The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the futures of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all environmental challenges and become super-ecofriendly. This month, we highlight the future of the Russian World Cup city of Nizhni Novgorod.
(For a Russian-language review of The Ecotopia 2121 Project, visit National Geographic Russia)
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to land my first university teaching position in the cultural and commercial center of Russia's mighty Volga river; Nizhni Novgorod. My office window had wonderful views of a 15th Century fortress with its urban forest, across the serene river, to the pretty retinue of colorful cathedrals in the distance. Apparently, it's all changed now, as the Russian government plied the river-scape with development dosh to ready the city for the World Cup.
Though it is now a city in the international limelight, long ago, before the 15th century, Nizhni Novgorod cleverly escaped a Mongol invasion by being too insignificant to attract attention.
In the ensuing centuries though, it grew to become the third main city in Russian life, after Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Nizhni Novgorod served as a banking capital of the Russian empire, as well as being a leading military city andcity and leading industrial city. It was here where the Stroganov family set up their business empire.
Then during Soviet times it was pronounced a ‘closed city’. That is, it was closed off to foreigners and to Russian citizens who had no business in being there. This main reason for this was to protect its array of military facilities.
Nizhni Novgorod was also the hometown of Russian literary hero Maxim Gorky who had written about the dismal life of the proletariat in the city prior to the 1918 socialist revolution. When he died in 1936, the Soviets renamed the city Gorky in his honor. In 1992, by popular demand, it reverted back to its old name.
In the 1920s, Henry Ford visited the city to instruct the Soviets on how to set up their huge GAZ (Gorky Automobile Zavod) factory which is still the biggest factory in the country today. The commercial success of the GAZ-made cars has waxed and waned throughout its history, no more so than nowadays, when year-by-year the fortunes of the company swing wildly with the world’s changing economic situation and Russia fractious international trade scene.
By 2121, the constant unpredictability of car sales forces GAZ to reconsider its main product line. Working with the local government, the city decides to expand its network of streetcars for they are always very well-patronized and they can also help Nizhni Novgorod’s grow a little Greener by cutting down on air pollution. Traditionally, for decades, the cities streetcars have been supplied by Skoda, a Czech company, but in 2121, they are all made right here in the city at the GAZ factory and specially tailored to suit the local setting.