Pact partner CHESNO restores beauty and pride in Kyiv through civic actionChristopher Russell · October 12, 2020
While on a leisurely stroll down Independence Avenue in Washington, DC, during a visit to the United States, Kyiv native Vita Dumanska took in the sights and sounds of the nation’s capital.
Dumanska reveled in the grandeur of the architecture. The ornate and pristine white monuments and memorials. The many museums and galleries preserving American culture and history. Even the federal buildings, housing the most important institutions and agencies, held their own unique charm.
It was then that Dumanska observed that the buildings tended to share one key characteristic—the absence of commercial advertisements and signage. The American treasures basked in their glory, symbols of democratic tradition, struggle, sacrifice and freedom. They were priceless. Yet they were not commercialized.
A leader of the Ukrainian civil society organization CHESNO, Dumanska thought, if the landmarks of one capital are preserved, why should the history of another capital city, Kyiv, not also be preserved?
With this inspiration in mind, aiming to increase citizen awareness of and engagement in civic activities, Dumanska got to work.
CHESNO is a partner in the ENGAGE project. Funded by USAID and implemented by Pact, ENGAGE is working to advance democratic reforms across Ukraine, build demand for fundamental European values, and forge a robust civil society. In addition to providing them funding to carry out their work, ENGAGE helps strengthen the capacity of Ukrainian civil society organizations like CHESNO through training, mentorship, coalition building and more. A key focus of ENGAGE’s work has been helping civil society organizations to boost civic participation and engagement among Ukraine’s 40 million-plus citizens.
After Dumanska returned to Ukraine, she and the CHESNO team carefully studied the dated advertisements and billboards of various businesses, particularly those in the heart and soul of Kyiv—Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square. After cross-checking public registration filings, the CHESNO team discovered that the commercial advertisements adjoined to the square’s historical buildings were not only eyesores, they were illegal.
Spanning nearly 100 square meters and easily visible on Google Maps, an outmoded “Kyivmiskbud” was lighting up the sky, overwhelming the important historical buildings in its backdrop.
After further research, CHESNO revealed that the sign was both unauthorized and untaxed; the business that had erected the billboard had not paid rental fees for their advertisement in nearly ten years, totaling an estimated $18,000 per year in lost revenue.
Encouraged by its findings, CHESNO continued its research and soon came to realize that the “Kyivmiskbud” sign was the tip of the iceberg. The team took its work to other locations throughout Kyiv.
Using an electronic database of signs, CHESNO has estimated that more than 80 percent of the signs across the capital are illegal. As the USAID/ENGAGE partner identified more and more commercial signage, the more they realized that illegal signage was costing the city a small fortune, perhaps $180,000 per year. CHESNO’s analysis details that the problem has persisted, in part, because such signage is erected by public officials who have personal or business interests in displaying the massive billboards.
Undeterred by politics and emboldened by civic action, CHESNO sought to ensure that the public interest would prevail. “I realized that if someone was going to kickstart this case, it was going to be us,” Dumanska recounts. “We shouldn’t wait for ‘decisions from the top’ or complain how painful it is for us to look at the Kyiv city center every day as we pass views littered with ads.”
CHESNO made efforts to hold local officials—and businesses—accountable. After amassing a collection of data, the civil society organization contacted the Kyiv City Administration Advertising Directorate to report its findings.
The directorate was swift to validate CHESNO’s research. It agreed that the illegal signs had to be to removed. Authorities ruled that CHESNO’s findings indicated that no permission had been granted for the placement of various advertisements.
Not long after, the “Kyivmiskbud” billboard, an oversized McDonald's arch masking architectural decor, and many others like it were dismantled. As a result, the beauty of Maidan’s neoclassical pillars, balconies, balusters and facades are on full display, and with them, the dignity in the city’s symbolic center of freedom.
The effort to remove illegal signage and to restore beauty across Kyiv and Ukraine is a work in progress. But thanks to CHESNO, citizens now know that their voice can be heard. Moving forward, CHESNO.Kyiv, the organization’s regional division, will channel its experience in advocating for change across regions of Ukraine as well, including seven cities, to protect green spaces and historical locations and to stand up to illegal construction.
Through CHESNO’s continued efforts, illegal signage around the city and country will be dismantled. It is a win for locals, for the city of Kyiv and for civic participation.