SESTRORETSK — There was a time when this northwest Russian city was considered the engine of the workers’ revolution. It had been the largest weapons factory in Imperial Russia, and just after the launch of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, workers frequently set off from here to expropriate property from the Czar’s followers in nearby St. Petersburg.

Nearly 100 years later, the city is promising to be the engine of another revolution. Japanese urban innovation specialists and architects from the prestigious Nikken Sekkei office and a Russian development company are planning to transform an area of Sestroretsk into Russia’s first bonafide Smart City.

The project’s backers predict that in the future "The New Waterfront," as it is to be called, will be the signature example to follow for the renovation of all other cities in Russia.

Mitsuo Nakamura, head of Nikken Sekkei, visited Moscow last summer with a group of Japanese businessmen who accompanied the Japanese Prime Minister on his visit to Russia.
“Our countries are very similar,” he said, explaining why he was particularly interested in the project. “Most Japanese people grew up with Russian culture, studied it in school. Japanese people love Russian music, Russian literature like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. We admire Russia.”

But Nakamura also notes the country’s abundant natural resources and energy, which he said could benefit from certain Japanese technological advances. “Japan has already overcome a lot of the problems that Russia is facing now, and we are ready to share our solutions,” he said.

Japanese experience is going to be important for The New Waterfront, especially since the shortage of open land near St. Petersburg is similar to that which planners in Japan must often deal with.

The smart city is going to be built on an artificial island off the Baltic coast, and will include more than 510 hectares of surface area, 2300 million square meters of living space, some 1 million square meters of construction earmarked for commercial or social purposes as well as around 130 hectares set aside for recreational zones.

Five factors

It will be the first mini-city in Russia that will fulfill all of the Japanese principles of the needs of residents in a city atmosphere. The concept of a "smart city" in Japan is typically based on five conditions: abundant green space, energy and transportation infrastructure, the promotion of smart infrastructure that includes energy-conservation technology, development of social communications and everyday services, and lastly, a high level of culture that allows residents to maintain a fulfilling lifestyle.

“Moscow today resembles Tokyo in the 1970s,” says Nakamura. “It’s just as crowded, dusty and dirty as it was at that time for us. Everyone understood that you can’t solve all of a big city’s problems at once. At the time, the city government said, ‘You guys can have this small industrial region. Try to rebuild it.’”

The architect explains that as "smart city" concept matured over the past two decades, the government in Tokyo passed a law requiring the “polycentric” development of the city — where basic urban functions were moved from the center to the suburbs.

“Tokyo started to be rebuilt: neighborhood by neighborhood, slowly,” Nakamura recalls.

It’s going to be easier for the Russian government to make those changes now than it was for the Japanese decades ago. The positive influence of "smart city technology" is much better known throughout the world now, which is why specialists from Nikken Sekkei are participating as consultants in five different development projects across Russia. In addition to the one outside of St. Petersburg, there is one in Krasnoyarsk, Volgograd, Nishny Novgorod and Chboksarakh.

“Converting Russian cities into 'smart mini-cities’ would solve most of the problems of urbanism,” Nakamura says. “In part, the creation of an information system would connect the different parts of the city to the same eco-system, and that would make it possible to divide the city services between individual homes. Each resident would be able to follow his or her own energy consumption, water consumption and use of other city services, to compare them with the average and reduce daily expenses.”

Transport is key

For Russians, however, the most important problem is still transportation, not the configuration of the residential neighborhoods. It’s not just Moscow and other major cities, but even smaller regional capitals that suffer from kilometers-long traffic jams that paralyze urban activity. Some cities have even demolished their trams and trolleys for the convenience of drivers, which inevitably only exacerbated the problems.

Traffic police are not prepared to handle the deluge of drivers. Other cities around the world have begun to show potential ways out of this problem by reforming the road system, automating traffic control and providing an electronic, smart system control of communications.

“A smart city has to have smart transportation,” Nakamura says.

There is growing talk about a “Smart Moscow” sometime in the not-so-distant future. Over the past two years the city has spent record amounts in an attempt to solve its traffic problems, including special lanes for buses and an automatic traffic-control system. The capital has also installed 750 photo and video cameras to catch violators.

Moscow also has high hopes for a Global Navigation Satellite System that will be installed on 8,000 buses and trams to collect data and facilitate a unified dispatch center with up-to-date data about traffic movement in the capital. Still,
these new plans did not impress the Japanese smart cities specialist. “If you look at our experience in Japan,” Nakamura says, “you have to admit that no automation system on its own would have been able to solve the problems in Tokyo."

The Japanese capital was saved not just by electronics, but also because of the multi-level interchanges and wide thoroughfares that allowed for many city offices to move to the suburbs. But in this case, Nakamura says it's also important to remember that building new roads is a long process. "It took Tokyo more than 20 years.” 

Will Russian cities make it in 20 years
? Nakamura silently nods. His silence can only mean, of course, if you get smarter...