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The New Directions Initiative
Cities and Rivers Workshop


The Neva River, St. Petersburg, Russia

An interdisciplinary study of four sites on the river, funded by a grant from New Directions in the Earth Sciences and Humanities

Rachel May, Maria Ignatieva, and Nikolai Rolley

The Neva River and the Russian city of St. Petersburg define one another in myriad ways. Known variously as “the Venice of the North” or “the city on the Neva,” Petersburg is a collection of islands, its landscape dominated by granite embankments and iron and stone bridges that span the broad river and its many canals. As the imperial capital, the city is enormously important in Russian cultural history, especially in Russian literature, which has elevated the river to the status of cultural icon. The embankments and canals, in turn, shape the river and modify its ecology, inhibiting normal riparian processes, ensuring regular flooding, and, indeed, creating a well-defined river out of what was once a swampy delta.

The water quality and hydrology of the Neva are the subjects of voluminous scientific research, spurred on by the twin interests of flood prevention and improvement of the city’s drinking water supply. There is also no shortage of humanistic studies of the Neva and its significance in Russian poetry, prose, art, and architecture. We wish to combine these perspectives into a more integrated urban ecological study of the river, one that would consider the mutual influence of history and hydrology, aesthetics and ecology. What does the river’s iconic status mean for those who seek to reverse the human impact on the river? Is the myth of the river independent of the fact of the river – its water, its flow, its microorganisms, vegetation, pollutants? Or does its romantic aura interfere with a coolheaded appraisal of its condition and limit possible means of redress? Conversely, does the Neva’s cultural value lend urgency and weight to environmentalists’ efforts to protect the river’s ecology?

Urban ecologists have come to recognize the importance of economic and social factors in structuring urban ecosystems. We would like to stretch the definition of urban ecology further and argue that cultural factors like history and the arts also can play a crucial role in defining the quality, past, present and future, of an urban river. This being a fundamentally interdisciplinary project, we would also like to invite input from visitors to this web site, who bring their own perspectives and expertise to the questions we are trying to address.

River and City
1. Bronze Horseman
2. Summer Garden
3. Ust-Izhora
4. Shlisselburg