In a story seemingly invented for future landscape architecture thesis projects, we find the city of Berezniki, Russia. “In the West,” the New York Times explains, “mines are usually located far from populous areas, to reduce the risks of sinkholes to homes and other buildings. But Berezniki, a city of 154,000 that began as a labor camp, was built directly over the mine—a legacy of the Soviet policy of placing camps within marching distance of work areas.”
With collapsing salt pillars and widespread erosion in the derelict mines below the city, Berezniki is thus “afflicted by sinkholes, yawning chasms hundreds of feet deep that can open at a moment’s notice.”
Incredibly, like a geologically-themed remake of The Truman Show, the city has responded with “24-hour video surveillance.”
On a screen in the command center late last year, one such hole appeared as a small dark spot in a snowy field in the predawn hours, immediately threatening to suck in a building, a road and a gas station. “I looked and said, ‘Wow, a hole is forming,'” recalled Olga V. Chekhova, an emergency services worker who monitors the video… While scientists have so far successfully predicted each sinkhole, the chasms can open with astonishing speed. On Dec. 4, as Ms. Chekhova watched the dark spot on her screen expand, witnesses began calling an emergency number for reporting sinkholes. They had heard a loud swooshing noise.
The town has decided to “fight the holes with science,” putting in place “a panoply of high-technology monitors. These include the video surveillance system, seismic sensors, regular surveys and satellite monitoring of the changes in altitude of roofs, sidewalks and streets.”
While the design possibilities of a town off-kilter with itself are clear, the Times article seems to undersell the incompetence of the city officials, mine engineers, and policy-makers who oversaw the creation of the underground facilities in the first place and who made the idiotic decision to locate a city overtop land that would subsequently be excavated. Having said that, the photo gallery accompanying the original article—unlike the more sensationalist images I’ve chosen here—focuses on the people who actually live there, families who watch as cracks appear in their ceilings and walls, looking around at furniture they can’t afford to move and the neighborhoods that seem on the verge of, in the article’s words, “being sucked into the earth.”
“In my view, we need to move the entire town,” one of the residents says, with what seems like obvious melancholy. He’s not reaching for a sketchbook or planning robotic future cities on stilts. “Every house has cracks.”