Kharkiv to rise from the ashes, again

A scene of devastation in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on 18 April 2022. (Credit: UNICEF//Gilbertson VII Photo)

While Russian bombs continue to pummel Ukraine, a famous architect, a mayor and UN organisations are joining forces to rebuild Kharkiv as a city of the future.

Ukraine's second city has risen from the ashes before. The great destruction of Kharkiv in the war against Adolf Hitler's Germany made it possible to rebuild the city after the war that people said was the war to end all of them.

The new Kharkiv then had broad streets, large apartment blocks, and imposing and big administrative and office buildings. Seventy-seven years later, the city close to the Russian border came again under fierce air, artillery, and rocket bombardment for weeks, turning swathes of it into rubble-filled bomb craters.

Kharkiv, a city of almost 1.5 million people, was one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prime targets as Russian forces made their way to the capital of Kyiv to seize the country he covets.

Half the population fled, but the Ukrainians repulsed the Russian attack and have been pushing their invaders further away.

Wearing camouflage, Kharkiv mayor Ihor Terekhov told Geneva journalists earlier in May, “about 25 per cent of the housing stock of the city of Kharkiv is destroyed.

And he added, “he bombings of Kharkiv have not ended yet”.

A master plan for Kharkiv

So, is it premature to plan the city's reconstruction when more Russian bombs could rain down, causing more havoc and destruction?

Legendary British architect Lord Norman Foster and the UN Economic Council for Europe (UNECE) don’t seem to think so. They have put together the UN4Kharkiv task force to develop a “master plan” to give the city a third life.

Over ten UN agencies and other institutions are part of the task force. Among the experts is Dr Alexandre Hedjazi, director of the global environmental policy programme and a senior lecturer at the University of Geneva's Institute for Environmental Sciences.

Hedjazi told Geneva Solutions that the endeavour for Kharkiv and the involvement of “centres of excellence” will be determined as it proceeds.

“It is in it the very first exploratory stage of UNECE plans for Kharkiv’s reconstruction,” he said in an email, adding that the conclusions to the next phase will be published on 24 May.

“Lord Foster’s Foundation that hosts a UNECE Center of Excellence will be spearheading the work on Kharkiv’s master plan as well as redesigning the national draft recommendations.”

The plan will look at rebuilding cities and human settlements and mapping capacities of UN agencies and “of available approaches and instruments to support the government’s efforts to rebuild Ukrainian cities and regions.”

The university has a memorandum of understanding with UNECE to establish a centre of excellence and shared facility for research, support, and training on smart, sustainable cities and sustainable urban development in terms of the UN's 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing.

Kharkiv fits that goal. Many mayors would have sunk into deep despair with a quarter of their city wiped out – not Terekhov. In all the destruction wreaked by Russia, he sees an opportunity to build a new city for the future.

“I wish with all my heart to have a new philosophy and new architecture for the city of Kharkiv,” said the mayor.

From stone walls to the digital sphere

Planning for the reconstruction of Kharkiv hatched back on 5 April at a meeting hosted in Geneva when Terekhov met at the Second UNECE Forum of Mayors with architect Foster. The Briton supports the Forums of Mayors and acts as its informal patron, seizing on the cause of Kharkiv, which had been, for a short period, Ukraine's capital under the Soviet Union until 1934.

“I have endeavoured to bring the best minds in the world, on issues of cities, civic issues, sustainability, with the best minds in Ukraine,” said Foster.

He harks back to how, in the height of World War II, “in its darkest hour – 1943 – plans were commissioned for the growth and reconstruction of London”, badly damaged by the blitz of German bombing.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to combine the best and most loved aspects of a city with the city of the future, which has been described to me very eloquently by the mayor in terms of how he sees his city as a city of culture, a city of industry of advanced technology.”

Terekhov elaborated on his discussions with Foster on creating “a perfect city of the future”: “That means a city of high technologies, an industrial city, including IT clusters, industrial parks, that should be combined with the cultural aspects.”

"It should link with our inheritance, the city from the past,” he said, adding that he “would also like to see the city have a new architecture and a new architectural philosophy”.

Harnessing water arteries

Terekhov highlighted the great rivers around Kharkiv that can be harnessed as “water and transportation arteries” while creating something special for the residents. Kharkiv lies at the confluence of the Uda, Lopan, and Kharkiv rivers.

When it was founded in about 1655, it was a military stronghold. But the future lies not in stone walls but the digital sphere.

“Kharkiv has always been one of the leading cities and a city loved by IT people. And we would like to have these thoughts underpinning our master plan for the city of recovery in place,” said Terekhov.

The mayor notes that the future work for the city is “being done under  continued shelling and Russian aggression”. But that makes him more determined for the city's future.

“I believe that our joint work is essential for the city of Kharkiv and immediately after the victory” over Russia, said Terekhov, which he sees as inevitable.