban planning or distinct economic conditions. They are the following:
- Imperial Russia: cities were planned and built in the European traditions, with narrow streets and many active facades. This epoch was terminated completely by the Revolution of 1917.
- Early Soviet: architects still followed those traditions but added constructivist styles. It lasted up to 1933 when Stalin disapproved of the style, and architects switched to pseudo-classics, up untill mid 1950-s.
- Stalin’s period: huge luxury houses for communist elite, low-quality housing for the masses, and planning for automobilized cities.
- Khruschov’s period: mass construction of concrete pre-fabricated houses, finally modernist free standing houses, like in Le Corbusier’s Luminous city concept, switch from streets grids to self-contained megablocks.
- Late Soviet: gradual upgrade in apartments size, even bigger megablocks.
- 1990-s: decline in construction, everywhere except Moscow, experimental houses.
- 2000-s: economic recovery and early stage of mortgage market. Single houses are constructed near city centers.
- 2010-s: after the crisis of 2008-09, the government, in a maneuver to save the recovered construction sector starts subsidizing mortgages, and sells cheaply big areas on the fringe. Constructors resume the Soviet megablocks and same types of housing, at a bigger scale.
The commute time factor is time it takes to travel to the city center by public transit, which still has most modal share in Russia. Not all do commute to the center, but most of the entertainment and socialization usually concentrates near the centers. Hence, this is a metric of how far in terms of time a house is from all of this.
The biggest finding is that the houses of the new epoch of subsidized construction of 2010-s, those far from the center, have the highest diffusion of beer shops. Whether people drink proportionally more or not, and why, is an open question.
What Kind of Streets Turn Into Center
City centers naturally are full of coffeeshops, which, unlike other food places, work as meeting and socialization points. Their main feature is centrailty, and food is puposefully expensive. Naturally, they are absent on the periphery.
One of the goals was to prove that traditional streets (narrow and with small blocks with houses on the perimeter) work better as centers than modernist streets (where houses stand freely and don’t have a yard, and there are big gaps between sidewalks and buildings).
The hardest challenge was to find examples of old streets not in centers, to make comparison fair. In this chart of coffeeshops diffusion, you can see that in Nizhniy Novgorod and Saint Petersburg, at the same commute time, usually the cell for the imperial epoch has higher value than any other. This means that even far from the center, old houses and streets do become local centers while those modernist usually do not.
- Arkadiy Gerschmann was right in his observation. Residential buildings of 2010-s have much more beer shops per inhabitant and per apartment, than those in the older parts of the cities. A counterargument that commerce is easier in those houses, is not true, because there are less grocery stores and pharmacies. What is the real mechanism, is an open question to sociologists, but there’s a reason to worry.
- Separately, the commute time and the epoch of the building aren’t strong factors. Equally far houses may have different diffusion of retail stores.
- Modernist urbanism perporms worse as city center: the imperial and early soviet epochs gave houses that have more coffeeshops, than those of later epochs (I compare houses equally distant from the center).
- Cities that have bigger uninterrupted grid of streets have more coffeeshops spread around the center. Examples are Perm, Chita and Nizhni Novgorod. (This observation still requires a thorough check.)
- It was expected that the bigger modernist blocks have more beershops, but this turned out not true.
Overall, the research reached its goal and proved the hypothesis, that urban planning affects lifestyle and habits, even though using indirect indicators.
What is the exact mechanism for the high number of beer shops is still an open question, that requires a sociological surveys. In my opinion, they should try to reveal the daily schedule of people, to see what people really do have time to do.
Probably, those who live far from the center, spend much time commuting. Russian cities have good radial and poor lateral transit, despite that only 1⁄3 of workers commute radially. Others commute laterally, which is even more time-consuming. After the work, or after some trips during the day, to get to social places or for entertainment, they’d have to do a long round trip to the center.
Quite probably, many of such citizens get home and stay home the rest of free time, taking beer to drink while watching TV or playing videogames. Craft beer, which is tastier than bottled beer, becomes increasingly popular, and is easier to get used to. But I can’t recommend measures to cope with this: even complete prohibition of alcohol does not save neighborhoods from social degrading.
Many of such districts have poor people for two reasons: anybody with money, or enough skills and determination to earn, leaves such a neighborhood. Those with low skills and poor cannot afford this and stay. According to the report by Kommersant newspaper, called “Hello, Ghetto”, living in such a place you risk to get locked there: no reacheable good jobs, hence no chance to move out, and staying there you spend much time commuting and not being able to improve skills and income.
Even if this neighborhood is not that dangerous, Russian cities have many modernist districts where all the required facilities are present: a kindergarten, a school, and a hospital, there’s still nothing to do for an adult. Remote districts can’t be like the center, but they can naturally develop local centers within walkable distance, and many amenities and places to socialize. In Post-Soviet modernist districts this development is artificially suppressed by codes.
Dmitri Lebedev, September 2016-May 2017.
A big thank you to Daria Kiselnikova, Alexander Lozhkin and Dmitriy Oschepkov.