The Kyiv suburb of Irpin was largely destroyed by fierce urban fighting in the first few weeks of the war in Ukraine. Now that Russian troops have been forced out, local authorities have invited in Ukrainian architects to reimagine how the urban areas might be rebuilt. They have their work cut out.
Residents rushed to leave in late February when Irpin, along with neighbouring towns Bucha and Hostomel, became the focal point of Russian plans to encircle and capture the Ukrainian capital.
Weeks of fierce urban fighting left swathes of Irpin devastated. After Russian forces had departed, Ukrainian law enforcement officers reported that 885 buildings were completely destroyed, 2,738 partially destroyed and 8,651 had superficial damage.
There was damage to infrastructure too. To slow the Russian advance, Ukrainian forces had blown up the main bridge linking the suburb to Kyiv. Hospitals and schools had been hit by Russian attacks. Efforts began to clear Russian mines, reportedly planted in parks, playgrounds and in front of homes. So far, few residents have been able to return.
‘Restoration and development’
But on May 5, authorities started to imagine a new future for the suburb. “About 120 architects from all over Ukraine have arrived in Irpin to draft a strategy for the town’s restoration and development,” Oleksiy Kuleba, head of the humanitarian staff of the Kyiv Regional State Administration, said in a Telegram message, thanking those who accepted the invitation.
It is not unusual to start conversations about rebuilding even though fighting continues in other parts of Ukraine, says Dr Pierre Purseigle, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick (UK), and specialist in the history of war and urban catastrophes.
“In order to fight a war, you need to believe in your capacity to prevail, so thinking about reconstruction is just as important as thinking about the reasons why you’re fighting,” he says. “You’re fighting to defend your nation, but also you’re fighting to defend your capacity and your right to define your future, and that is what is at stake in Ukraine.”
A three-stage plan
Faced with an urban space that has been so thoroughly destroyed, where do authorities begin to rebuild? European think tank The Centre for Economic Policy Research laid out a three-step plan in its publication A Blueprint for the Reconstruction of Ukraine.
In destroyed cities, the first stage involves restoring safety (for example, by removing landmines) and reinstating critical infrastructure such as power lines and water systems. Next comes “rapid revival of the economy”, meaning clearing debris and restoring transport networks, along with housing and schools.
Building new housing, schools and hospitals begins in the third phase, with one key objective: build back better. “Although there is a natural tendency to repair cities to their original form, one should not try to restore Soviet-style housing and other infrastructure,” the plan says.
Instead, “reconstruction should focus on using modern technologies designs, and urban planning”.
In theory, there is an opportunity for Ukraine’s destroyed cities to be reborn as greener, more beautiful, and more efficient. Building back with a focus on environmentalism, for example, “may help make Ukraine a leader in green energy”, the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a March report.
“When there’s so much destruction, you can make major changes and right old planning problems”, says Wendy Pullman, director of the Centre for Urban Conflicts Research and professor emerita in architecture and urban studies at the University of Cambridge. “That’s the silver lining around the cloud.”
A blank slate?
If the potential for change is proportionate to the level of destruction, some cities in Ukraine could be almost completely transformed. In April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 95 percent of the city of Mariupol had been destroyed.
In the city of Kharkiv, recently liberated from Russian forces, Mayor Ihor Terekhov said around 25 percent of housing had been destroyed. Much of the historical city centre has also been decimated and damage caused to unique architectural gems.
Pullan equates what is happening in some Ukrainian cities to urbicide: warfare that aims to kill cities through loss of life and large-scale, deliberate destruction. “It’s attacking the city for what it means as a city by going after the city’s heritage, cultural centres and pieces of meaning for the existing population,” Pullan says. This can include attacks on hospitals, schools, and cultural spaces.
After a city has been razed so thoroughly, decisions about what to restore and what to replace can be complex. For example, there may be consensus over the cultural importance of restoring significant monuments or the need for hospitals, but what about which homes get rebuilt and which don’t?
For architects, urban planners and NGO’s, destroyed spaces may be fertile ground for improvement, but for former residents they can still hold meaningful memories. “They are not blank slates,” says Purseigle. “Building back better doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning for experts as it does for local populations.”
“You get real conflicts between what might be done for the city to make it more viable and the [wishes of the] people who lived there, because all they want is to go home,” Pullan adds.
‘A democratic exercise’
Of an estimated 6.1 million refugees that have fled Ukraine since the war started, many have expressed a wish to return home. Some have already travelled back to Irpin to find their homes and businesses destroyed. Others are working together to make repairs where possible, to make the community liveable again
But many refugees who flee dangerous cities are not allowed or able to return for some time. “They are still usually very attached to their home cities, but have no say, in how the rebuilding might take place,” Pullman says.
This can be deeply upsetting for populations already traumatised by the grief and loss of war. It can also lead to cities designed by experts that tick a lot of boxes on paper, but don’t work in practice.
For example, building a sustainable city is a laudable goal, but will it be a primary priority for returning Ukrainians who are seeking to rebuild homes and find work?
Similar debates over how to make cities greener are already happening – with difficulty – in European cities that are not affected by war, says Purseigle. “And we know they’re not easy debates to have because they are political questions about resources, and inequalities.”
Even so, the success and useability of any future city depends on these debates happening with local residents. “It makes a big, big difference in reconstructing a city if there is proper local input,” Pullan says. “There’s just no point in doing a reconstruction if you’re blind to the political and social realities of the city.”
She says grassroots efforts to rebuild in Irpin are a good start if they can be balanced with input from architects and urban planners who have their own expertise to add. Reaching a consensus could be a long, costly and difficult process. But the rewards can be significant.
“Accepting that reconstruction is a democratic exercise is what eventually allows a city to be rebuilt on a truly sustainable footing, meaning that the local community will be invested politically and culturally,” Purseigle says. “It also means that people are going to keep on disagreeing. But democracy, and the right to define their future, is what Ukraine is fighting for.”