Saving St. Petersburg: When Historic Landmarks Are Replaced By Luxury Apartments

Russian developers run by local politicians have spent the last decade replacing historic buildings with luxury apartments and shopping malls. Preservationists have long cried foul, but say there’s still time to save some of the city’s endangered landmark

The canals of St. Petersburg, Russia
The canals of St. Petersburg, Russia


ST. PETERSBURG – With its elegant architecture and enchanting canals, this Russian city is sometimes called the "Venice of the North." Until recently, the historic center's gravest threat had been during World War II, when Nazi bombing raids during the 872-day siege of the city, then known as Leningrad, left serious damage to numerous prized buildings and monuments.

But since 2004, St. Petersburg's historical city center – recognized as a UNESCO landmark -- has been facing its most dire threat since German bombs: local government complicity in the demolition of landmarks to make way for shopping malls and luxury apartments.

In a rare victory of late for Russian preservationists, the municipal court in St. Petersburg recently ruled against city and regional government policy that allowed for the destruction of some 50 historic buildings. But it is just the latest chapter in a decade-long battle to save a unique corner of Russian heritage.

In 2001, the then-head of the Committee on State Control, Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (KGIOP) established a list of St. Petersburg's historical landmarks. Although the list was not considered final, nothing was supposed to be removed from it prior to a complete evaluation by experts.

At the time, no part of the city or regional government, including KGIOP, was authorized to conduct these evaluations, meaning the list should have remained intact – at least until 2009, when KGIOP was finally allowed to evaluate the would-be landmark sites. And yet by then, KGIOP had already removed more than 100 building from the list, stripping them of their government protection. Half of those buildings have since been demolished.

KGIOP's first round of cuts – as part of a 2004 decree – involved 38 buildings in central St. Petersburg. Twenty of those have since been demolished to make room for new real estate development, including many luxury apartments.

Perhaps most telling is who is cashing in on the new construction. One of the big winners was a real estate developer called the LCP group, which is controlled by Andrei Mochanov, who also happens to be a senator in the regional government. What's more, the group's current head, Alexander Vachminstrov, is the region's former vice-governor – and was in charge of overseeing KGIOP. Then there's Yevgeny Yatsishin, a former LCP vice-president who headed the city government's construction committee. Yatsishin recently left the government to work with LCP group once again.

"The company operated strictly within the limits of the law to carry out this project and to get the required permissions," LCP told Kommersant. The group stressed that the development project began in 2005, a year after the buildings were removed from the landmark register.

LCP group also said it has development plans for several buildings formerly on the landmark list, but that for many of those sites the developer plans to "preserve and reconstruct" the building instead of demolishing it.

Still hope for 50 buildings

On Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg's main boulevard, one of the buildings removed from the protected list was torn down to make way for a mall. Preservationists are livid, not only about the loss of the historic building, but because the new mall exceeds the city's height limits. Even the city government recognized, albeit after the fact, that the new building was a colossal "urban planning mistake."

Aleksei Kovalyov, a deputy in St. Petersburg's city parliament, tried unsuccessfully to fight the de-listings in 2004. At the time, experts brought before the court confirmed that at least seven of the 38 buildings taken off the list were important historical monuments. Nine of the 38 buildings had already been destroyed. Although the court found that the KGIOP cuts were illegitimate, it also found against Kovalyov's preservationist claim that his right to access the city's cultural heritage had been violated by the development plans.

At the time, Mr. Kovalyov also warned that the continued destruction of historic buildings could threaten St. Petersburg's place on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The city's historic city center was among the first four Russian sites added to the list in 1990, when Russia emerged from behind the Iron Curtain.

Things began to change this past year, after Valentina Matvienko, the regional governor, stepped down prior to the end of her term. In August, the state prosecutor demanded that the KGIOP rescind the 2004 decree, arguing that the department did not have the authority to remove the buildings from state protection. The matter came before the courts, which found in favor of the prosecution, ruling that the city government overstepped its authority by de-listing the 38 buildings.

The KGIOP originally stood by the list cuts. More recently, however, it has changed its tune. Under new leadership, the KGIOP now insists it is against the continued demolition of these historic landmarks. Assuming the Supreme Court backs the lower court's ruling, prosecutors will then be able to contest the other 60 or so buildings KGIOP removed from the list prior to 2009. While many have already been destroyed, some of those remaining could once again be granted protection status and thus preserved for future generations.

Read the full story in Russian

Photo - Ed Yourdon

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


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