Reconstructing Ukraine’s devastated cities is not just a matter of repairing the colossal damage done by the war, or even of building cities back “better” to enhance citizens’ lives. It is about the future of Ukraine as a democracy.
Russia’s war of aggression has left large parts of Ukraine’s towns and cities in ruin. Places like Irpin, Zaporizhia, Kramatorsk and Mariupol resemble the devastated cities of Europe in 1945.
The challenge of reconstruction is immense. Even before the Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed, the World Bank estimated the cost of rebuilding Ukraine’s physical infrastructure at over $400 billion. With no end to the war insight, the eventual costs of reconstruction will far surpass those of the Marshall Plan after World War II.
Ukraine’s own National Recovery Plan has multiple objectives and a range of time horizons. There is a clear tension between short term, urgent recovery initiatives and longer-term ambitions to rebuild a more socially and environmentally sustainable urban environment.
But at the heart of the debate is the issue of power. Will urban reconstruction be top-down and centralised, driven by priorities decided by government in Kyiv? Or will it reflect agendas shaped at local level by mayors, city leaders and civil society across Ukraine?
War time exigencies have inevitably strengthened the central Ukrainian state, particularly the Presidency, which controls Ukraine’s Agency for Recovery & Reconstruction. Critical opposition is absent and the media restricted. In this context, there are fears that – despite the oversight of donors – the huge flow of funds into reconstruction projects from Ukraine’s supporters will be captured by vested interests, commercial and political, that funds will be misappropriated, and Ukraine’s history of corruption perpetuated. The queue of foreign businesses eyeing commercial opportunity in Ukraine lends weight to this scenario.
For this reason the case for a decentralised approach to reconstruction which reflects the interests and views of citizens and mobilises their energies is more than just an argument for a more locally-relevant, human-centric approach to Ukraine’s urban future. It calls for using the reconstruction process to promote the democratisation of Ukraine, to give citizens agency and, critically, to ensure a more transparent, accountable process at local level which will strengthen governance and reduce corruption, whether at national or local level. At a conference on Ukrainian reconstruction at Chatham House in March 2023, advocates of this approach emphasised that they see it as a key enabler of the country’s case for EU accession.
International experts in urban development have a role to play in the outcome of this argument – and not just in helping build local capacity and expertise. Their engagement helps Ukraine’s city leaders build the case for reconstruction, but also amplifies their voice and influence in the debate about its direction. External experts can potentially reinforce efforts to empower cities and communities, promote greater accountability and improve governance.
Take the example of Irpin, a city which was 76% destroyed in the early phase of the war. An “Irpin Reconstruction Summit” was set up by Mayor Oleksandr Markushin to act as the convenor and catalyst for a multi-stakeholder reconstruction effort. It has been highly successful in engaging citizens through community-led initiatives, liaising with regional and national government in Ukraine. But it has also systematically assembled a wide-ranging coalition of potential reconstruction partners abroad, including cities, think tanks, heritage and humanitarian organisations, and a major US architectural practice. Ideas are flowing thick and fast (if funding less so).
However, urban leaders such as Mayor Markushin have a tricky balance to strike. While international engagement strengthens the leverage of local urban authorities in Ukraine, it also complicates matters. As the New York Times journalist Laura Kinstler has noted, the opportunity to rebuild Ukrainian cities has attracted architects and developers from all around the world. This foreign attention can bring investment and international awareness, and help build capacity, but it also carries the risk of compromising the agency of Ukrainian communities in their own reconstruction.
To the international urban development community, involvement in reconstruction initiatives in Irpin and elsewhere is more than just an opportunity to help rebuild Ukraine’s urban environment on exciting new lines. It is also about renewing Ukrainian democracy. However, their contribution needs to support, and not undermine, the determination and ability of Ukrainians to shape their own urban future.
About the author
Dr Rhodri Williams is a Visiting Professor for the Institute for Future Cities and has contributed this article in his personal capacity. Rhodri is Head of International Public Policy for AIG which he joined after two decades as a British diplomat. Prior to that he taught history at St Peter’s College Oxford. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute for Future Cities or the University of Strathclyde.