The Palimpsest of Peatlands

Palimpsest of Peatlands is a new template of a nature reserve located at the edge of the city. It is a transformation of an inaccessible swampland into a picturesque national park.
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Designer(s) : Elena Dobretsova

University : Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

Tutor(s) : Maike van Stiphout

Project Description

Despite once being one of the most abundant landscapes in the world, untouched swamps are rare today because they have been cultivated and used by humans for various productive purposes. From turf extraction and forestry to peat meadows and new infrastructure, the original diversity and beauty of swamps once depicted in countless fairy tales and paintings, has disappeared. Restoring peatlands has become a global task for many countries around the world.

Russia has an immense area of peat, however, the Soviet Union, once known for its extensive industrialisation and timber production, deforested and cultivated more than half of the countrys peatlands. As a result, the many ecological benefits of peatlands steadily declined: carbon sequestration, biodiversity and water storage, leading to an increased risk of forest fires. After the Second World War, the housing shortage led the largest cities such as St. Petersburg to expand further. Fortunately, small pieces of swamp area remain today, but they receive little attention due to their poor connectivity to the city and lack of interest from recreants. It was only when the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to explore their surroundings that there was a sudden rush of tourists who appreciated the traditional Russian landscape.

Palimpsest of  Peatlands is transforming the existing template for nature reserves in Russia into a new kind of national park on the outskirts of St Petersburg, where nature and people can co-exist in balance. A renaturation strategy is set into place to transform nature from centuries of exploitation. Parts of the cultivated swamp are made inaccessible to humans by flooding the drainage channels. The raster of ditches transforms slowly over 80 years as the nature of the swamp changes with the restoration of the water table. Different types of swamps are formed through this dynamic process, each with its unique biosphere.

The nature reserve will connect the outskirts of the city with the existing marshes, creating a variety of encounters ranging from a short hike to a weekend excursion where one can get lost and learn about the beauty and treasures of this cultural landscape. 

Terra Forma, a new map model is introduced to the site as an alternative map of the ‘living’ to show the multi-layered nature of the swamps, where all the life (both visible and not) can be shown as a system, like the layers of a palimpsest. St. Petersburg residents can watch nature evolve over the years and pass their appreciation of the cultural landscape to the next generation.

Three pioneer groups are introduced to engage people in the educational process as part of the new nature reserve model: the dachniki (weekend gardeners), wellness enthusiasts and an artist collective. These groups are most fitting to the cultural capital city, thus they will be the first inhabitants of the nature reserve, taking care of the swamp and providing the public with innovative approaches to integrating this landscape into Russian society and culture.

As the nature reserve transforms, the pioneers become indispensable to the renaturation process and create a cultural legacy. By developing such templates for nature reserves around the world, landscape architects will be able to design resilient yet flexible urban nature that not only becomes part of the culture but also brings it to the frontier of climate change.