The Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv located in a park on the bank of the Dnieper River.

Photo: Sam Holeran

Last summer, Sam Holleran, past Participatory Design Fellow of the Design Trust's World's Park project, visited Ukraine with support from the United States Embassy and Izolyatsia, a platform for cultural initiatives based in Kyiv.

During his three-week stay to study urban parks in Urkrainian cities, Mr. Holleran gave two public lectures in Kyiv and Kharkiv, focusing on his participatory design and public art projects in parks. Mr. Holleran is an artist, writer, and educator working at the intersection of visual art, graphic design, and civic engagement. Below is his observational account of the public life in the two cities in the midst of changing socio-political dialogue.

These days Ukraine is not on the tourist map. A friend from Kyiv lamented at the fact that just before the conflict, which started in 2014, the capital was becoming known to Western European tourists who crowded around its central squares with “digital cameras and Hermes scarves.” This year, The Economist’s Global Liveability Index, ranked the city a humiliating 118 (out of 140). 

But this designation also shows a disconnect between the measurements of livability for a world city and the lived experience of locals. By most conventional standards Kyiv is not doing great—growth is relatively flat and the Donbas conflict smolders on—but the city’s comparative calm and grassroots cultural spaces have made for a budding art and cultural scene. 

During my trip I met with a variety of artists, architects, and urbanists in both Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city known for its university and constructivist skyscraper complex. I came to the country to develop a project that investigates park spaces and public life, with a particular focus on art and monuments in parks. This project, which is still in progress, builds on my interest in park planning. I was curious to see how urban park spaces function in an entirely different context.

I started to research and work in parks as a staff member at the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), where I helped develop a visual tool for park advocates. I continued this work during my time as a fellow with Design Trust, where I helped set up The World’s Park Community Design School in Queens. Here I found that conversations about park use and amenities serve as a litmus test for civic health and stability. 

In the context of the World’s Park project, the statuaries and structures left over from the 1964-65 World’s Fair play a big role in the perception of the space and preservation campaigns. In Kyiv, the struggle to remake public spaces is even more fraught—a “decommunization” process, aimed at dismantling the legacies of the communist state, has jumped into overdrive threatening historic mosaics, sculptures, and buildings that can in any way be associated with the country’s 70 odd years as a Soviet republic. 

During my visit at the end of a warm summer, the city’s green spaces were packed with strolling couples, selfie-takers (of which there are many), ice cream eaters, and the Lycra-clad sport cyclists who seem to exist everywhere (often with GoPros mounted to their helmets). The city might be perceived as drab or run-down by outsiders, but it has a lot of high-quality green spaces (unfortunately, many of the city’s post-socialist planning schemes have been car-based, and newly expanded roadways have disconnected some green spaces). 

Since much of Kyiv’s green infrastructure is of Soviet vintage, nearly every park space has a contested feature in it. The most dramatic might be the People's Friendship Arch, a massive structure from 1982 set on the steep bank of the Dnieper River. The Ukrainian government has plans to dismantle the arch as part of its decommunization process, but it has yet to do so. When the city hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2017, the arch was painted in rainbow colors as a symbol of the city’s threatened Pride Parade, enraging right-wing nationalists and religious leaders. It has since been returned to a somber grey. 

One of the most celebrated new parks in Kyiv is Landscape Alley, a hillside overlook with over a dozen sculptures along a well-trafficked path (also referred to as “Fashion Park” as most sculptures were placed there in conjunction with the 2011 Ukrainian Fashion Week). The creation of the park was, in part, meant to stop development on the site. 

The idea was that, if residents came to see the space as a public amenity and a place for strolls and social gatherings they would be more likely to protect it from the incursions of developers. The thought of a park space being converted to condos overnight is more than just hypothetical in a country where land titles are weak and civically held goods have been flagged for private profit. 

While Fashion Park has become a mecca for Instagramable public art projects (one can see several thousand photos of people posing inside a giant tiled cat's mouth from the park’s Alice in Wonderland section), some people I spoke with in the city’s art community decried the populism of the works, and the process by which they ended up in public space. 

One public artist noted that many sculptures are “donated” by the country’s newly-minted super rich, and that the city has little choice but to accept and display them. He was particularly aggrieved by new sculptures with somewhat schlocky subject matter (giant hearts, couples embracing, and wild animals). These sculptures expose a taste culturally divided between a new elite and a Western-oriented creative sector with limited say in city affairs. 

Dispute over park space and statuary in Kyiv show the continued importance of public space as a grounds for civic action. The city offers a different perspective on what Europe is and can be viewed as a gateway to the post-Soviet world. Kyiv is in need of new, fresh initiatives to improve recreation spaces, but the lingering controversies over memorialization and statuary in the built environment must be addressed with a focus on inclusivity and historical interpretation.