Dacha, Life in the Country

The Bus Ride from Kiev
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The open air bus station abuzz with activity, swelters in the low, hot late afternoon summer sun.  The very young and very old mull about, clamoring for a seat on the sparse benches.  Here the elderly move right along with everyone else, plugged into the same life style and challenges.   Grandmas and Grandpas who in the US are enjoying care from their extended families or in assisted living, having meals presented to them at nicely set tables, going to exercise classes and church on Sundays; these same elders in the Ukraine are slowly ambling up bus stairs burdened with bags, bouncing into their seats, moving forward in the bus aisles as empty seats become available, slipping up to the door to exit in a timely fashion.  They know that if they arrive at the station late they get to stand in the aisle for the 3 hour ride to their village. 
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You must get to the bus station hours early to get one of the limited seats.  As the bus arrives, a crowd presses against the door as those royal few with ticketed seats move to the front as the crowd parts as if for rock stars. Then a pause at the bus door till the royal few are seated then the crowd presses into the aisles, “like sardines” I mused to my hosts.  It…is…HOT!
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This bus is only for the villages, it goes nowhere else.  At the end of the line the route just kind of dies away, then the bus turns around to start the circle again. The numbers of people on the bus dwindle as does civilization the further into the night our bus lumbers, into the lightless villages and homes, the only illumination from the bus headlights or few cars slowly maneuvering the rutted roads.  In 3 hours the bus covered no more than 80 miles.  To describe the roads as rutted patches on patches wouldn’t cover it.   It’s more like giants had drizzled massive globs of wax along a ribbon of a toy road for their amusement.  Floes of tar and mud, thick asphalt and stones, rubble and ruts that would break any car’s axle make the going more like an amusement park ride than a conveyance. 

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This is the village road and a slice of their way of life.  Anyone that’s ridden these kind of busses world-wide knows that for some crazy reason the locals hate fresh air so the windows get closed as soon as the bus moves, making our rolling tin can, a furnace!  It…is…HOT!  It’s a trip back into history, lumbering down the road through time and space.  Oh, did I mention the fare from Kiev to our village?  $2.90!  A cheap amusement park ride really by any measure!

Our village, Zghurivka, an unpronounceable jumble of consonants where every letter IS pronounced, lies to the east of Kiev in the flat farm country of central Ukraine.  Much like western Ohio or Indiana, the farms show the vestiges of Stalin’s Farm Collectivization.  Fields sans any buildings of any sort stretch to the horizon as far as you can see, broken only by tufts of trees floating in the middle of the sea of corn or wheat or sunflowers. 
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The farmers live in the sparse villages in the distance, using huge lumbering farm machinery some of it from the 1960’s.  All this the result of Stalin’s push to form collectives out of surf held mini-farms in the late 1930’s.  In the months leading up to WWII the Peasant’s Revolt against Collectivization inspired Stalin to double down and cut all food to the eastern region of Ukraine causing millions to starve in the streets in such cities as Kharkov and Donetsk, a city made famous today for yet other atrocities.

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In the middle of these seas of grain and stalks, in the thick darkness, suddenly looms a series of 6 and 8 story Corbusian Soviet housing blocks, maybe 4, then 6, no…8 of them, rising out of the seas of grain like rock cliffs, surrounded only by some small mobile home type shops dragged there from some factory in the city and plopped down to serve the stacks of apartments.  These are the farm workers, representing vestiges of the Soviet economy still in place.  The dark streets are full of locals strolling in the night with kids playing and riding bikes in the complete darkness, the shops the only source of light in the entire place. 
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Our bus, the only vehicle on the road, belches blue acrid smoke, loudly breaking the silence dropping its cargo.  A tiny girl held by her brother and sister one on each hand, stands expectantly on the road’s edge across the street, bouncing on her toes, dancing as the bus rolls up in a blue cloud of smoke.  She runs to the far side of the bus as her mom slips out the door and greeted to huge screams of joy!  I can see the little girl her through the grimy window, wildly clinging to mom’s neck and showering her with kisses.

The bus pitches and yaws its way back out onto the main road and into the dark night.  After another hour in the darkness, we pass a half a dozen public buildings of a small farming village, lurching and pitching along at maybe 20 mph.  Then our stop.  As the bus door creaks open, we’re dumped in the silent darkness in middle of nowhere on a pitch black dirt lane capped by an iridescent star filled sky.  The Milky Way seemingly glows through the slit of the sky framed by the lane’s overhanging trees. 
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My hosts jokingly exclaim, welcome to Jurie Gragarian Lane, yep the famous cosmonaut from the late 1950’s in competition with Alan Shepherd and John Glen for the most daring trip into outer space.  At the height of the Soviet rebuilding and in the middle of our post WWII Cold War, our two worlds diverged on two disparate paths.  We Americans were building suburban tracts and highways from sea to shining sea while the Soviets, built Corbusian high rise apartments and elaborate Metros in the cities and these farming villages with brick huts on the edges of the huge collective fields to feed them.

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These are dachas for some, vacation huts, a get away from the hot city, a respite from the usual, a form of camping.  They are also full time homes to 40% of the country’s population, the rural poor of Ukraine, most living on dollars per day.  Living a life that existed in the US before the Civil War or in maybe some Eco-tourism communes in places like California or Montana today!  Lined up on Jurie Gragarian Lane, are 600 sq. ft. white plastered shoebox houses with concrete tile roofs, rickety wooden framed windows, wooden plank floors and plaster over mud brick inside and out.  The kitchens improvised to spill outside in the summers, morphs into tight quarters around the huge brick oven in the winter.  Cold storage in pantries and in ground vaults serves to preserve the food grown all summer long.  A central oven heats in the winter and bakes year round, the bathroom an outhouse with a wooden plank seat and door, the running water a pump in the back yard and the shower a bucket on the roof of a wooden shack.  You yank the chord and out comes whatever slightly luke-warm water was left over from yesterday’s solar gain. It inspires what we call Navy showers…spontaneously!  Yeah, refreshing!

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With the house comes maybe an acre or two that extends out into the collective fields for homestead farming.  Fruit and nut trees provide most of the shade around the village homes, forming shaded edges to the wide expanses of the collective fields, with mom and the kid’s subsistence farming those modest tracts of land behind the shaded backyards. 
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Prepping, canning, drying, preserving, and selling the surplus displayed on upright crates along the mostly empty country roads become the daily activities with endless work from sun up to sun down.  Maybe 4, 5 or 6 people live in these one bedroom houses with many of these “dachas” occupied by full time residents, families eking out a living on the land by subsistence farming in local villages across the country.  An Eco-tourism bonanza, a trip back in time, or a way of life for millions in the X Soviet Union, you choose the label.

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Huge unbroken fields surround the village in all directions with monoculture corps much like in the US except sans any farm houses, barns or structures of any kind.  Large agribusinesses cultivate the fields with massive machinery slowly sailing past the village workers in their small homestead plots.  Some of these villagers are the workers of the massive farming operations, but these mega-farms remain highly mechanized and so light on the use of unskilled labor.

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People ask me why I am so interested in Ukraine.  These scenes are the reason.  Russia post Perestroika has rebuilt, spent their oil and gas money modernizing much of their world.  Many of their famously beautiful cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow are wonderfully modernized and restored, even as much of rural Russia still exists in the hunter/gather tradition.  But it’s Ukraine that marks time in history, spending very little on anything since the days of Khrushchev.  The cities are beautiful, and old, and run down, and original, and traditional, and untouched, and historical, and friendly, and sustainable. 
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Yes, sustainability means many things to different people.   I define sustainability as a principle, a concept which directs us, all of us, individually and collectively to consider more than ourselves and the present.   It’s a principle defined and developed by our past experiences and decisions.

As architects, planners, urban designers, the more we consider the effects of today’s work on the future, the greater its sustainable potential.  Today’s work, based on sustainable principles and experience will define the future resiliency of any project developed today.   Clearly stated, sustainable principles define a city’s future resiliency.

These self-sufficient places, harkening back to the days of living light on the planet, where everything is connected.  The average US citizen lives a life that if everyone lived would consume the resources of 7 planets.  Check out this test, and see how many worlds your life style requires.  Here’s a fun interactive one: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/calculators/  or for the more serious: http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/

In the US, we architects and designers have attempted to close the barn door after the horse  got out using LEED and other metric based strategies to prevent us Americans that occupy 5 % of the world’s population from consuming any more than the quarter of all resources we already do.  Truly a pitiful solution, such a very thin strategy.  The point is not to live like some of those Eco-tourist communes of California or Montana or West by God Virginia with Mother Earth News style collectives doing organic farming.  Nope been there, done that in the 1960’s! We must open our perceptions to a broader understanding and expression of what resiliency is created by designing sustainable projects and cities today.  We must move far beyond building LEED buildings and calling it good enough.  It becomes not a matter of opinion or I believe or I don’t, it becomes a social and moral imperative where we simply cannot continue to design our cities, highways, suburbs, shopping districts, schools or even parking, walkways, plazas and parks the way we have, either horizontally or vertically.

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If architects, planners, urban designers are the ones that help define the future of regions, cultures, cities and societies through their projects, then we certainly must reconsider our definitions of successful projects based on sustainable principles, creating resilient futures.   We will not be returning to a life of a century or two ago any time soon.  That’s absurd.  But what can we learn from the vast number on our planet that live a truly sustainable life, causing us all to stop and wonder where our priorities lay.

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Showing What Needs to be Seen…

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NOTE: I’ve promised all my friends and relatives that I will not go into harm’s way.  This is an active and hot conflict, an all out war raging in Southeastern Ukraine between Russian forces, Separatists and Ukrainian National Army troops. As you’ll see, it includes jets, tanks, artillery and heavy weapons.  All the following photos are by  brave Press Photographers, some of whom have lost their lives, one of whom is pictured below.  These photos range from February 2014 to July 2015, as in today!  I honor those that have taken these photos and made them available to the public on Maidan Square and at the National War Memorial Museum in Kiev.  I’m leaving today for Kharkov on the Russian boarder and just above the conflict to find out more.  Please “Share” this in Facebook, Twitter and Linked In, I hope for a wide and diverse audience. 

I need to pick up where I left off last summer.  I’ve now been in Kiev for a week, talking, visiting, discussing, gathering and I’m ready to tell you what I know.  The War is on in a big way, the future is uncertain in every way and the direction forward is unclear.  Maybe the reason for blogs such as this one becoming increasingly popular is that the news in the US does not cover much other than what’s immediately important.  The coverage of the Ukraine and the crisis here remains paltry at best and absent at the worst.  The War is on.  There is a crisis here in Eastern Europe of a level seldom seen since Bosnia.  The images in this entry are current, as recent as within the last several months, and dire.  It is a War carried out within and between the civilian population who cannot escape and have little except family to stay for.  I need to include this in my blog as a backdrop for all else I’ll cover this year.  It’s worth putting discussions of sustainable architecture and urban planning aside for a moment.

Here’s what I’ve learned.  It’s very complicated.  Very.  The rifts are very old and very deep.  The divisions are rooted in the fact that Ukraine has been part of Russia since the time of Peter the Great in the late 17th Century, and consolidated by his daughter Catherine the Great in the early 18th Century, around 100 years before our American Revolution!  http://www.biography.com/people/peter-the-great-9542228   Yeah!  Get it?  That’s how deep this goes.

Ukraine got sick to death (literally) of the great Polish Empire running all over them for access to the Black Sea and their fertile lands.  They allied with Russia and besides a brief stint of independence just before the Bolshevik Revolution, have been either directly allied or controlled by the Empire ever since the late 1600’s.  Add to that, the living memories of millions of X Soviet citizens now in their twilight years, that remember Mother Russia and stewardship, and care, and support, through free education, guaranteed housing, food, cars in some cases, most of the basics, no matter how basic.  All you had to do was work, work when you were sick, or tired, work 12 hour days, work a 6 or sometimes 7 day week, work if your kids were sick or if someone died, you worked.  It was easy and guaranteed…   Easy in a sense that is.  The older generation remembers this, through all the conflagrations of the last 22 years of Ukrainian independence.  Returning to Russia remains the only hope of solving this experimental Ukrainian puzzle.

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I just toured the famous Kiev WWII War Memorial Museum.  Amazing!  Several facts are germane to defining this split between those that want Russia and those that want the EU.  First the fight for Russia was mostly over by the time the allies got to Normandy and D Day.  By then the Russians had been locked in an almost limitless 4 year battle for their lives.  Stalingrad, Kiev, Kharkov, Leningrad and even Moscow were under constant siege and destruction.  By the time D Day happened, the fight remained largely in the west of Russia, i.e. Ukraine and surrounding areas.  Russia’s Red Army spent millions of lives defending Ukraine and western Russia from the Nazis and Germany.  By D Day, over half the Russian Red Army was fighting in Ukraine and over 60% of that Army were Ukrainians.  The history runs very very deep.

On the other side, and I mean the other side…are those that want the EU.  There is no in between, no middle ground.  I’ve watched fist fights and rumbles break out over shouting matches on the subject. Everyone here as in the US has some sort of access to the internet on laptops, computers, smart phones, they see the images of life in Western Europe and the US.  It’s the Millennials, the Gen X’ers, the young people, those are the ones that want to be part of the EU!  Everyone now make less than $300/month, with the 3 1/2 fold increase in the value of the dollar and the Euro and resultant skyrocketing cost of living and sees that every day on the internet.  Those that believe in Ukrainian sovereignty and nationality remain currently in power.  The cry, “Slava Ykraine” or “Honor to Ukraine” resounds around the large gatherings on Maidan Square, the chants spontaneously rising above the music played by street performers.

My friends that I’ve known for half a decade here in Kiev, long before the Revolution, all say, the current government is pissing off Russia and Russia is responding.  The elections will not happen until the end of the decade, in 2019.  This might be a long battle.  The German Intelligence Agency estimates over 50,000 killed in this nasty little war, one we know almost nothing about.  That number is slightly more than half the total casualties in the entire Bosnian/Croatian War and it’s still raging in the East.  The Russian supporters say there are no people dying in Crimea, taken over a year ago; that people are dying only in the East, where Russia and the West are colliding.  The EU supporters say it’s a question of National sovereignty, honor, pride and their very survival.

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The Revolution on Kiev’s Maidan Square of a year and a half ago subsided last summer.   President Viktor Yanukovych reputed in Putin’s hip pocket was the catalyst of it all.  He ordered the massacre of the EU supporter civilians in the photos of this blog and on our news.  He nixed an agreement for economic cooperation and opening with the West just days before the Revolution exploded.  His overthrow and the rapid election of the EU and US backed Petro Poroshenko was a victory for moving towards the West, with dire life changing consequences.  I encourage you to read at least the entry below from my last year’s visit, when the center of Kiev, Maidan Square was a military camp and I experienced a gun battle right outside my hotel where 4 soldiers were killed.  

It’s complicated.

Why does any of this matter?  Where to begin.  Here’s a place, read this…

The US vs Russia in Ukraine

The claims are that there are strategic interests relating to the old Cold War and the sagging relationship between the US and Russia that are behind all this.  Some of my friends say…”who cares”.  It’s a chess game.  Why care?  Well, how about that it’s possible that the US is stirring the pot for greater political gain and 50,000 people have died.  That sounds like something that Americans do care about!

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Finally, this is a blog about “Sustainability and Resiliency” capitalized and in quotes as they now have become titles of many things.  I’ve defined sustainability as the principles that drive stewardship in human development and resiliency as the result of those moves.  The past and the future, the principles we’ve learned in the past to create resilient societies for the future.  Simple, yet complex.  Ukraine is an enigma in today’s world.  Stuck between the past and the future, it becomes a living example of the schism between the two.  Sustainability is not defined by our terms in the US here in Ukraine or much of the rest of the world for that matter.  Our definition remains very narrow like a thin line to the future.  Ukraine’s sustainability looks more like a patch-work-quilt to a questionable future.  The real question here is, what can we learn from just such a past and how will it affect our own future?

All the following photos were taken by Ukrainian War Correspondents and are on display in the War Memorial Museum and Maidan Square in Kiev.   This remains a real and very dangerous war, despite life as normal in Kiev.   

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Ukraine! Saying What Needs to be Said!

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Ukraine!  Its time…time to say what needs to be said.  Time to tell it like it is.  I’m not sure you all know exactly what’s going on here.  Yes we get the varnished version from CNBC and CBS and CNN, but we just don’t get it.  It gets pushed off the front pages unless people are dying en masse or there’s a real live battle.  Yes, Putin is Hitler, the Russians are terrorists, the EU, NATO and the US are ineffective, it’s a lost cause, Yanukovych is Putin’s dog, it’s a civil war…we’ve heard plenty, but not much of it either tells the story or what’s really happening.  Let me spend a few entries ‘splainin’ what I see going on around here.  It ain’t pretty. Not at all.  As a matter of fact those that want to avert their eyes from the photos and videos I’m posting, go right ahead.  But please at least, read on.

Black Thursday, February 20th

You know the short story, over 100 killed on Black Thrusday, massive riots in Kiev’s Maidan Square with grandmas, grandpas, kids, lawyers, doctors, carpenters, laborers, students, all only 4 short months ago.  So here’s the last decade’s worth of “how did we get here” in 3 paragraphs or less.  Viktor Yanukovych, the fourth President of Ukraine from 2010 supposedly until 2015, famously left office the day after Black Thursday, escaping by the skin of his teeth!  His blusterous attack on Maidan on February 20th ended his Presidency, as he secretly found safety in the bosom of Mother Russia.  He remains a fugitive there today, less relevant with the new elections in May.  The War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague will have something special for him in the future I’m sure.  More on Yanukovych below, including photos of his multi, multi-million dollar estate in “What you Need to Know about Ukraine”.  So many cartoons around Maidan of Viktor and Putin doing all sorts of crazy things.  Here are some of the more sanitized versions depicting of course in an allegorical fashion, “they were in bed together”.  Ahhhhhhhhhhhh such good stuff!

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Yulia Tymoshenko the “Gas Princess” lost the election in 2010 by only a few percentage points to Viktor.  She was the first woman Prime Minister from 2005 – 2010 and co-led the Orange Revolution in 2004.  She was listed in Forbes Magazine as one of the top 3 most powerful and richest women in the world in 2005.  Gas!  She favors membership in the EU, free market, and reduction of ties to Russia.  Ah the rub!  Frankly no one in Ukrainian politics has staying power without being in bed with Russia.  Yulia was thrown in prison on my first visit in 2011 and was suddenly declared innocent by the Supreme Court the day after ol’ Viktor fled to Russia.  What a coincidence!  Stunning!  Amazing!

Petro Poroshenko the chocolate king was elected this past May as the fifth President of Ukraine.  He also served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2009 to 2010 and as the Minister of Trade and Economic Development in 2012. From 2007 until 2012, he headed the Council of Ukraine’s National Bank.  Yep so part of the original Yanukovych government.  In the last two week, he signed the contested agreement for greater cooperation with the EU.  He also has many factories churning out chocolate in Russia, employing many Russians and paying Russian taxes.  He’s a pragmatist, but as is with them all, also an “oligarch”.

Are you seeing a pattern here?  While we in the US accept that it takes lots of money to get elected to office, in Ukraine you must be part of the established State, which has been tied directly to Mother Russia since the time of Peter the Great’s in the early 18th Century, almost a century before our own Independence.   Yeah, it’s a Russian novel!

These photos are by others, posted on kiosks in Maidan Square to commemorate Black Thursday

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So goes the elections, so goes the politics.  Read below in the “What you Need to Know” entry about the plight of the Ukrainian people.  The Cliff Notes are, they usually make around $300/month, no one normal can afford a car, everyone lives in flats with their entire extended family, the streets, metro and infrastructure are pre WWII with little money spent on any of it since Khrushchev’s time.  That coupled with an open internet and one of the highest college educated rates in all of Europe, trouble has been brewing for some time.

These are regular people in the streets, swinging pipes, shooting ancient rifles, wearing construction hard hats, walking around in fatigues, living on Maidan Square for the last ¾ of a year.  Regular people.  Unemployment has soared, poverty exploding, homelessness rampant, business failures common, boarded up stores everywhere.  I’ve met engineers and scientists and college professors that are living in those tents on Maidan all winter long, were part of the fight for their freedom.  I’ve seen children playing violin on the streets for money.  I’ve seen old men playing the balalaika for money and regular people begging in the streets.  The news media plays up the Russian speaking population as the catalyst, not true, everyone I mean everyone speaks Russian.

They want to be free, self determined, to enjoy the lives of the rest of the educated world.  Two sides.  The Ukrainian Nationalists don’t want to be a door mat for Russia any longer. They don’t want the oppression of economic and political freedoms that comes with the long repressive Russian government.  The Separatists that support becoming part of Russia don’t want to worry about money, unemployment, poverty or homelessness.  They want that huge iron clad safety net deployed as a foundation to their society.  It often relates to age, the ol’ Soviets want Russia and modern intelligencia on iPhones and the internet want the EU.  But it’s now life or death for them.  It’s complicated and convoluted, it’s volatile and dangerous.  When you’ve got nothing to loose, there’s nothing to loose!  It could blow any time dragging the EU, the US and most of the West into an anachronistic war.  Or it could just blow over.

Here are some links
RIGHT click on the link or you’ll loose your place:

Maidan in Photos

Eastern Ukraine last month

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The view from Kiev remains extreme…that the Russians have stolen Crimea, the crown jewel…that Russian military intelligence terrorists masquerading as Separatists operate throughout Eastern Ukraine, in Donetsk, Sloveansk and now Lugansk and Maripol.  In any case, the facts are that Russian military personnel, hardware and technology have openly supported or instigated the “Separatists”, terrorizing the countryside and blowing Ukrainian military planes and helicopters out of the sky with pin point accuracy.

The open boarders remain a sieve, with an open doorway for an unending supply of more Russian military terrorists flooding into Ukraine.  The US and the EU both know through intelligence that Russia is openly supporting and instigating such terrorism, creating a fake uprising.  Its the exact same tactic used to take Crimea.  The news media here suggests Russia is acting out of fear and not aggression or an anachronistic (seems to be the word of the day) view of Cold War politics.  Putin fears loosing the 1970’s style sphere of influence his much worshiped Soviet Union enjoyed, with the EU and NATO closing in on their boarders economically and politically if not physically.  That plus the conveniently ignored 1994 Nonproliferation Treaty based on the 1993 Massandra Summit between Ukrainian, US and Russia where the Ukraine received complete security assurances from the United States, Russia and Britain.  So much for our honoring our treaties.  http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2011/05/trilateral-process-pifer

Remember these are regular people, with regular lives and educations.  They are families with careers inspired to stand up and put everything on the line.  I’m here to relate to you what’s been happening and to report the “rest of the story”.  You decide how to affect change; now you’ll know more and understand more and consider better options.  The status quo will not work here.  Continuing to do nothing is a non-starter.  “It’s not going away.”

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The conflict continues with the same fervor from Black Thursday through to today.  Their goal, fighting Russian terrorism and aggression.  Why should we in the US and the EU care?  Simple, this could spill over into a wider regional conflict that would affect all of Europe, parts of the Middle East and drag the US into a larger war.  When I say this to my friends in the US, I almost always get one of two reactions: 1. Boots on the ground 2. Do nothing.  Period.  I suggest neither is correct.  American leadership is historically and currently crucial for any such endeavor and the US sometimes honors its treaties.  Sometimes.  There are many options other than the status quo to affect what’s happening here.  People are dying and the powder keg cache rapidly growing.  “It’s not going away” quite the opposite.  What are the solutions?  I leave it to you!  What are the solutions!

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Today’s news from the Front in Ukraine:

Railroad bridge blown, severing freight and passenger train travel to Southeastern Ukraine, 2 killed.
Passenger bus attacked passengers kidnapped and 3 killed near Donetsk.
Slavyansk liberated from Russian terrorists, the city lays in ruins
Lugansk a city of 1 million people under siege.
4 casualties on Maidan Square in central Kiev, skirmish with over 100 militia

I’ll bet you’ve not heard any of this from our news media.

Here are some links:

The latest news from the front Slavyansk

Donetsk, at the front

DO NOT watch this clip unless you really want to. It’s very disturbing, it’s Black Thursday.
Feb 20th, Black Thursday, CAUTION

 

These People are Dead Serious!

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Almost everyone that knows me well has suggested that I be careful over here in Ukraine.  I sometimes ignore such warnings, feeling that I’m an experienced “Industrial Traveler” and that the Ukraine is full of survivors untouched by the war.  Yes, it’s called a war here.  War…civil or instigated or terrorist, everyone calls it a war!  Feeling that many are untouched was my first mistake.  Everyone is affected.  From the 50% rise in costs along with the inflation of the USD and Euro, to the collapse of the economy, to the crushing national debt, to the un-payable Russian gas bill,  to the closing of banks, devaluation of currency, reduction in business and trade, the constant fear of the unknown…everything here is ready to go at any minute.  Everyone says, it could go one way or the other.  No middle ground.  Mostly it’s safe…or relatively safe.  Then things go awry quickly, very quickly.  It is a power keg, with unknown players.  The day is full of life, families, color and kids.  Full of ice cream and shopping and walking hand in hand.  But the nights are dicey and ornary and harsh and unpredictable.  There is a collective fear and anger, an edginess that is palpable in the streets and conversations.  That edgy uncertainty is part of the excitement, but that’s not all bad!  Right?  Things however turn on a dime, a very thin dime.

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People walk right up to me in the streets and say “where are you from” (yes, many in the capital speak English).  I guess with my white socks, Nike shoes, shorts and large camera…I don’t look much like a Ukrainian.  Well, that and I don’t have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and my hair isn’t cropped close to my head!   Oh and I don’t wear those off white shoes.  Mostly they love us Americans.  They throng to us when we are found out.  Pats on the back, beads around the neck, ribbons around the wrist, kisses, hugs, Amerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-ica!

Then there’s the collective fear and anger.  Tonight I went out from my apartment, which is right on Maidan Square, the place of the Black Thursday battle that killed hundreds on February 20th of this year.  Constant rallies ring through the canyons of the buildings surrounding the Square.  I went to the Square to hear a popular band play rally songs, Ukrainian National songs.  The crowd knew the songs, fists in the air, screaming and chanting in time with the music.  Tough tough looking guys with bloody scars on their faces and knuckles were mulling around the crowd.  The same dirty, sun baked, unshaven thugs as the militia were practicing karate, kicking the shit out of a “test your strength” dummy on the edge of the square. Their karate kick would run the red numbers up to 100+ then they’d fist bump each other, or swing their foot to within a hair of each other’s nose.   The crowd shouting in time to the music, pro Ukrainian songs, chants, cheers, when a rumble broke out in the middle of the crowd in front of the band.  Instantly 20 thugs are at it in the middle of the plaza, the song still going on, guys dragged away.  A group of karate kids dragged one of the perpetrators away to the side of a building and pounced on him.  No cops, no law and order, no justice, more like the frontier.  Keep your head down and your powder dry.  I gingerly hid my camera and backed away.

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On my way back to my flat, passing one of the camps in Maidan Square, a group of over a dozen militia was meeting in a circle. More bodies than usual and all in the militia uniform.  The darkness split by the intrusive yellow haze of the sodium lights gave everything that eerie yellow glow.  I always believe in asking for forgiveness and not permission when shooting photos.  I quietly set my camera on the wooden fence around their compound.  I get off one bad shot and set up for another, when these two militia descend on me and start yelling and grabbing.  I replied in my best American English, that slowed them down a bit as did the fence.  I made a hasty get away, fearing more for my camera than my own safety.

What does this have to do with “the price of Starbucks in America”?  Well, nothing or everything.  Our world is safe, predictable, controlled.  We go to concerts and expect to have a Coke or a beer or a Starbucks and go home, go to bed and get up for the next 50 years just like we did before.  Our collective conscious revolves around a very predictable set of parameters.  We go about our days and maybe we stop long enough to discuss what the hell Putin is up to, or what could we do, or why should we police the world and where the hell is the European leadership and who really cares?  Is Ukraine in Asia or in Europe anyway?   We have the luxury of complacency…we think.

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I can assure you that this powder keg is ready to explode into a significant war if we are not all very careful.  The tensions here are higher than high.  If Russia pushes any harder there will be a conflict that will make February 20th Black Thursday look like a day in the park.  Ukrainian nationalism is powerful and universal.  And it’s not just the thugs and militia.  This is a fight for their country and for their freedom.

Earlier today, I decided to head to the museums of WWII down along the Dnieper River near the Lavra, the Vatican of the Russian Orthodox religion.  A nice Sunday with beautiful blue skies and bright sun.  I got out of the Metro, their subway, which by the way is mostly between 10 – 20 STORIES below ground.  Thank you Mr. Stalin!

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Anyway, I got 10 steps out of the station into the plaza and there were these regular folks, middle aged, older even, retirees, some older than me!!! handing out pitch forks and rakes and flags on really long poles!   Too good to pass up, this is why I’m here anyway, so I let providence take over and scrapped the museum.  Suddenly we are on a half a mile march right past Parliament to the President’s Offices, the equivalent of the White House.

Valari, a retired electrical engineer from the Soviet days and part time English teacher spied me (remember white socks and no cigarette).  AH an English speaker!  I’m full of questions!   Where’re we going?  What’s this about?  What about Poroschenko?  What about Putin?  What about Russians on the boarders?  What about Crimea?  You know the answers already.  This group of upstanding citizens, pensioners and retirees was marching with rakes and flags to the President’s Office to give him a piece of their mind, which was to push Russia hard, to demand, and fight, and declare and threaten and to do it NOW!  Valari extolled in perfect English that they have a terrorist as a neighbor.

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The gates of the President’s compound were swung open, military guards everywhere, plain cloths police around the crowd,  I’m in the middle of it all, then the evening news showed up, guards hiding in the bushes and trees around the compound, guys with head sets, clip boards, bull horns.  There’s chanting, shouting, fist pumping, a single voice of a slogan then the crowd replies, then more chanting, then the laying of the rakes and signs at the door step of the White House, then applause, chants, shouts…then it disperses.  Everyone walks away leaving their messages on the ground for the all President’s Men to clean up.

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By the way, this was one afternoon and evening!  Yes, today’s activities!  In the US, we have it very easy.  We don’t have to even think about Mexico taking Texas and invading and terrorizing parts of New Mexico, Arizona and California.  We worry about our Starbucks and if its skinny double half caf Frapa this that and the other thing.  Or is there a storm brewing over the horizon we just can’t see?  Time will tell.  These people are dead serious I’ll tell you.  Dead serious.

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One last antic dote…they sell door mats here in the streets with an image of Putin’s face looking for all the world like Hitler right in the middle of where your feet would wipe the dirt.  I hear they are very popular!

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Kiev, a Torn Capital

On my direct flight from Istanbul straight North to Kiev, the Captain nonchalantly announced in his “how do you do’s” that our flight path would be diverted to the West over Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria then directly east to Kiev.  A strange path, except our original flight would have taken us over parts of both Crimea and the embattled South of Ukraine.

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Next on arriving in the Kiev Airport, we were all greeted with uniformed military with automatic weapons over their shoulders and a long stare.  Arriving in the center of Kiev at Maidan Square, I thought I was prepared, but clearly wasn’t.  The square, previously one of the most beautiful in all of Europe and certainly Central/Eastern Europe, is destroyed.  Everything torn up, pulled out, busted, broken, smashed, blackened buildings now covered with construction mesh with graphics of nature and flying geese to mask the fact that these major banks and government buildings have been gutted by fire and explosives.  Every last sidewalk paver has been pulled up and in piles for projectiles.  There are still people walking, talking, working, dressed in their usually nice, colorful Ukrainian cloths, on their cell phones but it’s an eerie silence, like those days after 9/11.  The shops are empty, the plaza empty, the streets empty from the previous throngs of locals and tourists.  Many thriving shops from my previous visits are now boarded up or abandoned.

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The most dramatic however is the military camp throughout the streets and gutted Maidan Square. The city center is full of make shift baracades, tires, barbed wire, pallets, metal, sheets, hundreds of army tents.  The “camp” is filled with what appear to be local militia in fatigues.  Some with Cassack hair cuts, some with weapons like knives, swords, clubs, pipes, baseball bats, shovels, pitch forks, all Ukrainian, all fiercely Nationalist.  Many look very scary and I and the local population give them a wide berth.  Most are permanently camped there with cots in brown army tents, burning fires, spits cooking dinner, smoking, drinking, and circles of standing group meetings.  Lots of arm flailing and pointing, the men are dark from dirt and sun and smoke, unshaven and angry.

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They don’t bother anyone , but they are surely there to defend against any incursion into the city.  They believe realistically or not, that the Russians could parachute into Kiev at any moment and all hell would break loose.  If Russia decided to try to take this country by force, I’d say “Good luck Mr. Putin!”.  There is no doubt in my mind that every last one of these guys would die fighting with knives, and bats and pipes rather than be taken over by Russia.   It may be the equivalent of the nuclear option, a horrible, dastardly, bloody fight played out on an international stage as in February of this year.  The dastardly bully, the Soviet Bear, rising from the dead, rearing it’s ugly head against the poor people of Ukraine.  That would change world public opinion in a hurry!  These people are ready, ready for whatever comes their way.   They feel abandoned by the West and NATO and Europe and the US.  They are on their own, so they man their tent cities with farm implements and anger and pride.

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At the end of my first day here, I went to the underground supermarket where many shops are typically located.   It’s part of a vast Soviet system of the grand plan with huge boulevards above and shopping underneath.  Thank you Mr. Corbu!  I bought some groceries, made my usual mistakes not following the buying customs of every single country I visit…not following the local protocol with fruits, vegetables and pastries, labels, weighing and so on.  Appropriately scolded by the Russian speaking clerk…they all speak Russian here and everywhere I’ve traveled in Ukraine.  Then summarily hauled back to the check out counter I imagined, by my ear as in Barnard Elementary School.  Then paying for my groceries, there’s this Ukrainian militiaman in uniform, red baret, dirty face, dirty uniform, unshaven, filthy boots, dark from the sun, trying to buy a single beer with a pile of pennies about a foot in diameter.  One single beer!  The clerk was counting out the pile of pennies for the less than $1 beer.  I froze, my heart sank, this guy is out there on the front line of their war, real or imagined, with pennies for a single beer.  I quickly paid for his beer and without looking up to get a reaction, left the store in a daze.

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What you Need to Know about Ukraine!

The Russian Invasion…How Did We Get Here?

I need to tell you some things about the Ukraine in light of the ongoing invasion of their country by troops of the Russian Federation.  The Ukraine has been pushed to the brink of destruction and dis-membership.  The largest European country other than of course Mother Russia has remained at the cross roads of East and West, stretching all the way back to before the beginning of the 2nd millennium.   This blog and the one from my travels in the Ukraine in 2011 http://fredandreas.wordpress.com are full of stories of the Ukraine and Eastern Europe.  These include personal stories and observations, first hand interviews, discussions, professional assessments and lots of incredible photography of the Ukrainian and Eastern European “fabric”, an architectural term meaning built “stuff”.  Read below in this blog from 2013 and check out the blog from 2011 for a full view of life in the Ukraine.   Over the next week, I’ll focus on specific aspects of
“What you Need to Know about Ukraine”!
Photos from Kiev

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A Brief History in Time
A resilient people, the Ukrainians have been overrun by invading armies and subjugated throughout the last 1000 years,  since the inception of the entire Ukrainian cultural, ethnic and political system around the year 1000 AD.  Kievan Rus’, a loose confederation starting around the year 900, united most current Eastern European countries into a political power that dominated that part of the world and partnered with the Holy Roman Empire at its peak, ending with the Mongol invasions of 1240.  It formed the foundations of that what would eventually become Russian and the Russian Empire.  Since that time Ukraine has been the crossroads between Europe, Asia, Northern Europe, the Black Sea access, the Ural Mountains, Constantinople, Polish Empire, Prussian Empire, Norwegian Empire, Russian Empire…you get the picture.  As a result of the wars and conflicts between surrounding empires, Ukraine aligned itself with the Russian Empire at the time of Peter and Catherine the Great in the latter half of the 17th century, beginning Ukraine’s long alliance throughout Russia’s Czarist era.

After a protracted internal civil war, the Ukrainian People’s Republic declared its independence from the Russian Empire at the last minutes of Czarist Russia in 1917, lasting only as long as it took the Bolsheviks to rescind that action two years later with the Soviet Army establishing control over their country.  Stalin made an example out of the Ukraine in 1933, during the collectivization of the farms by starving the countryside around Kharkov the previous southern Soviet capital, leaving literally millions of Ukrainians dying in the streets of starvation.  Such conflagrations within living memory have repeatedly beset the Ukraine, such that among many living generations today there are almost twice as many woman as men!  This remains true for today’s 30 something generation.    Check out this article in my personal favorite…Wikipedia…on the Ukrainian Holocaust dubbed Holodomor.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor .   In WWII, the Nazis used the Ukraine as a door mat to gain access to Russia; the Soviets used it to push the Nazis out of their territory over and over again.  Cities such as Kharkov now so in the news were the sites of such intense battles that they are still studied today in the military academies.  Battle_of_Kharkov .  The Ukraine finally established independence from the Soviet Union with the birth of Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet economy in 1991.

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Perestroika 1991
Magnificent by our book, a pariah in Ukraine’s, Perestroika suddenly cut the cord to life support for all of Ukraine and all other satellites of the Soviet Union.  One day there was a safety net, then next it was gone.

In Soviet Ukraine everyone had jobs, careers, retirement, health care of sorts, education, just about everything a family could need!  They went to colleges and universities to study science and technology.  Graduating in droves with degrees in physics, engineering, economics they were not only given jobs within the Soviet machine, but required to work no matter what.  It was a comrade’s social responsibility!  You could never be unemployed, you had to work.  You were assigned housing for which you paid a very modest sum to rent.  If you didn’t work you lost your “flat” or apartment in the only housing available in those famous Soviet style high-rises.  Watch: The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath (1975).  The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath .  If you didn’t work, you and your family were on the streets.  So you worked no matter what, if your children were sick, or you were sick, or if it snowed 5 feet, you worked.  As a result, the Ukraine maintains a level of higher education rivaling any Western country, today producing the fourth largest number of college and university graduates in Europe!  As a result of the Soviet system, even with the very small take home pay of often less than $200/month, mom and dad, grandpa and grandma, the kids and grand kids all went to college, went to work, lived together in one flat and saved and saved and saved their money.

Perestroika facilitated today’s Ukrainian Republic to receive its independence in 1991 from the collapsing Soviet Union.  That’s the good news.  The really bad news is that suddenly the safety net disappeared.  Chaos ensued.  Factories closed, stores closed, government buildings and services closed, jobs disappeared, banks defaulted, schools and universities stopped teaching, food became scarce, the entire system collapsed.  No one any longer had jobs, income, institutions, retirement, pensions, even food, though they remained in those high-rise flats.  The newly established free market economy of the new Ukrainian Republic went into a deep recession for most of the 1990’s with a huge drop in their GDP as well as hyperinflation of their currency, which everyone had saved and saved and saved.  Their old Soviet era currency, the karbovanets, was secretly and suddenly replaced September 2nd, 1996 with today’s hryvnia at a rate of 1 hryvnia = 100,000 karbovantsiv as that currency collapsed with its own hyperinflation.  Shockingly, people who had 1 million karbovantsiv in the bank in August 1996, suddenly had 10 hryvnia in the bank on September 2nd.  Lifetime savings were whipped out overnight.  Then through the rest of the 1990’s, the hryvnia devalued to 1/4 its original value.   No jobs, no industry, no production, no shops, no food, no education, no pensions, the entire system collapsed.  People were thrown into immediate dire straits.  I’ve met former a Soviet National Soccer Team coach, engineers, PhD scientists, architects, building contractors, accountants, bankers, factory workers who all lost almost everything in a short 5 year period.

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Today’s Ukraine
Today most Ukrainians earn about $300/month, no matter their work or profession.  Yes, some a bit more, like bankers up to $500/month and some less, laborers $200/month and pensioners as low as $75/month.  Imagine!  On the average, they work 50 -60 hours per week including Saturdays for that pay.  The underground economy is what makes the place tick.  Everyone does something on the side.  They work at night cutting hair, manicuring, selling, making pies, cakes, selling things on the street, hawking drinks on the square. rent rooms and give tours for extra cash.  Oh, and their housing, cars, cloths, meals in restaurants cost the same as here.  Yes, some more, some less but that’s the snapshot!  Imagine!  No one I’ve ever met owns a car.  Everyone crams like sardines into 1950’s era buses and trains rolling over busted up infrastructure with broken streets and tracks.  Few own computers though everyone has access to the internet through cafes.  They know the score and can see it every day on the web or TV shows from the US dubbed with horrible Russian over the top.  Everyone speaks Russian despite today’s news as it was the official language of the Soviet Union.  It was taught in every school up to 1992 and frankly remains the actual language of business and the streets.  Everyone is well-educated, well read, is on the internet, speaks several languages, is politically active, while they take the crowded buses back to their dilapidated high-rise flats, with their $300/month pay checks.  All the while as the government officials and members of Parliament drive the most expensive cars I’ve ever seen and live in multi million dollar mansions and estates.   After his ouster, President Viktor Yanukovych was found to be living in a $55 million dollar estate complete with helicopter pad and lavish opulence everywhere.   Yanukovych Palace Photos

That’s where the Ukraine is today and how it got here.  A sordid tale.  Meanwhile I’ve found the people so very friendly, intelligent, worldly, up beat, and forward thinking.  Of course some yearn for the old days, of Soviet patronship, mostly the older folks.  Most know that an alliance with the EU would open economic doors that have never been opened before.   Most believe their paychecks would rival at least Poland’s at about 1/4 ours, if not Western Europe eventually.  Most want to maintain open relations with Russia as they share trade, heritage and history.  Some fear the future with the propaganda coming in over the Russian border claiming that the IMF will demand the dramatic inflation of all prices or that suddenly goods and services will cost many times what they do today.  But most just want to be free.  Free to choose, to determine, to live, to work, to have a normal life, to not have your X presidents jailed or poisoned.  Free from dictators and despots and corruption and graft in their government.  Free to have the ability to travel and earn and live.  They mostly want to be free…just like you and me.

Check out these links on the most recent situation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPwmcz1cnKM .

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Odessa’s Sustainable Design, Speaking a Different Language

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The point of this trip is to set the stage for a Study Abroad course in Eastern Europe focusing on a new and broadened concept of universal sustainability.  I tell my students they are recipients of the pioneering tenets of a New Renaissance, a new awakening, the beginning of a new era.  Some call it the New Millennium, some think we’ve finally, finally landed on Shangri La and have found the answers.  I like to remember a fishing pole hat I had as a kid, with a toy fish on the end just out of reach.  The faster you chased the target the more it eluded.  We are the first generation to consider sustainability with an eye towards the future, in the present, tempered by the past.  Green Building, Zero Net Energy, Environmentalism, Sustainable Urbanism, Sustainable Economic Planning, Social Equity, Eco City Development, Eco Urban Design, all in caps, are 3rd Millennial concepts.  We are at the very beginning.   I believe future generations will look back on this period and call us the pioneers of a new beginning a Renaissance. 

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The lessons learned in Eastern Europe with their past, present and future, point the way to a new beginning, a new understanding of “What’s next?”  These are societies steeped in history and traditions, architectural precedents and cultural morays, social structures and political upheaval.  The cities, towns and villages of the X Soviet Union have had time pass them by.  The political storms of the 20th Century, and there were plenty, came and went like the wind.  The remaining built environment’s resiliency creates a new sense of sustainability into the 21st Century that’s missing in the developed world.  We must expand our concepts as part of the mantra of “globalization” or become obsolete.

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Odessa as a show piece to the brave new world of the Soviet State, surprisingly elucidates concepts to be applied in today’s cities all over the world.  Everybody walks and takes the transit.  Everyone meets face to face all day and night long.  Every evening, all evening the entire downtown is packed with pedestrians, walking, talking, eating, along promenades, in parks and cafes, around fountains and gazebos.  The innumerable squares and alcoves, not as pretty as those in Prague and Krakow, remain full of people eating, drinking, talking and yes smoking until the middle of the night.  These all serve to create a sustainable city within a new definition amongst the contradictions and non sequiturs and rubble…“putting butts in the seats”.

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Churches and cathedrals abound on every corner, with open doors and an ethereal respite from the din of the city.  Old architectural styles in original condition, yes you could call “busted up”, create a mish mash of separate and well developed styles one on top of the other.  Time and culture remain the main form givers to the place.  Squares, facades, entries, walls, windows, steps, fountains, walkways work with proportions, light, views and eddies, to create private and public spaces with opportunities for sustainable architectural and urban design.  Everything lasting through the centuries, creating an eclectic urban festival for people with the old embracing the new, creating the rough edges of opportunity.  It is this “Resiliency” that we must understand and emulate in the Developed World. 

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In Odessa you’ll see crumbling facades, broken pediments, smashed buildings in ruins, broken and busted sidewalks, streets, walks, stairs, abandoned buildings, broken windows, fallen in roofs, unkempt parks, weeds, crumbling fountains, rubble for sidewalks and promenades, all a function of the political and economic upheaval of the tough, tough, tough 20th Century.  There’s been no money to gussy it up and make it pretty like Prague or Krakow.  On one hand you see it as “busted up” and dirty and broken.

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You’ll also see vibrant markets that go on block after block after block, outdoor shopping malls stuffed with open cafes filled with umbrellas, tables and people.  You’ll see parks full of people every hour of every day and jammed to overflowing at 10 pm every night.  You’ll find opera house parks and fountains and plazas and rose gardens and church cloisters filled with kids playing, teens skateboarding, families strolling, oomph bands oomphing, dancers swirling, people selling and watching and talking and laughing.  You’d think it was a carnival, but it’s every day and every night!  It’s a scene out of the play book of what’s best in sustainable city design and what we designers hope to design.

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All the while, there are no Zero Energy Buildings, no recycling or water restrictions, no car pooling and not a single Prius in sight!  There are no electric cars, solar panels, high efficiency envelopes, solar hot water heaters, super efficient building envelopes.  No low e windows, green materials, building integrated photovoltaics or LEED buildings anywhere!  There are no empty brand spankin’ new plazas or umbrella tables or benches.   Their sustainable society speaks an entirely different language than ours.  We are speaking English and they are speaking Russian with mutually un-understandable alphabets!   They don’t have the slightest concept of our sense of sustainability and we have no concept of theirs.  Both models fulfill different niches in architectural and city development.  We must learn to speak a more universal language for sustainability to be sustainable.  

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