Penn students present work to help rebuild Ukrainian city

With the two-year anniversary of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine looming, city planners begin to strategize solutions to rebuild, sustainably.

People stand around a table.
As the two-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine looms, city planners consider reconstruction efforts. This fall, a team of graduate students from the Weitzman School of Design developed a plan to rebuild parts of Bucha, a small city north west of Kyiv. They recently presented their work to members of the U.S. Department of State and the Ukrainian ambassador in Washington, D.C. (Image: Courtesy Eric Sucar)

Feb. 24 marks the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The small Ukrainian city of Bucha, located about 19 miles from Kyiv, serves as a stark reminder of the war’s early impacts; in the spring of 2022, Bucha was among the first cities to confront the horrors of the invasion. Amidst the ongoing conflict, efforts to rebuild and honor the memories of those lost in places like Bucha have already begun. 

This fall a team of graduate students in the Weitzman School of Design’s Master in City Planning program worked on a project envisioning a way forward for Bucha’s reconstruction efforts. This initiative was part of a collaboration with the U.S. Department of State operating under the Diplomacy Lab.

The course was led by Eugenie Birch, the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research & Education and David Gouverneur, associate professor of practice in landscape architecture and city and regional planning. The initiative, also supported by the Penn Institute for Urban Research, culminated in a January presentation of the students’ work to the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States and to representatives from the State Department in Washington, D.C.

The students’ approach, Birch says, was innovative and empathetic, leveraging social media and other digital platforms to gather real-time insights into Bucha’s urban life and its residents’ aspirations. Their project, Green Network Bucha, Birch says, proposes a way to connect the city’s local and regional assets—natural, urban, and cultural—via pedestrian and bike paths to reclaim the city’s heritage, while embracing a sustainable future.

“This has been the most extraordinary experience for the students and us,” Birch says. “They’ve done more work than you could believe a single class that met once a week for 14 weeks can do.”

The project offered the students a unique opportunity to apply their skills in a real-world context, she says. Bucha is still enveloped in uncertainty, and it also presented a formidable challenge due to the scarcity of direct information from the region, Birch says.

Students from Penn and Eugenie Birch stand with members of the US Department of State and the Ukrainian Ambassador.
Weitzman students at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C. with Oksana Markarova (Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States), Dorothy McAuliffe (U.S. Special Representative for Global Partnerships, Department of State), John Thompson (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Department of State) and Eugenie Birch (co-director, Penn IUR). (Image: Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State)

Speaking in Washington, student Laura Frances says, “As students, we often hear that our work isn’t real, and that it’s theoretical. But here we put in a lot of time and effort to try to understand the situation on the ground as much as we could from Philadelphia.”

Guidance from local contacts, including local liaison Andrew Melnyk, recommended by the president of the Bucha City Council, provided a crucial perspective that shaped the students’ approach to planning for Bucha’s future in a manner that is both environmentally sustainable and equitable, Birch says. 

Their planning followed three key phases expanding outward to neighboring locales with the first being concentrated in Bucha proper; the second was aimed at assets such as the Antonov Cargo airport or the Irpin lakes; and the third would extend to transit lines for the tram to Kyiv and beyond. Throughout development the students noted that they needed to stay up to date with efforts underway to reconstruct Bucha and needed to ensure their plans didn’t duplicate any efforts.

“With all of the destruction, which was surprising for us to see, what was equally surprising was the incredible amount of progress that’s already been done in terms of reconstruction of the streets,” Frances says. “We were so impressed and wanted to make sure that what we offer is hopefully not redundant to the incredible work that’s already been done but can thoughtfully build upon it, so we take a simplified construction approach as we look to build to scale for the humans that are in in Bucha and visit Bucha.”

In explaining the methodology behind the green network, Jose Fernandez, a second-year student in the master’s program, hearkens back to the constraints the ongoing war imposed in gathering the vital information needed for a rebuild heavily relied on limited spatial and statistical data. 

“Data privacy, language, and other contextual barriers motivated us to turn to both traditional methods using aerial imagery and printing out a large map of Bucha, and we also embraced newer planning methods,” he says. “These entailed user-generated data, which is published information that an unpaid contributor provides to a website.” 

Fernandez says they organized their user-generated data into categories such as recreation and rentals, looking for information on sites like AirBnB to see where people are staying in Bucha. He said they also looked at local input on sites like Facebook and Instagram, which provided data on significant points of gathering while real estate sites like Google Maps and Flickr were a way to virtually see and analyze potential routes. Spatial data helped the team identify current and future land use and development.

Jose Fernandez, Laura Frances, Alex Nelms, and Leo Wagner.
Jose Fernandez (top left), Laura Frances (top right), Alex Nelms (bottom left), and Leo Wagner (bottom right) spoke at the event. (Images: Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State)

The team then broke down the data into six layers spanning from the regional context of Bucha, Fernandez says. They looked at the role Bucha plays as a center for logistics and woodworking in Ukraine. “Is it a car-dependent city, or are people using local mobility, such as buses and rail? Information like this is useful in identifying how these assets would interact with a trail network.” 

In spite of the heavy damage, the theme of the project was recovery, Fernandez says. “We wanted to create a network that didn’t hide from the context of war but rather was an active participant in the recovery and grieving process of Bucha,” he said. 

Alexander Nelms, a December graduate of the Urban Spatial Analytics Program and City Planning Program at Weizman and a research assistant at Wharton Real Estate, elaborated on the principle of using nature to heal as he described NatureRx, a philosophy that enables rebuilding through recreation. He discussed how the team built their plan upon the idea of recreation and using natural assets as a guide in shaping the recovery effort exploring how people were currently using lakes and going off-road biking.

The students proposed a network of green infrastructure, including trails and bicycle paths knitting various parts of Bucha together and tapping into features like the national parks and the Bucha River to map routes. “We wanted to make sure that our green path was interconnected with the larger natural system,” Nelms says. 

Leo Wagner, a graduate student in city planning, said that their plans also seek to link the green network to the Bucha Techno Garden, a future-forward large-scale project in development that will be a hub for innovative technology, science, and industry, while also acknowledging the importance of creating a connection to the past. 

“Ensuring that the green network responds to and is respectful of Bucha’s storied past is crucial,” Wagner says. “We believe, however, that how this is done is best left in the hands of the community. We hope that the green network can act as a conduit connecting future sites of memorialization with existing social and cultural icons of the city to act as a catalyst for positive economic development.”

Jared Brey contributed to this story.