To keep people coming back. When and how to rebuild Ukrainian cities

27 January, 04:51 PM
The destroyed building of vocational school in Makiivka, which the occupiers used as a barracks, on January 4 (Photo:REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

The destroyed building of vocational school in Makiivka, which the occupiers used as a barracks, on January 4 (Photo:REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

The war brought enormous challenges for Ukrainian cities. Unfortunately, no one was ready for them in peacetime. 

Today, Mariupol, Bucha, Kremenchuk, Izyum, Bakhmut, Mykolaiv and hundreds of other Ukrainian cities have became famous all over the world. Unfortunately, they are not known for innovation, achievements in fighting against climate change, or effective reform. The world learned about them because of Moscow’s war, which has been going on for almost a year.

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The main reason why it is not too early to talk about reconstruction are the people who continue to live in these Ukrainian cities and communities.

It is important that the names of Ukrainian cities are not just recognizable toponyms for the international community. The world should know that Mykolaiv is a port city with large companies, particularly agricultural companies, Lviv is the cultural capital of Ukraine, and Zhytomyr, for example, had great achievements in reforming the water supply. That is why the leaders of Ukrainian cities should speak to the world, and the Ukrainian House in Davos has become an important platform for this. We all agree that it is necessary to rebuild better, more ecologically, in accordance with standards and, most importantly, focusing on the people. But when and how will it succeed?

The war brought enormous challenges for Ukrainian cities. Unfortunately, no one was ready for them in peacetime. Deputy Minister of Infrastructure and Regional Development of Ukraine, Mustafa Nayyem, says that during the year of the war, infrastructure has suffered a lot. In particular, more than 25,000 km of roads were damaged, more than 6,000 km of railway tracks, almost 50% of the energy system and 1,500 schools have been destroyed. It is already known that the recovery plan for Ukraine is estimated at $750 billion. But the amount is increasing every day, with each new "arrival".

"Recovery has already begun where it is possible, where it is critically needed now. After all, infrastructure is a key to delivering essential goods and cargo to the front line. Our key goal now is to move towards the construction of an effective and logical recovery management system," as Nayyem says.

Today, the damage to Mykolaiv is estimated at about 900 million euros

Development requires high-quality coordination and cooperation between central and local authorities. This is evidenced by the results of a recent sociological survey. According to Mustafa, cities are now actively interacting with the central government both in solving current problems and in planning further steps. The government has already created the "State Agency for Reconstruction and Development of Infrastructure of Ukraine", which will be responsible for the implementation of reconstruction projects. There is a donor coordination platform in Brussels that will monitor financial flows.

Cities, for their part, show interest in even closer cooperation. They have years of experience working with international organizations and believe that their requirements will be the guarantee of transparency and effective use of funds that we all ask for at different levels. Today, cities and communities are already working on projects that require the support of both the state and donors.

Currently, city halls are practically under fire trying to solve the urgent problems of citizens. For example, Mykolaiv was not shelled for only 46 days from February 24 to November 11, when Kherson was liberated. The city has been severely damaged by various types of rockets and projectiles. However, one of the biggest challenges is the destroyed water supply system, because in April the occupiers destroyed the water supply from the occupied Kherson Oblast. However, the joint efforts of the government, business, and international partners managed to build a new pipeline. However, the water is salty, and therefore not very suitable for drinking.

Today, the damage to Mykolaiv is estimated at about 900 million euros. Together with the Danish government, the local authorities are developing a future plan for the city.

"For Mykolayiv, the war is also a chance to change,” says the mayor Oleksandr Sienkievych.

“We don't just want to rebuild all the schools that were destroyed by missiles. We must rethink the situation and build one modern school instead of three destroyed ones.”

It is not the easy task to solve urgent problems and plan long-term development in wartime. On the one hand, people need to survive the winter. So generators, which were imported in record quantities, became a temporary (unfriendly) solution. At the same time, at all high-level conferences on energy issues, Ukrainians are reminded of the importance of a so-called green reconstruction. Therefore, reconciling the needs of survival and sustainable development falls on the shoulders of city leaders, while Russia destroys not only infrastructure, but also nature.

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John Kerry, the special representative of the U.S. president on climate issues, noted during the Ukrainian breakfast in Davos that what is happening on the planet will only get worse. I will only add that if in the future Ukraine aspires to be a world player, then the topic of ecology, climate change, alternative energy sources should already exist in the development plans of cities and communities. There are already examples of some changes. Even before the war, Zhytomyr started a major program of replacing gas in the city's energy balance, and together with European partners, the city built a wood-fired boiler house. Zhytomyr has already received the European Energy Award for reducing CO2 emissions.

"We should not renovate, restore something old, or rebuild a power plant that was built 20 or 30 years ago,” shared Zhytomyr Mayor Serhiy Sukhomlin.

“Today we are developing programs and business that will switch to renewable energy sources. Such a business will be supported by compensation from the city budget — up to 20% of the project’s cost. We will also launch a waste processing plant and we will also use this waste processing to generate electricity for the city.”

For several months, we have been repeating "build better" as a mantra, but in Davos I heard the definition of "build forward". The process requires in-depth economic analysis supported by sociological research. And apparently, the criterion for the return and reconstruction itself will not be housing, but economic opportunities. Working with investors in the future will be successful for those who have projects and a vision. Moreover, the requirements for the city will change for the residents themselves after their stay in European cities for even a few months.

Lviv has always been considered a cultural capital, but the war dictated a new direction for the city's development - medical. On the basis of one of the city's medical associations, a large-scale project, Unbroken, has been launched for the rehabilitation and prosthetic-fitting for the wounded, as well as mental health programs. Production of bionic prostheses is planned to be launched there. The Superhumans Center, a state-of-the-art center for the rehabilitation and prosthetics of war victims, will be also opened in the spring. At the same time, the Ukrainian Catholic University already has a master's program for training specialists in physical therapy and occupational therapy, so the city can get another cluster of expertise.

Before the war, there were 2.7 million people with disabilities in Ukraine, but this year the number of disabled people is growing almost every day. The accessibility of Ukrainian cities is very weak, but all without exception must become inclusive, those that have been destroyed by missiles and those that were not affected.

After the Russian full-scale invasion, the population of Warsaw grew by 17%, Gdansk by 33%. Today, the population of Lviv has grown by 150,000 residents. The head of Lviv does not call them immigrants, he says that they are all Ukrainians, they all are ours. At the same time, there remains a high probability that Ukrainians will not return to their hometowns, at least in the short term. Cities will compete for talent both among themselves and with foreign counterparts. People should have a strong incentive to return to Mykolaiv or Zhytomyr from Lviv, and even more from abroad. And foreign employers will try to retain our citizens.

Mustafa Nayyem says that it is important not only to restore destroyed housing, but also to create security infrastructure, health care, training and new jobs to make Ukrainians want to return. The leader of Zhytomyr has set himself the task of building a new educational institution on the site of the destroyed 25th Lyceum, which will be competitive for at least 10-20 years ahead. He says that he even refused the $5,000,000 that donors were willing to provide, in order to first work out in detail what the new institution should be, and not just build modern, beautiful walls.

The opportunity to participate in the creation of something new can be an additional motivation for people to return. It is important to develop mechanisms for their involvement in national-level projects, and to give them the opportunity to integrate into the business environment of the region. Therefore, it is necessary to plan the recovery in the oblasts, taking into account the creation of jobs and their investment attractiveness.

Today, Ukrainian cities are on the front line, because it is necessary not only to overcome military challenges, but also to ensure development and quality of life for residents. The war showed that only in cooperation and with the participation of the community is it possible to fight the enemy and achieve results in reconstruction. The war gave us such opportunities — it is important not to waste them.

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