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The world's largest construction site

UKRAINE / Reconstruction costs for Ukraine are estimated by the World Bank at 411 billion dollars. Discussions about the design and reconstruction of Ukrainian cities after the war are in full swing. There are now five pilot projects for Kharkiv: on rivers, industry, cultural heritage, industrial buildings and a science park.


According to the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce, the country will soon become the 'world's largest construction site' with reconstruction costs estimated by the World Bank and Ukrainian authorities to 411 billion dollars.

Discussions about the planning, design and reconstruction of Ukrainian cities after the war are now in full swing. More and more national and international architecture firms and planning coalitions are emerging. The intention is clear: it is necessary to make plans before the war ends so that they can be implemented before the weapons go cold. The discourse is often linked to knowledge from the post-World War II reconstruction of cities such as Warsaw, Berlin, Rotterdam and Hiroshima. Or the experiences that entire nations had with the Marshall Plan.

The challenges are attracting attention from international development organizations and large companies in urban planning and architecture. The following is just one example of the scope: The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) alone had 50 advertised positions for Ukraine when this article was written in May. Other UN bodies are also taking the first steps towards action this summer.

But already in the spring of 2022 launched UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) a pilot project to promote urban planning in Kharkiv.

The cooperation on Kharkiv

The Norman Foster Foundation is keeping a close eye on Kharkiv, and star architect Sir N is himself directly involved. ARUP, the engineering giant, also participates with famous academics such as Edward Glaser og Ian Goldin as financial consultants. Since big names attract global attention, the Kharkiv planning can influence other planning processes in Ukrainian cities where international actors are involved. Effects can also be traced outside Ukraine.

The broad cooperation on Kharkiv started in April 2022, after Mayor Igor Terekhov requested international help to rebuild the city. The Norman Foster Foundation and others responded by accepting the challenge on a pro bono basis. They immediately started working with local Kharkiv experts. This happened in full transparency despite the fact that fighting was raging on the outskirts of the city. A few months later at the MIT City Science Summit in Boston, Norman Foster asked the audience: "How to combine the best of global knowledge with local awareness?". His immediate response was: "We have to combine the experiences." Something he illustrated with a screenshot from a Zoom meeting.

Although it seems that uniting international expertise with local solidarity is a great event, after one year the question becomes: How has this global-local 'fusion' gone, and what future does it promise for the city Kharkiv and the citizens? Does the process involve them and their knowledge? And if so, could what is planned for Kharkiv – based on the post-war situation – become a model for fairer cities elsewhere?

High-tech industry

Kharkiv is a city in eastern Ukraine with its northern outskirts just over 20 km away from the border with the Russian Federation. In 2021, Kharkiv was the second largest city in the country, with a population of approximately 1,43 million. It was home to several industrial giants, including those producing energy, agricultural and military equipment, aircraft parts and electronics. The city was and is a transport hub with extensive regional and international connections. It has developed an underground system for urban transport along three lines. Kharkiv is also an important national cultural and heritage center. Human capital flourished in Kharkiv long before Russia's invasion. It had, like Glaeser & Goldin points out (2022), "several important sources of talent", and huser a "remarkable concentration of top universities and research institutes – all with a focus on high-tech industry".

Artillery and air strikes

In the spring of 2022, Russian troops came very close to the city's borders and tried to storm it several times.. They had no significant success until they were finally pushed further north along the border and east along the Oskil River.

4000 buildings have been irreparably damaged.

However, the Kharkiv remains within the range of medium-range precision weapons. Since February 24, 2022 until today, the city has suffered Russias artillery and air strikes. It is estimated that over 4000 buildings have been irreparably damaged, including residential buildings, schools, universities, shopping centers and transport infrastructure. The damage is mainly in the northern part of the city, but it also extends to buildings in the centre, such as the central regional administration office on Frihetsplassen and the region's largest thermal power plant.

UN4Kharkiv Task Force

The international group has been working on Kharkiv's planning since spring 2022 despite the city's uncertain future. Norman Foster is guided by his Kharkiv Manifesto which conveys a strong message of solidarity with the people and places of Kharkiv – and the architect's commitment to bringing Ukrainian and international talent together. This is to create a "master plan for the city based on the region's needs". And to "deliver the city of the future now" and "plan for life in the decades ahead".

Foster + Partners, London

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) is also working in line with the ambitions of the Kharkiv master plan "to become a blueprint for the reconstruction of other Ukrainian cities and towns". UNECE has assembled a UN4Kharkiv Task Force to develop the master plan further. It includes several UN and international organizations as well as "the best professionals in urban architecture, planning and engineering". The group also includes the city authorities of Kharkiv and ten of its architects. It is headed by Kharkiv architect and architectural historian Dmytro Fomenko. Weekly web-based coordination meetings involving international and local architects are held.

Unfortunately, the group's structure or a full list of its members has never been published. The group's meetings are not public and are held over Zoom. Despite the fact that many international politicians, media and volunteers have visited the city, these international experts have never been there.

A master plan for Kharkiv

The group presented the first draft of a master plan for Kharkiv in February 2023 with a selection of slides and an oral introductory presentation. However, it did not constitute a comprehensive report, nor was it followed up officially. The guidelines in the presented master plan concern five pilot projects with different, separate levels and themes: rivers, industry, cultural heritage, reconstruction and development of industrial buildings and a brand new science park.

The cultural heritage project aims to "create a new architectural landmark in the city centre". It was commissioned by Norman Foster himself and is intended to show respect for the historic buildings in the city center while at the same time "humanizing the surrounding public spaces". The river project will concentrate on creating an "ecological, pedestrian and cycle connection" across the six-kilometre promenade between the two major rivers, and promote further development of a sustainabilityig network for transport. The industrial project aims to transform coal-fired power plants into the production of clean energy and food. The housing pilot will concentrate on rebuilding the existing prefabricated ones block of flatsone for "safe, modern and energy-efficient homes". Finally, the most ambitious pilot of the five is the science park – Science Neighbourhood. It aims to create an area for high technology, research and start-ups while revitalizing the industrial sector in Kharkiv. For this last pilot is Norman The Foster# group committed to creating a comprehensive set of regulations for the city's design. This also includes the allocation of plots to "architects, future investors, institutions and developers".

The Norman Foster Foundation

The presentation also contained a more extensive written agreement that the plan will be realised. But my two letters which were addressed to The Norman Foster Foundation and another one UNECE who asked to be given the plan for student research purposes, has not been answered.

So far, the project continues to work mainly with Kharkiv architects and local government officials. It reports only limited results to the public. With an independent structure, there is no incentive to engage with ordinary citizens, pressure groups or other stakeholders. According to journalist Dmytro Kuzubov, worried residents of Kharkiv are left with "the possibility of divination in coffee grounds" as the only way to understand what the process will entail. Despite the fact that there is evidence that there is a more comprehensive written agreement on the Norman Foster Foundation plan, as mentioned, no response is received either from the foundation or from UNECE to requests for a copy.

The process of developing Kharkiv's master plan raises questions about the plan's future legitimacy. Especially because the visibility and physical presence of those who lend a helping hand is decisive for whether this can be described as solidarity. As the anthropologist Christina Schwenkel (2020) reflects in her extensive research on the German Democratic Republic (GDR) solidaritymindset in the reconstruction of the city of Vinh in Vietnam in the 1970s and 80s: The important thing was the visibility of cargo ships that brought materials and machines together with visits from GDR professionals.

When dealing with similar processes of joint international architecture and urban planning, suggests Tom Avermaet (2012) to see them as a 'contact zone' where different professional cultures meet, but often in highly asymmetrical ways. When the parties establish 'contact zones', people who work together can gain new perspectives by interacting with people from different cultures.

Kharkiv's master plan

Given the circumstances, which I have described here, my question becomes: Are there contact zones within the initiative with Kharkiv's master plan? If so, how informed and engaged are the citizens of Kharkiv, and what do they think about the form that the plan is taking? According to my research, it seems we simply don't know. The implication for the current planning process is that it jeopardizes the future legitimacy of the master plan. How can solidarity be created if the actual process of plan development remains hidden from the people who will live with the results far into the future? In addition, is it reasonable and practical for international actors to work remotely from the local context, if a real collaborative process is the goal?

I am not arguing that planning of this kind should be avoided or not done at all – simply because it does not conform to the best practices of previous international development efforts. On the contrary, I believe that we should still look positively at what has been the Kharkiv initiative so far. At the same time, we must recognize the need for critical reflections along the way. We should learn from the many ethical dilemmas we have encountered so far. Such difficult trade-offs are always context-specific and should not prevent us from pursuing best practice and the best historical reference points at all times.

Radical hope

Let me close with the excellent research recently completed by Joanna Kusiak og Ammar Azzouz (2023). They have compared post-war architecture, urban design and planning approaches in Poland and Syria. They use the concept of 'radical hope' as an explanation of what creates progress. Although in many cases implementation does not seem possible, or can only happen in an uncertain and somewhat distant future. 'Radical hope' means, among other things, that tough ethical decisions must be made even under complicated circumstances with many difficult questions for planners, architects and urban designers. As Kusiak and Azzouz ask us: "Doesn't the question 'what must be done' always also ask 'on what terms'?" What are the priorities, and which lines cannot be crossed? Who can you accept help from, and what types of assistance can do more harm than good? How can the needs of the displaced be balanced with the needs of those who have remained despite the lack of security? How can the need for historical justice be recognized without creating new types of harm?

From whom can one accept help, and what types of assistance can do more harm than good?

These are questions we must also address with regard to Kharkiv's work masterplanone. Whether we ask inside or outside the project group, the inhabitants of the war-torn city have a personal connection to and empathy for it. In the current situation, neglecting the interests of many local groups seems to be a natural result of how the planning process for Kharkiv was structured in the first place. If the development of the master plan is to succeed in being legitimate and helping to "rebuild" a fairer Kharkiv, the process should be radically reshaped. That is, it must reflect , practice and give decision-making power to the local community.


Ukrainian Oleksandr Pedosenko (1984–) is currently taking a master's degree in regional and urban planning at the London School of Economics.

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