​The Dream of Baikalsk: New Life for a one-industry town

According to the official figures, there are 313 monotownes in Russia and only 89 of them can be considered stable both socially and economically. The rest are either in a state of deep crisis or barely surviving. KB Strelka, in collaboration with Russian experts in ecology and tourism, as well as foreign experts in museum curating, cultural programming, and post-industrial parks, have devised a model for the future of Baikalsk – one of the most problematic monotownes in Russia.

Situated in the very middle of Baikal region, Baikalsk is one of the monotowns in the so-called ‘red zone,’ meaning that it is in a critical condition. In 2013 its only industry — the Baikalsk pulp and paper mill, a Soviet-era facility that had been polluting the waters of Lake Baikal for decades — was shut down. This decision lead to a worsening of the already difficult socio-economic situation in the city, as there was no alternative employment for the mill workers who lost their jobs. In order for Baikalsk not only to survive but also to begin developing dynamically it was necessary to devise a new development strategy that no longer relied on chemical production.

The "Green Future" Charity Fund for the Environment commissioned KB Strelka to come up with a new vision for the development of the territory that is occupied by the now defunct mill. According to their proposal, a nature-endangering industry will be replaced by a theme park known as “The Baikalsk mill for the production of nature,” which will serve as the main tourist centre of Baikal, attracting nature-lovers from around the world. The project has already gained the support of the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology, but it is yet to be realised. The director of Centre for Urban Anthropology at KBStrelka, Mikhail Alekseevsky, who worked on this project, explained to us why Baikalsk should be transformed into a tourist mecca and whether the ex-employees of the shut down mill are ready to start working in museums and parks.

— Why have you decided to create a centre of tourism in one of the most troubled monotownes instead of, for example, re-starting the industry?

— I should start off by noting that this town is situated on the bank of Baikal in the so-called central ecological zone of the Baikal natural territory. In accordance with federal laws almost any kind of industrial production is strictly forbidden here, except for certain types of light industry (for example, food). There was absolutely no point in reviving the old chemical industry. Our research, on the other hand, revealed that this area, quite unexpectedly, has a strong potential for tourism. There are not that many towns located on the banks of Baikal, and out of them all Baikalsk has the most convenient location. Two major transport links go through this town — the Trans-Siberian railway and the Moscow-Vladivostok motorway. Another important aspect: Baikalsk is not just a ‘city of cellulose’, it is also a center of winter tourism. The only ski resort in Irkutsk Oblast — Sokolinaya Mountain — is located in Baikalsk and during the winter break thousands of active sports-lovers come here. So we are by no means trying to attract people to a place with zero infrastructure. There is quite a lot already in place.

— Was the closure of the pulp and paper mill inevitable?

— Yes it was. Even if we ignore the significant harm to nature that it was producing, in the last few years of its functioning the mill was a real burden to the city. It was not just morally and technically obsolete, but also extremely unprofitable losing millions of rubles every year. The other problem was that, since the very beginning, the city and the mill shared one infrastructure. The local thermal power station was producing energy both for the city and for the mill. The city needs roughly 20% of the energy produced by the power station. If you shut the mill down, the cost of heating for the city becomes five times higher than actually necessary.

— How is a tourist resort going to cover those losses? Surely it cannot create as many jobs as the mill did.

— You see, our project cannot be considered strictly tourism-oriented — it’s socio-cultural. We are offering a radical re-profiling of the city. We are not suggesting replacing one gigantic industry with another and making all the locals work there. It’s simply not going to work. Instead, we want to create a landmark project that would bring Baikalsk recognition and would become the main driver for the local economy. Right now Baikalsk is just a city and a forest with a defunct mill hidden behind it, and these two zones are separated from one another. Our urban renewal project offers to gradually join these two zones by creating new points of economic growth between them. We are expecting the food industry, that on one hand will not be polluting the environment, on the other hand will diversify the local economy, to grow around the theme park as well as hotels, sanatoriums and other touristic infrastructure.

— Were you going to offer the ex-workers employment in museums and as park tour guides?

— Yes, we are often asked this ‘provocative’ question: how can you be sure that the proud cellulose-industry workers would agree to start catering for the tourists. We had conducted a study and concluded that the local population is not opposed to tourism; moreover many people are already in that business. The mill had been shut down once before, for a year and a half, but had to be re-opened because of the social tensions that followed. In that period people had to make a living somehow and that is why tourism started to develop as an alternative. Every second person in Baikalsk was either letting his apartment to the skiers while temporarily moving to his summer house, has built a small hotel, or started organising guided tours. According to the statistics, the small business sector started developing here pretty fast. So it was clear that even in the current conditions small businesses are ready to get involved in tourism and the appearance of a big project of this kind will only boost the sphere.

— But museums in the theme park require professional museum workers — people who understand the current trends, both political and cultural. Is the museum sector well-developed in Baikalsk? I always had the impression that in Russia it’s generally quite underdeveloped.

— There are no skilled professionals specializing in museum programming in Baikalsk. But luckily the city of Irkutsk is situated nearby and it’s a very progressive city with museums of its own and everything is fine there. So we will not need to bring any foreign experts in. Many people from Baikalsk either work or study in Irkutsk. Baikalsk in turn could start attracting professionals from Irkutsk. Baikal itself is already a magnet for creative people. While conducting our study, we came across a group of young people from a creative lab called “Teatrica” who twice a year organize an art-festival of ice statues and labyrinths in Baikal region. They are real enthusiasts and they attract all the funding for the festival independently.

I’m certain that many people involved in the field of cultural programming would be interested in taking part in a project of this scale. In Moscow, the market is overflowing with this sort of services, so young talented curators experience real difficulty finding interesting projects to work on. I mean, isn’t it a great opportunity? A modern theme park right in the heart of Baikal.

— You have mentioned that as a part of this project you conducted a study that involved local people. How many people participated in the interviews? How much work was done?

— We chose not to conduct a sociological study because in that case too much depends on how representative the sample is. Instead we applied the methodology of urban anthropology — in-depth interviews. And here it’s all about quality, not quantity. An anthropological approach can reveal the whole spectrum of opinions and outline the main interests and demands of various categories of citizens. We interviewed people who were taking an active part in the life of Baikalsk — local authorities, small and medium-sized businesses, media outlets, cultural sector professionals, but we also talked to the ordinary citizens of Baikalsk — both young and old, rich and poor, coming for various districts of the town, ex-mill workers and those employed in other sectors.

Interviews with college students produced the most unexpected results. We asked them who they thought deserved a monument to be erected in the city? And the answer was — Komsomol (Soviet youth organization) members of the 1960s. It became clear that the mythology related to the paper mill and its "heroic" Soviet past still plays a significant role in the local self-identity. But despite loving their town and expressing local pride, all of the young interviewees told us that they are planning to leave Baikalsk. It’s always the same response: get into university and never return. All of the students confirmed that if the current situation changes — new job opportunities and therefore better prospects for the future emerge — they would gladly return. But at present there's absolutely nothing left to do in Baikalsk.

Baikalsk used to be a youthful city: in 1960s — 1970s a lot of young, energetic and industrious people moved here. The number of senior citizens was very low. Right now the local population is changing. Baikalsk is converting from a city of youth and energy into a city for the happily retired. We conducted an interview at a local estate agency in order to find out how the housing prices are changing and who is buying. The closure of the mill resulted in a significant decrease in housing prices, and it turned out that one of the most common trends is senior people moving to Baikalsk for a peaceful retirement. They had worked hard in the north, earned enough money, sold their flats and moved to Baikalsk to grow strawberries. By the way, strawberries are a local specialty. The unique Baikal microclimate produces a huge crop every year. Seasonal growing and selling of strawberries is a source of income for many senior people in Baikalsk.

— Did KB Strelka team carry out any other work in Baikalsk apart from research?

— This was the first time that our company worked on the so-called foresight model. Not just a concept for the development or a strategy, but a vision for the future. First we created drawings of what this future would look like, then we described in great detail all the steps that need to be taken in order for it all to come true. 

The core of our team consisted of eight people, including French urban planner Edouard Moreau, who recently won the international design competition for re-imagining the Moscow-river embankments as a part of architectural bureau Meganom team. But a wider circle of experts and officials were also involved at various stages: we worked with the local councils in Baikalsk and Irkutsk, namely their tourism departments, we also consulted Russian experts on monotownes and ecology, foreign experts in cultural programming and museum curators.

We worked on three different models: planning, financial and sociocultural. The sociocultural model was based on the study that I talked about earlier. Our team of architects studied the city and the paper mill. They even visited the industrial site itself and took photographs of all the buildings, worked with maps and plans. A thorough examination of the current state of the territory was needed in order to find the most effective ways of adapting it for the future theme park. One of the discoveries was this incredible mechanism for unloading timber for the woodworks. A huge elevated construction with two parallel rails inspired the team to convert it into a monorail for the tourists to travel to the park while enjoying the picturesque views of Baikal and the mountains.

— Do your plans for this grandiose theme park imply huge investment?

— Well, actually, no. It was not our goal to radically cut down the budget and build it all cheaply. It would have been absolutely impossible on such a territory. But we made sure that the full potential of the site was taken into account, which could minimize some of the costs. We are not proposing to knock all the existing buildings down and build a brand new garden-city. It’s expensive and insufficient. Instead we devised new functions for the old buildings, using their potential to the maximum.

This region has a high risk of seismic activity, so if something is built here the strongest and hardest sort of concrete is used — the kind that could withstand any earthquake. And so the main building of the mill is rather unique in this sense — it’s a huge and substantial construction, the size of ten Moscow Manege buildings. We proposed to turn it into a museum complex that would be the biggest natural science museum in the world. The building is already there, it just needs to be upgraded and filled with the right content. It is much cheaper than all the Olympic sites in Sochi, for example.

— Right now travelling to Baikalsk from Moscow is very inconvenient. You need to go to Irkutsk first and return tickets are quite expensive. Then it’s a long ride by car or by train to Baikalsk itself. This is too much of a fuss for the typical Russian tourist. And there are no plans for a local airport either, as far as I understand.

— Well, right now there’s no faster way of getting to Baikal. Most of the visitors from Irkutsk go to Listvyanka — the most popular Baikal touristic destination. But it’s already overcrowded and you cannot get there by train. So in this sense, Baikalsk is much more convenient.

As for the prices, the main difficulty with tourism in Baikal region is dependence on seasons. That’s why staying here is so expensive — the industry has to somehow make its annual profit in just two summer months. The local climate is such that in June it is still quite cold and unpleasant here, and first snowfalls start in September. It’s a very short season. So, when working on our project, we tried to develop a programme that would attract tourists all year round. If this works, the prices will inevitably fall. And concerning the flight tickets — the touristic agencies could be selling discounted tickets if they reach an agreement with the airline companies.

“Baikalsk: The gate to Baikal” is the motto of our project. On one hand, we are offering a rich programme filled with culture and entertainment in the theme park, on the other — anyone can book a visit to any location in the Baikal area from the specially built visitor centre located on a wharf in the natural park. And there are special offers for school trips during the low season as well.

— Who is your target audience?

— Primarily, Russian tourists. I mean the sort of people who have already seen the world, visited all the exotic places and now want to travel around their native land and see all the wonders and beauty it has to offer. According to Levada Center polls, 25% of Russians consider Baikal the main symbol of Russia. Only 7% think it’s the Moscow Kremlin. That means many people want to see Baikal at least once in their life, but at the moment getting there is too expensive and inconvenient for them. Right now experts are predicting active development of regional tourism in Russia. So a high-quality recreational project in Baikal could act as a locomotive for this industry.

But then there are concerns coming from experts in ecology who believe that tourism should not be developed in this area, because it will destroy the unique ecosystem. And I agree with them: all those wild campers with their tents and cars — they pose a real threat to the lake. What we are proposing, on the other hand, is a step towards ecologically-responsible and civilized tourism. The theme park situated on the industrial site will attract the highest anthropogenic load from the tourists. As for the visits to the lake and to the natural reserve and parks, those will be conducted in accordance with the standards of ecological safety and under special guidance. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology, which is managing the area, fully supports us here.

We are also hoping to attract foreign tourists, especially from China. Right now tourism is very popular in China and there is a considerable interest in Russia. Baikal itself has a sacred status of the "Northern Sea" for the Chinese. We have calculated that more than 1 billion people live one 4-hour flight away from Irkutsk. All these people are our potential visitors. After all, Baikal is a world natural heritage site.

Photo: Ivan Gusschin/ "Strelka" Institute, Gleb Leonov / "Strelka" Institute