UB Student Wins International Urban Planning Competition in Russia
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 19:11
UB senior Matt Wattles’ first trip to Europe was nothing close to the typical tour through well-known cities and famous landmarks. Few travelers envision the Siberian city of Irkutsk as a destination over Paris or Berlin, or could spot Lake Baikal on a map.
But that’s where Wattles went to participate in a world-renowned urban planning competition. And he won.
On March 4, Wattles, an environmental design major and native Buffalonian, was the first American to win the International Winter University competition held in Irkutsk, Russia. The competition, in its 13th year, recruits urban planning and environmental design students from around the world to draft proposals for rejuvenating the city of Irkutsk. An international panel of experts, professors, and city officials then judges the students’ plans.
The competition lasted just three weeks, from February 11 until the first week of March. But three weeks of living in the Siberian city was a big first for Wattles. Not only was he unfamiliar with traveling, but he also faced a much larger task than any project he had ever worked on in the urban planning studios on South Campus.
For each year it’s been held, The International Winter University competition has had a theme. The theme this year was “Suburbanization: The City and Ecology”; Wattles had to explore the challenges facing a post-Cold War Russian metropolis on the brink of serious expansion.
“Recently, the city has been expanding into the Siberian forest that surrounds it at an unsustainable rate,” Wattles said. “Unplanned suburbanization is a problem for many cities, because the low-density development requires more energy and resources to maintain it.”
Good urban planners are sensitive to the city and region they work in. For a country like Russia, which has only been able to adopt urban planning initiatives since the end of the Soviet era, Wattles had to engage with his surroundings carefully.
“The impressive thing was quickly getting to know the city, the study area, the culture, [and] the history of the town in order to put together a winning plan,” said Daniel Hess, the UB assistant professor of urban and regional planning who traveled with Wattles, of his student’s accomplishments. “Being an undergrad student, he didn’t have much experience at that, and he did it quite well.”
The outcome for Wattles has meant more than just a first in traveling.
“I’ve never had anything of mine be public or anything like this at all,” Wattles said. “It’s great.”
Wattles realized how fortunate he was to be picked for the competition. Hess helped Wattles get the opportunity. Hess chose him because he already had enough credits to graduate, so he had a free semester.
Wattles said the benefits of his native English took him far in the competition and gave him a special place among his teammates. Two Russian students, a Lebanese student, and a French student accompanied Wattles; they all came together for the winning proposal.
“The biggest advantage I had was being an English speaker,” Wattles said. “Just being able to speak English gave me a leg up because I was able to give good presentations.”
For Professor Hess, who was visiting Estonia on a Fulbright scholarship, the opportunity to invite a UB student to attend the Winter University competition meant finding someone who was mentally and emotionally up for the job.
“I needed someone brave – someone with a willingness to travel [and] a willingness to work well in a team environment – and Matt had all those characteristics,” Hess said.
Not only was Wattles the first American to win, but the first American to ever attend the Winter University competition.
Irkutsk – a city of approximately 600,000 residents – is facing the prospects of serious growth in the coming years. Having grown up in Buffalo and studied extensively the problems of suburbanization in his hometown, Wattles understands that planning for residencies outside of more dense urban areas can produce deleterious effects if not handled properly.
“Buffalo is a really good example of what not to do in terms of suburbanization,” Wattles said. “Right now, Irkutsk is on the verge of a major expansion, and they’re trying to plan their suburbs efficiently, ecologically and sustainably. One of the mistakes that Buffalo made was building these huge highways. That contributed to expansion, but Buffalo’s basically rotting from the core. All the suburbs are doing great but the city is on the down.”
For Wattles, the outcome of his proposal could mean more than the memorable adventure and a first-place finish.
“I feel like its really going to help me out in the future as far as a résumé,” Wattles said. “I feel really fortunate to be picked. I feel really fortunate that people are showing so much interest in what I did.”
Professor Hess believes that Wattles’ project will be of consequence for Irkutsk in the near future.
“They get ideas and implementation strategies from this program every year,” Hess said. “In the past, it’s made significant influence in the city.”