Irkutsk Paths

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Text, photo and video: Nina Morozova
Video editing: Leesy Melder

People walk around the town. They hurry on their way or simply walk. They choose a route. And pretty often that route doesn’t coincide with the pavements or gravel paths. The logic of an architect drawing a circle on a plan can differ from the logic of a townsperson hurrying home or to work. An officially planned route is not necessarily the most convenient or the shortest one. And a parallel network of tracks and paths comes into existence reflecting the real scenario of townspeople’s life.

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Research question

Why do beaten tracks appear in the town? What can they tell about the townspeople?

Why do people choose social paths? The simplest explanation is that they save time and energy. Quite often without even thinking they cut corners and go straight to their objective. Sometimes the “saving” is only a step or two. It looks funny and even absurd, but it is not as simple as it seems at first sight.

About a year ago the social network “VKontakte” renewed a video catalogue and to attract the users’ attention to the catalogue they made it in such a way that it opened when you click on the link «My Video». As a result to reach your list of videos became possible only through the video catalogue and one extra mouse click. One click only, it seems.  But what started then!

There were masses of discontented users. I myself disliked that innovation a lot as it broke the logic of the interface: all other links led to where they were supposed to lead.  «My Music» – to music, «My Friends» gave access to the list of friends, and «My communities» – to the communities. And only the way to videos became one step longer. It was impossible to avoid that step and that was very annoying too. Numerous complaints to Technical Support made “VKontakte” meet the users halfway – to add a scroll bar with the users’ videos to the video catalogue, but it was just a half measure. In the end I stopped using this section and started to use another video hosting.

Something similar to this but on a bigger scale happens with official paths: if they are placed in an inconvenient way for people they can overgrow with grass very quickly and become part of the natural landscape. Like the stairway to the central entrance of one of the buildings of Irkutsk State University, for example.

Perhaps the initial plan is justified on a compositional level, but life dictates other rules: the students have chosen a shorter way from the bus stop to the university.

A classic of the genre is trampled corners at the intersections of official pathways. It would even be strange if they were not there. And the matter here is not in the saving, but in the nature of the movement.

And what makes townspeople create new paths parallel to official ones? You can feel quite a conscious choice behind the creation of such paths.

Perhaps some people just don’t want to walk next to the road and breathe exhaust gases, others avoid other pedestrians while walking a dog, and these pedestrians hinder someone else who is jogging. In any case when the urban environment doesn’t meet the needs of townspeople, they start to change it themselves asserting their right to choose.

So you can see a whole story, an active attitude to the surrounding world and at times quite complex decisions can hide behind one step, just as behind one click of the mouse. And in this research I tried to understand what hides behind the directions people choose when creating paths, how official paths interact with social ones, what happens to the paths with time and how the town reacts to them.

Kirov Square

Right in the center of Irkutsk in Kirov Square there is not even a path but a wide track stomped by hundreds or perhaps even thousands of townspeople’s feet leading from the pedestrian crossing to the fountain. It seems it existed forever. People always went from the bus stop “Inyaz” (Linguistic University) across the square in the direction of the circus and Karl Marx street. Nevertheless in 2007 when the square was reconstructed this road was “overlooked”. Perhaps they didn’t want to break the symmetry visible only from a bird’s eye or hoped that citizens would be more conscious of it. Nevertheless the track continues to exist and it seems that it keeps growing wider.

And after the reconstruction, in addition to the big path, a new one appeared cutting a corner in the same direction.

There are lots of tracks like that in the town. Let’s have a look at a small square on Chkalov Street or the area next to the circus. They were developed only recently but the townspeople have already managed to amend their layout.

Orthogonal planning, inherited from Soviet architecture, still prevails in Irkutsk’s squares and parks. The logic of such planning is so detached from the everyday reality of townspeople that it gives the impression that it exists in a parallel universe. Should we be surprised that people refuse to walk as they are supposed to?

Akademicheskaya

The town changes. And it changes the habitual manner of townspeople’s life. Town space is developed,   equipped, assigned or stays “wild”. Old routes disappear, new ones are created. The townspeople adapt to the changes and they adapt the changes to themselves.

As far back as twenty years ago there was nothing between Akademgorodok and Studgorodok. However, the situation started to change rapidly at the end of the 90s with the beginning of the construction of a new bridge across the river Angara. Besides traffic intersections and the road connecting Akademichesky Bridge with Pervomaisky and Universitetsky districts, the new building of the Molchanov-Sibirsky library and Ice Stadium appeared on yesterday’s open spaces. The people of Akademgorodok, used to walking home from Akademicheskaya railway station, had to create a new route.

That route starts at the railway station, traverses the overpass above “Pervomaisky – Universitetsky” by-pass road, and then along a paved road until it meets the old road connecting Lermontov and Starokuzmikhinskaya Streets. There is a metal fence along the road on the opposite side; a pedestrian walk is situated thirty meters to the right.  The uncompleted Ice Stadium towers on a hill overgrown by weeds behind the road and the fence.

And the pedestrians have a choice: to walk around the Ice Stadium on the right, by the pedestrian crosswalk or to go to the left… Wait, there is a fence there! But nothing can stop a determined person.

With the express desire to go by the chosen route townspeople can be very creative: as the social track became habitual for many people, someone even put rocks on both sides of the fence to make the climb easier.

But the ordeals continue — the area around the Ice Stadium is developed only partially, passengers of commuter trains (and other townspeople too) have to create new trails to the stairways on the Northern side of the stadium.

Of course sooner or later paths to the stairways will be built, the old auto road will be closed perhaps and the fence will be demolished. We cannot but hope that the “wishes” of the townspeople will be taken into account and the new environment will be friendlier to its inhabitants.

Yubileinyi

Past

Now

Future

A similar situation occurred in Ubileinyi district. At the beginning of the 90s of the last century a new stretch of Zakharova Street connected Ubileinyi with Primorsky district. A new trolleybus route went there too. The people of Ubileinyi started to use the new road too  – it is easier to catch public transport at Mukhina and Zakharova bus stops, a sports school is located nearby, a bit further on there is a Music school and Children’s Art Center, and a beach called Yakobi. Only a concrete barrier was installed on both sides of the new portion of the road, it also stretched on several meters to the by-pass road around Ubileinyi. And just as in the case of Akademicheskaya, nothing remained for the people of the district but to climb over the blocks. It continued for several years until someone finally had the bright idea to remove one of the barrier blocks. Several years later a new pedestrian crossing was installed next to the opening, and the path to Mukhina on the right side of the road was paved.

This is not the end of the story. At the beginning of 2015 at the entrance to the district, on the left side of Zakharov Street, “Ubileinyi” mall was opened. The builders took care of the comfort of the mall’s potential visitors beforehand: the bus stop and crossing were relocated. They slightly miscalculated the width of the pavement leading to the pedestrian walk— oh, well, it happens! But they redid it pretty quickly.

But life goes on. The situation develops further. At the beginning of November a new fitness center is to open in the mall, the entrance to the fitness center is at the front. Time will show if the visitors to the fitness center keep to the official route or try to shorten the way. We cannot but observe.

. . .

In Western countries there is such a practice: first they lay down the lawn with grass and wait for paths to appear made by the inhabitants of neighbouring houses: from a house to a bus stop, from a drug store to a shop and so on. Then the “official” paths are installed over these trodden tracks. We are slowly taking up this practice: social trails have been improved in Studgorodok and the alternative student path next to the State University has been turned into a stairway.

There is logic and esthetics in the pattern of social trails. They can tell a lot about the townsfolk and their everyday life. Perhaps we shouldn’t think of the trails as of a conflict that needs to be resolved. Of course the wide “track” on Kirov Square should be improved, but I would keep the small one between the fence and the traffic lights as a reminder for the observant pedestrian, as part of the cultural code of our town. The same can be said about other social tracks. And maybe the decision about the official status of a path should be taken by the locals themselves. The only thing that we shouldn’t do in relation to social trails is to ignore them.