October Island was considered by some “a little corner of heaven” in the Russian city of Kaliningrad.
Then a World Cup stadium was built on the island. Russia claims its World Cup stadiums meet the highest environmental standards, yet some have been built on top of ecologically sensitive areas.
The site of the 35,000-seat Kaliningrad Stadium, where England will play Belgium on June 28, was one of Kaliningrad’s last natural wetland sites, an island on the polluted Pregolya River.
Its soft clay protected waterbird colonies from the port city’s industrial development under first German, then Soviet, then Russian rule.
That changed in 2014 when more than a million tons of sand was spread on the site to stabilise it for the stadium construction.
Depending on your view, it is either a triumph of engineering or an environmental disaster.
Local ecologist Alexandra Korolyova said;“It was a typical delta island, with peat and a wetland reed-bed. It was a little corner of heaven in the city, where birds lived.
“Really, if Russia paid more attention to protecting the environment, it could potentially have become a reservation or national park within the city.”
She campaigned against the stadium as part of local environmental organisation Eco Defence because the island was “a filter” for the polluted river and “we’ve lost a lot and I don’t see what we’ve gained”.
The stadium, as with most of Russia’s venues, is scheduled to become a hub for commercial and residential developments after the World Cup, and that could threaten the remaining wild parts of the island.
But there was another option. At the design stage, then-sports minister Vitaly Mutko said the October Island wetland was too costly and challenging a site and pushed for a major rebuild of Kaliningrad’s existing Baltika Stadium.
Local officials successfully protested that the old stadium was a historic site, although efforts failed for a similarly historic stadium that was eventually rebuilt in the host city of Yekaterinburg.
The chairman of Russia’s state-run World Cup organising committee last week defended the choice of October Island.
“Everything was done in accordance with best practice,” Arkady Dvorkovich said. “This place, in my view, was more like wasteland than a place with very good nature.
“Theoretically, of course, you can call any swamp a very beautiful and environmentally clean place, but it’s not really correct in relation to the city infrastructure and the cities.”
The Kaliningrad region’s deputy premier Alexander Rolbinov dismissed environmental concerns.
“I don’t remember any opposition from ecologists,” he told the Associated Press, noting the key factor was the island’s transport links to the rest of the city. “We’ve managed this task to an excellent standard, A-grade.”
Other cities have environmental issues too.