Category Archives: Public Space

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi, Georgia — A globalizing metropolis in a turbulent region

By Joseph Salukvadze and  Oleg Golubchikov

Published in Cities

Volume 52, March 2016, Pages 39-54

ABSTRACT

Tbilisi, a city of over a million, is the national capital of Georgia. Although little explored in urban studies, the city epitomizes a fascinating assemblage of processes that can illuminate the interplay of geopolitics, political choices, globalization discourses, histories, and urban contestations in shaping urban transformations. Tbilisi’s strategic location in the South Caucasus, at the juncture of major historical empires and religions in Eurasia, has ensured its turbulent history and a polyphony of cultural influences. Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi found itself as the pivot of Georgian nation-building. Transition to a market economy also exposed the city to economic hardship, ethnical homogenization, and the informalization of the urban environment. The economic recovery since the early 2000s has activated urban regeneration. Georgia’s government has recently promoted flagship urban development projects in pursuit of making Tbilisi as a modern globalizing metropolis. This has brought contradictions, such as undermining the city’s heritage, contributing to socio-spatial polarization, and deteriorating the city’s public spaces. The elitist processes of decision-making and a lack of a consistent urban policy and planning regimes are argued to be among major impediments for a more sustainable development of this city.

Keywords

Post-socialist city
Post-Soviet city
Transition
Urban planning
Urban governance
Tbilisi

1. Introduction

Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a post-Soviet country in the South Caucasus.1 The 2014 census estimated its population at 1.118 million (Geostat, 2015).2 Tbilisi is not only the largest city in Georgia, but is also one of the key socio-economic hubs in the Caucasus as a whole. The city presently accommodates 30% of Georgia’s population, but produces almost a half of Georgia’s GDP and, furthermore, contributes 60–75% to the country’s key statistics in entrepreneurial and construction activities (Geostat, 2014a; Geostat, 2014b).

‘Tbilisi… is like a Janus: one face towards Asia, and the other Europe’, wrote the Zakavkazskiy Vestnik newspaper in 1847 (Vardosanidze, 2000). Such hybridity remains a hallmark of the city located at the conjunction of the European and Asian continents, different cultures and geopolitical realms.

Tbilisi rose to its prominence through the centuries of a turbulent history. Its location on the edge of ancient and modern empires (Persian, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian) and on major trading routes, rendered the city geopolitically and economically significant — if only guaranteeing a continuous struggle for survival. The historical dynamism has left its marks on the social and cultural hybridity of the city. Tbilisi traditionally featured a cosmopolitan and multicultural character, as well as the tolerance of ethnical and religious differences (Frederiksen, 2012). Its urban forms and spatial fabric similarly inherited a peculiar mix of different cultural layers, superposed on the city’s rather peculiar topography.

The modern Tbilisi could have recreated itself through this indigenous tradition of distinctiveness, polyphony and tolerance. Becoming the capital of a newly independent Georgian state in 1991, the city, however, found itself entangled in the turbulent economic and political processes. The installation of a market economy coupled with an economic freefall in the 1990s, the rise of nationalism and the territorial disintegration of Georgia, as well as its government’s entanglements in the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the NATO powers have all produced a myriad of previously untested challenges — which have also left their marks on the city’s social and physical change.

As a globalizing city in a small nation in an economically peripheral and yet geopolitically strategic region, the case of Tbilisi can make an important contribution to urban studies, such as with respect to the meaning-making of the trajectories of “ordinary” non-Western cities in global urbanism (Robinson, 2006), to comparative and conceptual post-socialist urban studies (e.g. Borén & Gentile, 2007; Golubchikov, Badyina, & Makhrova, 2014; Sjöberg, 2014; Sýkora & Bouzarovski, 2012; Wiest, 2012), to a better understanding of variegated pathways of transition and neoliberalism (Brenner, Peck, & Theodore, 2010; Pickles & Smith, 1998), or even to the critical urban pedagogy of transition (Golubchikov, 2015). However, despite attention to Georgia from the disciplines such as international political studies, there is still a lacuna of internationally circulated knowledge of urban change in Tbilisi (although see Van Assche, Salukvadze, & Shavisvili, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). With this contribution, we intend to further unlock Tbilisi for urban studies by providing an overview of its urban trajectories as a basis for hopefully further localized and comparative investigations. By doing so, the paper outlines some of the essential, even if controversial, processes, problems and outcomes of the city’s convoluted past and present.

The paper is structured as follows. We start with outlining the location, demographic and physical conditions of Tbilisi and then proceed with its main historical development phases — from the medieval period to the Russian Empire and Soviet eras and to the more recent period of post-socialist transition. We then consider the establishment of the real estate markets and recent urban policies and transformations in the built environment, and pay particular attention to the current urban development initiatives and associated political, planning and governance issues and concerns.

2. Physical, administrative and demographic settings

Tbilisi is located 120 km south of the Great Caucasus Mountains, on the Kura River (Mtkvari in Georgian). It shares the latitude of cities such as Rome or Barcelona, similarly enjoying a mild climate. The city has a complex topography, shaped like a large amphitheater surrounded by mountains on three sides. These physical conditions, once favorable for controlling the valleys, today represent a physical obstacle for urban growth. However, the climate, topography, and hydrography have also granted Tbilisi a unique cityscape, attractive panoramas, and peculiar architecture featuring laced wooden balconies and internal patios, traditionally used as places for socialization (Fig. 1).

Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 1. Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The present-day Tbilisi has a special status of the capital of Georgia. Internally its territory is divided into six administrative districts, with five of them being further subdivided into Ubani — 30 in total. These spread on the territory of 504 km2. However, the city topography circumscribes an island-like geography, with a few densely built-up areas surrounded by undeveloped land: more than half of the city’s incorporated territory is not built-up. The mountainous environment particularly limits new development on the right bank of the Kura River; at the same time, the built-up area on the left bank of the Kura stretches for 40 km.

Tbilisi’s present spatial structure is a product of a long historical process and expansion (Fig. 2). However, the city’s territorial expansion mostly occurred during the Soviet era: between 1921 and 1991 Tbilisi expanded six times in terms of population (Fig. 3) and ten times in terms of incorporated territory. Tbilisi’s Master Plan (Fig. 22) illustrates the city’s resultant layout, including built-up areas squeezed between mountainous areas. The city expansion has recently accelerated even further, aggravating the problems of the integrity and connectivity of the city.

The administrative expansions of Tbilisi

Fig. 2. The administrative expansions of Tbilisi. Source: Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2013.

The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011

Fig. 3. The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011. Source: General Population Censuses; * Estimates.

After gaining the independence, Tbilisi experienced a dramatic 15% population reduction. This was due to a mass outflow of population, mostly to Russia, coupled with a very low natural growth to compensate the out-migration (Meladze, 2013; Salukvadze & Meladze, 2014). However, the population growth reversed to positive in the 2000s, fuelled by migrants from rural Georgia. The city has consequently undergone ‘Georgianization’ — the acceleration of even a longer-term trend of the replacement of its once multinational composition by ethnic Georgians, due to a disproportional outmigration of Russians and Armenians (Fig. 4). Recent demographic trends have also included: aging population; a smaller family size; decreased levels of marriages and increased divorces. Coupled with lifestyle change, these factors have amplified demands for housing and developable land.

Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi

Fig. 4. Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi. Source: UN HABITAT, 2013:208.

3. From a medieval capital to an imperial powerhouse

Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century AD, although archeological findings reveal even earlier settlements. Emerged as a stronghold in the Kura valley, in the vicinity of the ancient Eastern Georgian capital and a religious center of the Orthodox Christianity — Mtskheta, Tbilisi eventually became a strategic settlement for controlling the lowlands between the Greater and Minor Caucasus ranges and major trade routes. In the 6th century AD, Tbilisi was made the capital of the Eastern Georgian kingdom Iberia. Since then it has maintained its status of the chief city of either Eastern Georgia or a united Georgian Kingdom.

The strategic location of Tbilisi between Europe and Asia made it vulnerable in the context of the rivalries between the main powers in the region, including Persia, Byzantium, Arabia, Mongols, and Ottomans (Lang, 1966). At the dusk of the Middle Ages, Georgia, the only Christian enclave retaining its statehood in the otherwise Muslim region found itself squeezed between hostile powers — Persian and Ottoman Empires, and North Caucasian tribes. Due to constant wars, Tbilisi shrank in population and economically. This required seeking protection from the growing Russian Empire in the north, sharing the Christian Orthodox religion, with whom Irakli II signed a treaty in 1783. This did not avert, however, a devastating Persian invasion in 1795. The Russian Army eventually liberated the Kingdom, but this cost the abolishment of the Georgian independent kingdom altogether in 1801. At the time of the incorporation in the Russian Empire, Tbilisi had only 15,000 survivors (Lang, 1957).

The consequent rebuilding of the city under the Russian rule marked the start of a post-medieval era in Tbilisi’s development. Known as Tiflis in the Russian Empire (like even today in some languages), the city retained its primacy and started serving as an important administrative center of the empire; from 1844 Tbilisi became a seat of the Emperor’s representative (Governor) in the Caucasus (Namestnik Imperatora na Kavkaze). The political importance of the city also boosted as the authorities regarded the city as a strategic military stronghold for protecting the south-western borders of the empire, as well as for monitoring and controlling political processes in the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Tbilisi had retained the status of the largest trade center and the most populous city of the region until the oil boom made Baku a larger city in the second half of the 20th century.

Tbilisi, hitherto a compact settlement with a medieval social organization and an irregular oriental-style layout, started a transformation towards ‘European-style’ patterns. Through an active city-building process, it gained the feature characteristic for a colonial ‘dual city’ with oriental-type, irregular, topographically diverse and culturally mixed Old Town, and newly-built European-style areas, established in accordance with a regular plan on relatively plain terrains (e.g. Sololaki). This changed the main axis of territorial development from the Kura River to the new wide avenues, which were named after the Governors Golovin and the Grand Duke Michael Romanov (today named after, respectively, Rustaveli and David Agmashenebeli) — one stretching westwards from the Old Town and the other located on the left bank of the river. The new districts were socially more homogeneous, residing the emerging strata of bureaucrats, affluent entrepreneurs, and Georgian aristocracy.

The appearance of the city and its internal structure and centrality changed dramatically (Fig. 5). The old town, rebuilt from ruins, with its labyrinthine of courtyards and balconies, contrasted with the new districts of neo-classical architecture (Fig. 6) (Suny, 1994; Rhinelander, 1972). The involvement of European architects brought in Western influences: neo-renaissance, neo-baroque, Italian Gothic and Art Nouveau (Ziegler, 2006; Baulig, Mania, Mildenberger, & Ziegler, 2004). Among newly introduced components were administrative buildings (e.g. the City Hall, currently the City Council) and palaces (e.g. the Governor’s palace, currently the Youth Palace), usually located in commanding heights and conspicuous locations, as well as squares connected by boulevards (e.g. on modern day’s Rustaveli Avenue), and parks (e.g. the Alexander Park, currently the 9th of April Park). A botanic garden, an opera, theaters, museums and schools also emerged in the city over 19th and the early 20th century.

A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov)

Fig. 5. A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov).

The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century

Fig. 6. The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century. Source: http://church.ucoz.com/photo/

Tbilisi of that era became a visiting venue or a place of residence for many prominent people. Writers, intellectuals, and artists who then visited or lived in Tbilisi, included, among others, Russians Alexander Griboyedov, Alexander Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Mikhail Lermontov, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Feodor Chaliapin, French Alexandre Dumas the father, Norwegian Knut Hamsun, German Arthur Leist and Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt, British diplomat Sir Oliver Wardrop, German businessmen the Siemens brothers, Armenian oil magnate and financier Alexander Mantashev, German architect Otto Simonson.

By the late 19th century, Tbilisi had grown as a major trade, culture and manufacturing center of the Russian Empire. The railroad (built in 1872) and new roads were built to connect Tbilisi with other major cities of Russia’s Transcaucasia – Batumi, Poti, Baku – and other parts of the empire. The abolition of serfdom in Russia and the growth of capitalist manufacturing and trade attracted many rural residents, mostly of Georgian origin, to Tbilisi. Some informal settlements emerged accommodating the growing in-migrant population turned in the proletariat on the slopes adjacent to the newly built railway (e.g. Nakhalovka).

The social composition of the population also diversified across ethnicities and confessions (Suny, 2009). Several neighborhoods (e.g. Avlabari on the left bank) had a strong Armenian flavor; some others were Muslim (mostly Azeri, but also Kurdish, Persian — e.g. Abanoebisurani: ‘a neighborhood of baths’), Jewish (e.g. Bread Square in the Old Town) and even German (e.g. Alexanderdorf or ‘German Colony’ built from the 1840s). This composition made the city’s life cosmopolitan and multicultural: Tbilisi developed a distinct urban culture that transcended ethnic origins (Gachechiladze, 1990).

The transformation of the city also touched upon the way of life of Tbilissians. For example, the traditional meeting places such as bazaars, baths (especially the sulfur baths in the Old Town), and feasting places (e.g. Ortachala gardens) were succeeded by new gathering places, such as the opera, literary salons, and even the Georgian national drama theater (opened in 1850, then closed in 1855 and reopened in 1879).

The Georgian national theater and Georgian newspapers played a significant role in raising a national liberation spirit and consolidation of national identities. Additionally, the new education system – schools, gymnasiums and seminaries – brought in not only literacy but also anti-Tsarist attitudes, which eventually lead to spreading socialist, nationalist and liberal ideologies, the formation of political parties and their struggle for workers’ rights, on the one hand, and anti-imperialist values, on the other hand. Notably, Joseph Stalin (born in the neighboring town of Gori with the birth surname Jughashvili) was converted Marxist while studying at the Tiflis Seminary at the turn of the century; Tbilisi effectively became the site of early revolutionary activities for the later most powerful Soviet leader.

4. Soviet Tbilisi: urban growth and industrialization

In the period preceding and following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Tbilisi was in the center of political struggles over the future of the nation. After the February Revolution of 1917 in St. Petersburg, the Russian Provisional Government installed the Special Transcaucasian Committee (Osobyy Zakavkazskiy Komitet) to govern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tbilisi took the function of the de-facto seat of the Committee. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, on 24 February 1918, the Transcaucasian Commissariat proclaimed the establishment of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic with the capital in Tbilisi. The new political entity was short-lived as its members showed divergent geopolitical preferences — Georgians’ orientation was perceived to be pro-German, Armenians’ — pro-British, whiles Azeris’ — pro-Ottoman. As a consequence, the federation fell apart, following the proclamation of an independent Georgian Democratic Republic on 26 May 1918 and the declarations of independence in the other two republics within two days.

During a brief period of independence of 1918–1921, Tbilisi became a seat of important nation-building projects, including Tbilisi State University, the first university in the Caucasus.

In 1921, the Bolsheviks finally gained control over Georgia and the republic was integrated into the Soviet Union. Remarkably, Tbilisi took the function of the regional capital once again. In 1922, the three South Caucasus republics were organized into yet another confederation, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (TSFSR). It was disbanded in 1936, after which Tbilisi became the capital of a separate Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Under the Soviets, Tbilisi was transformed from a medium-sized and relatively compact settlement into a large industrial metropolis. It was an important political, social, and cultural center of the USSR — even if remaining behind the ‘first-tier cities’ of Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad with regard to its economic status. While the main driving force in the 1930s through the 1950s was the expansion of industrial activity (during WWII also fueled by the evacuation of manufacturing from the European part of the USSR), since the 1960s, industrial growth slowed down, and mass housing became the main driver of the city’s territorial growth.

Tbilisi developed according to the master plans (Genplans) of 1934, 1953 and 1969 (Van Assche et al., 2009). The growth of Tbilisi was in line with the Soviet policy of stimulating hyper-urbanization of the capitals of the Soviet republics to ensure ‘agglomeration effects’, i.e. economic gains from the concentration ‘of decision-making, diversified employment opportunities and better infrastructure in the capital city and its neighborhood’ (Gachechiladze, 1995: 157). The growing city enjoyed diversified public transport services with different transportation modes — busses, trolleybuses, trams, cable roads. In 1965, Tbilisi became the fourth Soviet city, following Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, to gain an underground metro system. The Tbilisi Metro has proven to play a pivotal role in the city mobility, not least by providing accessibility to remote and otherwise isolated districts.

Architectural approaches evolved over the Soviet era (Bater, 1980). The Stalinist monumentalism with neo-classical and national elements, as well as the Soviet constructivism is notable in the Rustaveli Avenue (Fig. 7) and other main streets (e.g. buildings of the Zarya VostokaEasts Dawnnewspaper, and the IMELI Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin). However, from the late 1950s, with the shift in policy to mass housing, the preference was given to mass-produced cost-efficient and uniform built environment (Fig. 8). Of the late Soviet era, internationally renowned were still, for example, the Road Department (Fig. 9), the Palace of Celebrations (currently a private residence of the family of late tycoon Patarkatsishvili), the Sport Palace, and the Dynamo Stadium. Many engineering mega-projects were completed — such as the embankment and retaining walls for the Kura River, a large water reservoir (18 km2) inside the city administrative boundaries (known as the Tbilisi Sea), the metro. All of these remain essential for the city’s functioning.

The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building

Fig. 7. The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance

Fig. 8. Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters)

Fig. 9. The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

In 1978, with a growing attention to heritage protection, a large-scale reconstruction of the old town was launched. Old Tbilisi had remained largely untouched in the Soviet period (apart from some destructions occurring for new roads and embankments) and therefore preserved its historic unity and ambience. Although the reconstruction was criticized for its ‘facadism’ (Khimshiashvili, 2001), it had a positive effect on the pre-Russian sections of the city and boosted tourism. The project also enhanced the urban environment of Old Tbilisi and prolonged the lifespan of many buildings.

Soviet Tbilisi was not only an important economic and administrative center of the Soviet Union; it was also a center of political struggles of various factions, including those breeding the Georgian identity (Suny, 1994). As a rare scene of mass protest for that era, Tbilisi witnessed ethnic-based riots in 1956 in protest against the de-Stalinization policies of the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; these were violently suppressed by the Soviet Army. New mass demonstrations took place in Tbilisi in April 1978 in response to an attempt by government to change the constitutional status of the Georgian language from being the sole state language in the republic to giving an equally official status to the Russian language. Moscow conceded to the popular demand to allow the status quo to continue, thus boosting the morale of Georgian nationalism. However, this also stirred up discontent in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, some fractions of which began seeking to split from Georgia. The radicalization of the anti-Soviet opposition and protests in the late 1980s also culminated in the so-called Tbilisi Massacre of 9 April 1989, when the army violently dispersed an anti-Soviet demonstration, resulting in several deaths. In both the popular and political culture, this event still demarcates Georgian struggles for independence.

5. Post-Soviet transition

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tbilisi, like other ex-Soviet cities, stepped on the post-socialist transition treadmill. Following the laissez faire political ethos and conditioned by the expediencies of capitalism-in-the-making, the city turned away from planned development in favor of spontaneous real estate markets. This was, however, against the backdrop of a civil war and political and institutional disorganization and instability in Georgia under Gamsakhurdia Government (1991–1992) and the early years of Shevarnadze Government (1992–2003). Violent conflicts erupted over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence, but also in other parts of Georgia and even in Tbilisi itself, which witnessed a militarized outbreak of violence in winter 1991/1992 over state power, which eventually ousted Gamsakhurdia. As a cumulative effect, the Georgian economy was one of the most hit among the former Soviet republics. By 1994, its real GDP collapsed to less than a quarter of its value five years before.

That was a shock to Tbilisi; as documented by Gachechiladze (1995:164),

Factories stopped; so did most urban transport; electricity failed; central heating radiators became useless decoration in the apartments… The city emerged as unprepared for the new situation, unable to purchase raw materials, fuel or machinery at market prices and in the quantities required for an urban settlement of such a size.

In just a few years, trolleybuses and trams disappeared from the streets of Tbilisi and public busses significantly limited their operations. Private mini-busses (marshrutkas) alongside the metro became the only street public transport routes for many years.

These problems coupled with the increased levels of crime and interethnic tensions promoted the out-migration of many Tbilisians to Russia and other countries — starting with ethnical Russians and Armenians but followed by Georgians themselves (Gachechiladze & Bradshow, 1994). The majority of these were educated white-collar workers. The population loss was offset by in-migration from provincial towns and rural areas and less educated and poorer groups. Rural in-migrants often struggle to adapt to the urban way of life, especially as employment was curtailed due to the crisis. The omnipresence of the newcomers was perceived by the native Tbilisians as the ‘provincialization’ of the capital (Gachechiladze & Salukvadze, 2003:20). Tbilisi also witnessed an influx of so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs), fleeing, particularly, from the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Soviet-era image of Tbilisi as a well-off and educated city, albeit somewhat exaggerated, in a short period transformed into its opposite.

Tbilisi’s IDP population is still estimated at up to 10% of the city population. Many of IDPs have struggled with the integration into the mainstream society. The unemployment rate exceeds 50%; most of them live in the so-called Collective Centers. These are state-owned buildings converted from other functions such as hotels, schools, kindergartens. The IDPs adaptation strategies have involved changing these buildings to accommodate their everyday needs, building extensions, and illegal occupation of surrounding spaces (Salukvadze, Sichinava, & Gogishvili, 2013). Until recently, IDPs occupied almost all Soviet-era hotels, including those in the city center, giving these areas a slum-like impression. The attempts of the Government of the President Saakashvili (in power between 2004 and 2013) to clear up such areas by removing IDPs to other parts of the city (e.g. providing moderate funds to buy apartments in remote districts) and to rebuild those deteriorated structures has improved the appearances of many areas (Fig. 10). However, a lack of a coherent strategy towards the resolution of the problems of IDPs, along with a virtually non-existent social/public housing sector, ensures that these problems will be haunting the city.

The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the…

Fig. 10. The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the Radisson Blue.

6. The establishment of the housing and real estate markets

A cornerstone of the market reforms in post-Soviet Tbilisi was destatization and the privatization of land and real estate. As early as in 1990, the mass privatization of housing already started, followed by leasing out of urban plots and sale of non-residential buildings. Although the Soviet system maintained a considerable portion of public and cooperative housing – which made the entire stock of the apartment bock buildings – by the late 1990s, more than 90% of the housing stock in Tbilisi was privatized. In 1999, the privatization of urban land began. The land and real estate market, however, emerged under the conditions of incomplete and weak institutions, poor governance and murky practices. A poorly regulated land market was locally described as a ‘wild market’, emphasizing its violence-based nature (Salukvadze, 2009).

In the 1990s, almost no investment went into important development projects. Emerged institutionalized developers focused on businesses that did not require large investments but could generate fast returns: petrol stations, car repair shops and washes, restaurants and bars, open markets, guesthouses. The most desirable places were those located between residential neighborhoods, in proximity to major street and highway junctions or easily accessible from metro stations.

Large housebuilding activities disappeared; rather the episodic construction of villas and otherwise cheap homes took place, often ignoring formal permission systems. A more widespread phenomenon was a ‘do-it-yourself’ extension of homes and apartments. That process was actually triggered by the late Soviet decrees of the Georgian Republic, particularly the 1989 resolution “On attaching of loggias, verandas, balconies and other auxiliary spaces to the state and cooperative houses at the cost of the dwellers/tenants”. Following that, apartment building extensions (ABE) mushroomed across Tbilisi. Initially, the construction was carried out by state companies following prescribed procedures; however, after the disappearance of the public construction sector as such and especially following the housing privatization, this process went out of control. Tens of thousands of ABE were completed — in various forms and materials, and violating the norms of security, safety and esthetics (Fig. 11) (see Bouzarovski, Salukvadze, & Gentile, 2011).

Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi

Fig. 11. Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi. Photos by Joseph Salukvadze.

Despite the possibility to marginally increase living spaces through ABE, housing conditions of the population generally deteriorated. The new homeowners showed institutional and financial inability in managing multi-family apartment blocks (UNECE, 2007). There were no effective obligations on apartment owners’ to maintain common spaces in privatized houses. Problems rapidly grew with leaking roofs, broken elevators, lack of thermal insulation, and other structural problems. All these have become problematic and, in some cases, have rendered buildings unsafe. In order to improve the situation, from the early 2000s several municipal programs for housing maintenance were initiated, centered on the establishment of homeowners’ associations (HOA). In 2004, the city of Tbilisi established Tbilisi Corps, a municipal unit for supporting the development of HOAs. Buildings managed by HOAs are eligible for municipal co-financing for repair of common spaces (roofs, staircases) and public spaces (courtyards). Between 50% and 90% of the cost is covered by the municipalities. Currently there are more than 6000 HOAs in Tbilisi; almost all multi-apartment buildings are managed by them.

The period from the early 2000s witnessed improved macroeconomic conditions, including resumed economic growth in neighboring Russia and increased volumes of FDIs (including by Georgians living abroad) and remittances. As elsewhere in post-Soviet space, the economic recovery was uneven, favoring larger cities and their proximity (Golubchikov, 2006). This bolstered economic growth in Tbilisi and changed the demand of the population and the business sector towards housing and the built environment. The development of the real property registration and cadastral systems assured better property security and facilitated the establishment of the credit market and the involvement of banks and other stakeholders in property transactions.

7. Urban policies and transformations in the built environment

The spatial development of Tbilisi has been lacking plans and planning laws for a long time (Ziegler, 2009; Salukvadze, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Rather, the building and planning activities were guided by the old Soviet legislation unless they were substituted by new rules. Such a regime was supported by the 1995 Constitution and a decree of the Minister of Urbanization and Construction of Georgia from 5 February 2002 on the Prolongation of the Terms and Validity of Construction Norms and Rules and Other Normative Acts (UNECE, 2007:8). However, in eyes of many, the old Soviet legislation was already outdated, if not lost legitimacy, and was not obligatory to follow. At the same time, when the new rules were introduced, they were increasingly relaxed, following the new worldview rejecting the Soviet planning practices as ‘unreasonable restrictions’ (Golubchikov, 2004).

The arrival of the liberal president Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 via the so-called Rose Revolution, only further legitimized a liberal urban development policy regime. On the one hand, such policies significantly reduced corruption in planning, architectural and land administration systems; the acquisition of land plots and getting permissions for construction became relatively easy. For example, according to the Doing Business survey Georgia is ranked 3rd worldwide for the ease of issuing building permits and 1st for registering ownership rights (The World Bank, 2014). On the other hand, the same neoliberal approach has failed to attune to public needs. Hence, it is capital/investors that have determined the urban development process through the past decades, with one result being that the development is focused on the more lucrative central areas of Tbilisi, producing many infill constructions, over-densification and urban congestion.

Several key dimensions further characterize urban transformations more recently. Housing construction has skyrocketed after a near-stoppage in the 1990s, and reached the volumes of the 1960–70s (Fig. 12). The peak was in 2007–2008 when almost 2 million m2 a year was completed. The global financial crisis and especially the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia resulted in a rapid drop in construction activities, with many suspended projects (Fig. 13). However, Tbilisi municipality moved to inject confidence into the market by guaranteeing to purchase all finished developments at the cost recovery price of US$400/m2. This guaranteed at least a cost-basis return on investment and while no significant amount of such transactions was actually pursued, it lowered the perception of risk, unlocked banks’ willingness to offer credits, and encouraged developers to unfreeze projects (Gentile, Salukvadze & Gogishvili, 2015).

Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction

Fig. 12. Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction.

Source: JLL, 2012.

A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010

Fig. 13. A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The new housing projects, even if customary delivered as ‘core-and-shell’ (i.e. without any internal decorations or installations), exceed the quality of the previous-era constructions. However, the majority of the population cannot afford buying homes in organized housing developments. New projects rather cater for those with high disposable incomes, so that the proportion of so-called luxury apartments in new construction has been 40–50% (Fig. 14).

Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold…

Fig. 14. Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold dwellings in Tbilisi in 2006–2012. Source: JLL, 2012.

Again, some projects, seeking high profit, fail to comply with the preservation regimes and damage the historical and cultural identity of many areas. This is encouraged by widespread neglecting (even relaxed) building norms and rules, as well as by allowing developers to purchase ‘additional height limits’ over those specified in zoning regimes. This has had a negative impact on the quality of urban space, architectural composition, traffic, car parking and public spaces. In many neighborhoods, old structures are torn down to give place for new high-rises (e.g. Barnovi Street, Paliashvili Street, Piqris Gora, Sairmis Gora).

Old Tbilisi has been particularly vulnerable. The retreat of the state from the housing sphere had damaging effects on the older housing stock in Old Tbilisi, which due to its age is prone to deterioration (Fig. 15). This was aggravated by the retrenchment of conservation protection; according to Khimshiashvili (2001), Georgia’s monument protection authorities had the budget in 1999 which was less than 1% of their 1990 budget. The local population, often living at the edge of survival, could neither afford investing in the maintenance of their estates. Many buildings in Old Tbilisi have become unsafe for habitation and a few fell apart (Khimshiashvili, 2001) — the situation was further aggravated by an earthquake in 2002. Some areas now appear slum-like with collapsed homes amid a deteriorating built environment. However, the potential land value in such central locations is high. Even so, the unwillingness of the local residents to move to distant parts of the city, coupled with still extant heritage restrictions in these areas, for many years curtailed commercial redevelopment projects (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). In the 1990s and early 2000s, few rebuilding projects were accomplished here – mostly as hotels, restaurants or small estates – often lubricated by corruption and enforced through violent means such as a deliberate damage to the existing structures to force the residents to move out. Despite this, the process of gentrification, like in in many other ex-socialist cities in the 1990s, was more piecemeal than systematic.

Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 15. Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

However, more recently, the gentrification of Old Tbilisi has become rather policy-led (cf. Badyina & Golubchikov, 2005), as the government began providing investor-oriented funds and programs for the reconstruction of the old town, such as the New Life for Old Tbilisi. The scheme was described in the following terms:

The government provides working capital that allows developers to finish residential blocks. Slum dwellers, if they agree, then move in to the new housing, vacating land in Old Tbilisi. The government puts the land out to tender for property developers to develop, sell off and use the profits to repay their original debts to the banks (Economist, 2010).

This approach targets particular neighborhoods and has helped to improve some areas both in the old town (Fig. 16) and in the 19th century part on the left bank along the David Agmashenebeli Avenue (part of former Alexanderdorf) (Fig. 17). Hundreds of families have been given a chance to acquired better homes through this scheme. At the same time, the process mediates gentrification, changing the social composition and cultural diversity of the historic areas. It also causes the criticism of heritage professionals, because buildings are normally not repaired but demolished and ‘rebuild’ creating replicas of traditional houses, but destroying the original authenticity of the neighborhoods (Fig. 18).

Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction

Fig. 16. Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction

Fig. 17. David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014)

Fig. 18. Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014). Photos by Oleg Golubchikov.

Policy-driven gentrification of the old town appeared, however, only part of the urban ambitions of president Saakashvili. His policies were particularly aggressive in promoting the construction of ‘shiny’ glass-and-steel structures. Investments especially focused on the historic center. As a result, Tbilisi began changing its spatial structure even more rapidly — which at least until the late 2000s was happening in the absence of any urban strategy framework. Investing in flagship projects is a common feature of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, including in ex-socialist space (Golubchikov, 2010; Kinossian, 2012). Similarly, Saakashvili regarded extravagant post-modernist structures designed by world-renown architects as a quick fix in achieving a modernized and globalized image for the capital and, by implication, in linking the whole nation to the ‘European civilization’. Dozens of such ‘geopolitical’ projects were inserted in the fabric of the old town or its vicinity, at a considerable public cost. While the projects such as the Bridge of Peace (designed by Michele de Lucchi), Public Service Hall and Rike Park Theater (both by Massimiliano Fuksas) are certainly nothing short of masterpiece, many find them distorting the scale and flavor of historic Tbilisi (Fig. 19). Among other new-built dominants are also the Presidential Palace, the Trinity Cathedral (Fig. 20), as well as some hotels and commercial buildings (Fig. 21).

The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi's panoramas

Fig. 19. The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi’s panoramas. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004)

Fig. 20. The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008)

Fig. 21. The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The public opinion has been divided over such major infills. One could argue that some of these projects are better tolerated than the others. For instance, out of the signature projects the glassy Bridge of Peace and mushroom-looking building of the Public Service Hall are better accepted than the ‘the tubes’ of the new musical theater or the Shangrila Casino buildings, which are almost universally considered as inappropriate for the Old Town fabric.

Even so, these projects have created a new powerful landscape that has significantly modified the perception of the city, and project the city in a new light onto the international scale.

A common feature of ex-socialist cities has been a rapid suburbanization (Stanilov & Sykora, 2014). While the booming housebuilding sector in Tbilisi has aggravated the pressures on suburban land and made the city further sprawl, some authors note that the suburbanization trends in Tbilisi do not qualify as ‘strong’ (Sulukhia, 2009). This is because suburbanization is not necessarily taking the conspicuous form of detached homes or gated communities as in many ex-socialist cities (Hirt, 2012), but rather continues the Soviet patterns of (sub)urbanization through the expansion and absorbing of existing satellite settlements or high-rise developments on the metropolitan periphery (Golubchikov & Phelps, 2011). Gated institutionalized developments do exist around Tbilisi but so far not on a scale of a phenomenon that creates its own dominant urban patterns (e.g. in Digomi, along the E-60 highway, and Tsavkisi: see Sulukhia, 2009).

8. Urban planning and future developments

In the context of rather chaotic and ad hoc development process, the establishment of a new planning system for Tbilisi has been long advocated by concerned professional societies (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). The adoption of a new general/master plan for Tbilisi in 2009 might be seen as a substantial step towards finding a balance between planning and the market. The plan envisages a number of strategic changes in Tbilisi (Fig. 22). Inspired above all by the US zoning system (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011), it divides the city into different functional zones, separates commercial, residential and industrial areas, identifies heritage protection areas, and introduces the layouts of land-uses and general regulations for building and development for each functional zone.

The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009

Fig. 22. The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009. Source: Tbilisi City Council.

It is important to note, however, that the production and implementation of the city plan has not been without its own controversies. Firstly, many urbanists, architects, and planners complain that the plan was drafted and adopted without participation of professional and public circles. Secondly, the plan fails to incorporate sufficiently detailed schemes for transport and infrastructure development, thus raising questions over its usefulness for spatial development. Thirdly, it is rather a declarative document, as it lacks a solid view of what kind of city with what priorities will be developed. Furthermore, the emerged tradition of ad hoc development has not ceased after the adoption of the new city plan. The provisions of the plan can be changed by the Building Development Council of the Tbilisi City Council; for example, from December 2009 to February 2014, more than 1500 changes were applied to the functional zones, such as changing recreational and landscape protection areas into a residential, commercial or transport use. Besides, the government officially allows developers to buy ‘excesses’ deviating from designated building parameters in certain zones, thus actually allowing them constructing much larger and taller buildings.

The city plan still envisages several larger-scale projects. One of those is moving the railway line – rerouting it along the east side of the Tbilisi Sea to bypass the central districts of Tbilisi – thus releasing the city from transit traffic. This is envisaged to free up more than 150 ha of centrally located land for redevelopment and to better integrate otherwise isolated parts of the city. The space under the current railway infrastructure will accommodate a new public-business center with offices, retail, convention facilities, recreation and luxurious housing. Among other large-scale projects, the priority is given to the (re)construction and installation of high capacity motorways that should relieve the congested traffic regime in many parts of the sprawled city.

With the arrival of a new government in 2012 (the Georgian Dream coalition), the city authorities started a revision and partially stopped some projects approved by the Saakashvili government. For instance, the already initiated project of the bypassing railroad was halted for several months, although resumed with some changes in 2015. Some dimensions of the 2009 Master Plan have been reconsidered and it is likely that Tbilisi City Council will be requested to revisit the plan. As a step in that direction, the city government has prepared a City Development Strategy. It proposes a vision for Tbilisi in 2030 to become ‘a hub for global supply chains — creating a bridge between different civilizations in the competition for talent, technology and market’ (Tbilisi 2030, 2013: 5).

For its part, the new national government has also begun promoting new strategic projects in Tbilisi, continuing the practice of ad hoc interventions. For instance, a new flagship megaproject is envisaged to be the Panorama Tbilisi, which is to embrace formerly protected landscape areas of the Old Town. It is advertised as “the largest ever real estate development in Georgia’s history,” consisting of a multi-functional development of hotels, serviced apartments, offices, exhibition centers, conference halls and swimming pools linked by a series of cable cars. Financed by the Georgian Co-Investment Fund (GCF), driven by the tycoon, ex-Prime Minister and informal leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, it envisages a total funding of USD 500 million, supported by a number of foreign funds (Anderson, 2014). However, numerous opponents – urbanists, architects, planners, cultural heritage protectors – argue that its implementation will finally kill the authenticity of Old Tbilisi (as well as ruining the hopes of including it on the UNESCO World Heritage list) and will aggravate the traffic conditions and environmental problems. Yet, after an initial refusal in March 2014, Tbilisi City Council, following a pressure from the national government, has hinted that it will approve the project.

Although so far the powerful stakeholders manage to overplay other voices, protests increasingly disturb the former. Urban activism fuelled by younger groups begins to make a strong presence in Tbilisi and often manages to halt some projects (e.g. in Gudiashvili Square). The activists efficiently use social media to consolidate the public opinion. This tendency of a growing public interest and involvement of social groups in the urban development process gives the hope that a more balanced and participatory processes will finally gain momentum.

9. Conclusions: evolving urban governance

The modern-day Tbilisi reveals a peculiar juxtaposition of the layers of urbanization shaped around the successive historical and geopolitical rounds of empire building, industrialization, independence, marketization, and associated struggles. The present post-Soviet era in the development of Tbilisi has yet been the one that lays bare the contradictions of transition and globalization. Basing on our analysis, the period can be conceptualized as consisting of three loose phases, following the evolving configuration of the most prominent actors in urban governance:

In the 1990s, during the period of political instability, economic hardship, and weak state institutions, it was population’s small-scale initiatives that dominated the development process — though in a limited way, due to a lack of capital. Their development practices were limited to ‘self-help’ small projects and fixes. That phase could be seen as a ‘Do-It-Yourself Urbanism’.

From the late 1990s, the improvement of economic situation and strengthening business and banking sectors allowed development companies to benefit from weak planning institutions. Developers found that it was possible to enter formerly restricted yet attractive public spaces. As a result of that opportunistic ‘Investor urbanism’ phase, infills mushroomed and filled up vacant public spaces in central areas of Tbilisi, over-densifying spaces and often ruining urban landscapes.

The consolidation of the state power from the mid-2000s put national government as a major player in urban development. The ‘Rose Government’ initiated many development projects, most of which took place in the central city, dramatically changing it. The adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009 brought some regulatory frames, but the government still commonly violates them. This ‘Politically-determined urbanism’ phase has not finished with the arrival of ‘The Georgian Dream’ coalition in power.

Overall, the entire post-Soviet period has witnessed an imbalanced urban process. Tbilisi, the city that had been developed under the Soviet planning system for 70 years, has been largely rejected planning as a tool for urban regulation and consensus building. This situation is not unfamiliar in the South Caucasus more widely (Valiyev, 2014) or indeed in the ex-socialist space (Stanilov, 2007). Even during the Soviet era, Tbilisi was not a good example of a well-planned city and existing plans were not followed too strictly (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Nevertheless, the new practices of non-planning have been of quite a different scale.

While the early transition process was the one of institutional disorganization, which may be argued to be responsible for the initial neglect of urban planning processes, the more recent lack of progress in that direction, under the arguably neoliberal yet authoritarian government of Saakashvili, rather hinted at a more deliberate ideological choice, where geopolitical aspirations for integration with the European and Transatlantic institutions were sold to the population in conjunction with laissez-faire deregulations and a further neoliberal package of reforms. However, weak urban planning also meant fewer obstacles for arbitrary interventions, including from the government itself and other powerful circles, and by no means a non-interventionist approach. Indeed, a modus operandi that emerged during the Saakashvili rule was that the central government began acting as a de-facto principal ‘driver’ of urban change, even if in a peculiar, urban entrepreneurial format. Most notably, in the name of the renovation and modernization of Tbilisi, the government initiated and sometimes co-financed fancy post-modernist signature projects designed by famous architects from abroad. In combination with the historic areas’ rebuilding, these have considerably changed the city’s outlook.

From a certain perspective, these post-socialist unregulated and ad hoc urban processes are innovative, affording varied participants the opportunity to contribute in the creation of new spaces: liberated from planning regulations, they have transformed the city from the uniformity tendencies of the previous era towards a post-modern eclectic and irregularity. However, professionals and the public are seriously concerned about the impacts of this state of affairs on urban integrity, functioning and heritage. A sporadic character of such constructions, violations of building norms and rules, the occupation of public spaces by buildings of oft-questionable quality and esthetics, and the dramatic change of the historic cityscape all attract criticism of both professional community and the civil sector. More and more frequently, one could hear that Tbilisi deserves a more careful approach in order to protect its uniqueness and traditional features. Irregular infills by modern high-rises and other commercial projects in inner city are no longer easily tolerated by citizens. Both the city and national governments have recognized the need in a comprehensive urban plan for Tbilisi and have started working in that direction, as evidenced by the adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009. Overall, this suggests that the citizenry becomes more sensitive regarding city development. The population is increasingly recognizant of the importance of more ordered spatial processes. This also gives the hope that a more inclusive urbanism, which would balance different interests with a strategic vision as well as functionality, will eventually manifest itself more vividly.

Acknowledgments

The study was supported by the Academic Swiss Caucasus Net (ASCN) operated by the Interfaculty Institute for Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (grant “Social Contents of Changing Housing Landscapes of the Capital Metropolises of Armenia and Georgia: Institutions, Stakeholders, Policies”). The authors are also grateful to the Urban reconfigurations in Post-Soviet space research network (IRA-URBAN) for offering further opportunities to refine this research. Views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.

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1

The South Caucasus region refers to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also been historically referred to as Transcaucasia, from the Russian Zakavkazye, “the far side of the Caucasus”, reflecting the Russo-centric geopolitics of the previous eras.

2

This was a 3.4% increase in comparisons with the 2002 census, although this growth was mainly due to the expansion of the city’s administrative territory.

Public Space and Informal Mechanisms in Beirut

Life in a Street: How Informal Mechanisms Govern Scarce Public Spaces in Nabaa, Beirut


By Petra Samaha

Published in Jadaliyya

[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]
[Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by Petra Samaha]

The informal mechanisms of organization in everyday public life have been at the core of concerns of many researchers and practitioners (e.g., Rukmana and Hegel in Indonesia, Mehrotra in India, and Nagati in Egypt). While examining these processes in different contexts, the focus was typically on their interplay with “formal” regulations or in relation to the private built environment. Few highlighted the significance of these informal arrangements per se and their importance in governing public shared spaces (Simone 2004 & 2009, Bayat 1998 & 2010). These mechanisms lend some sort of spatial flexibility to the street transforming it into much more than a space for circulation, but rather a holder of mixed uses, leading therefore to an altered definition of public life.

Perhaps the best known of all books addressing the topic of public life is Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities where the author described streets and their sidewalks as the main public places of a city–its most vital organs. Density, walkability, mixed uses and human scale are described as main criteria for livable cities. Even though these concepts are usually used to define well planned cities, they seem to also describe very well the lively streets in areas typically tagged as informal. Such vibrant streets are often the result of unplanned and complex processes that offer us many more interesting lessons when disentangled and understood.

Taking the case of Nabaa (Bourj Hammoud) I look into the ways in which the dwellers share the scarce public spaces of the neighborhood and highlight the importance of their efficient organization/management as mixed-use spaces[1]. There is a lot to learn from the informal mechanisms and practices that govern the space of the street and the sidewalk. Vibrancy in such spaces often stems from widespread economic activities and social life. However, over-crowdedness inevitably leads to conflicts whereby the better connected and the more powerful in the neighborhood’s social structure are able to make stronger claims over space and the more vulnerable (i.e., elderly, children, women, and migrants) learn to navigate their way and adapt through other self-devised alternatives.  These multiple claims might seem chaotic or unorganized. However a detailed investigation revealed they are ruled by a set of codes that aim at anticipating, mitigating, and resolving conflicts. What and how can we learn from these complex informal mechanisms of conflict resolution and space reallocation that street users in dense informal areas deploy in their everyday life?

Nabaa is a dense low-income neighborhood located immediately at the eastern edge of Beirut’s administrative boundary and houses a large percentage of vulnerable population groups including foreign migrant workers and refugees. The area offers a unique blend of religious, national, and ethnic mixity that is vividly reflected on the neighborhood streets through banners, street signs, graffiti and stencils but also storefronts and dress codes. The streets of Nabaa are rife with commercial and economic activities either happening on the ground floors of buildings or using the space of the street/sidewalk itself. Through direct observations, mapping and interviews, I looked into the ways in which the dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood and manage the multiple claims over the scarce shared spaces.

Given the high population density and scarce open spaces, dwellers come up with ad-hoc solutions to fulfill their daily needs and, at the same time, improve the spaces of their neighborhood (i.e., greening, open space appropriation, and waste management). The space of the sidewalk/street acquires different meanings through time since dwellers assign functions to it through their own practices. The space is hence defined by social and economic processes rather than planned top down schemes. It becomes hard to distinguish pre-set boundaries between public and private, sidewalk and street, inside and outside… Hence, conflicts are solved through deploying complex informal mechanisms that rely on the flexibility of both time and space.  While I narrate the stories from the streets of Nabaa, I propose that the efficient, perhaps creative, management of the shared spaces of the city by the street users themselves can mitigate or even evade conflicts. The informal arrangements render the space of the street to be much more than a passage, but rather a holder of mixed uses increasing its effectiveness in responding to conflicting needs and pressing demands.

Dimensions of Space and Time

In order to understand how the multiple use and users coexist in Nabaa through space and time, I mapped the main commercial and social practices on a busy artery in Nabaa (Sis Street) while highlighting the dimensions of time and space. Hence, the patterns of use and meaning of space are in a constant shift over the course of a single day, sometimes hours.

Due to high population density and scarcity of space, the area of the street is constantly rearranged to accommodate a multiplicity of users and needs. Rather than a mere circulation space, it is also a space for socialization, play, and daily economic exchange. As these configurations change, the street transforms, turn in turn, into a parking, a playground, a market, a workshop, a café, a display and/or a terrace. In so doing, narrow streets are constantly negotiated and reorganized to accommodate the changing needs of a wide variety of users: shoppers, dwellers, shopkeepers, street vendors, and children (Table 1).

[Table 1: Main users and practices of Nabaa’s narrow streets can be profiled based on two broad categories. Table by Petra Samaha]
By observing the use of space across time, the street is highlighted as a shared space with a multiplicity of mixed uses. In Nabaa, a typical day starts after shops open in the early morning and storekeepers lay out their products on the sidewalks as trucks deliver goods, blocking the roadway. In the afternoon, the street gets busier with more pedestrians, vendors, and cars, as well as children walking back from schools. In the evening, while commercial activities are still ongoing, the sidewalk transforms into a terrace for afternoon coffee, water pipe, or a round of backgammon. It’s the busiest time of the day. The importance of the time dimension here is paramount. While some practices retract at night, after street vendors clear the streets for example, the flexibility of space is highlighted, showing how the street is eventually defined by a patchwork of practices that works according to an elastic schedule. Ultimately, it is through this flexibility and the constantly shifting delineation of both the uses and boundaries that the street can fulfill the multiplicity of roles that it is ascribed.

Visitible and Inivisible Tactics

While looking at the ways Nabaa dwellers use the spaces of the neighborhood, practical arrangements and creative survival innovations were revealed. I present here the tactics used by the dwellers to fix the claims they make. Negotiations over space through bodies, cars, strollers, carts, bicycles, motorcycles, and trucks may well be organized to delineate the duration of each occupation. However, conflict is always only one step away as claims may often overlap.

In addition to the shops that extend their private spaces to use the sidewalk as displays or as working places, street vendors also have multiple arrangements for instance. They make careful choices in selecting trajectories, parking stops, and the location where they leave the cart at night. For them, the street cannot be reduced to a simple geographic trail; it is their survival place. Hence, their arrangements are often defined by day-to-day circumstances, which make them negotiate also with shopkeepers and pedestrians for space.

To better illustrate the different meanings that the space acquires over a day, or even an hour, I zoomed on a street corner and represented the percentage of occupation of the sidewalk/street by different uses along the day between religious, commercial, leisure and parking (Figures 1 & 2). The graph shows how the commercial aspect of a main street in Nabaa is mainly what enlivens it during daytime.

[Figure 1: A day in the life of a street corner. Image by Petra Samaha]

[Figure 2: Percentage of occupation of the street corner by different uses along the day based on the previous mapping.
Image by Petra Samaha]
The analysis of “time charts” was adapted from the methodology of Annette Kim’s work in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. She underlined the significance of mixed use sidewalks and their organization/management, and regulation in order to be shared between various kinds of uses and users transforming hence into more than a space of circulation. Kim argued that the sidewalk can become a cooperative and livable space if planners incorporate ‘time’ into planning its space in order to expand its flexibility. Kim also described the significance of local self-control at the neighborhood levels to define how sidewalks operate and are managed. Hence, the sidewalk embeds a variety of spatial practices that comprise both innovation and conflict. Learning from street users about the conflicts and negotiations that produce the observed spatial arrangement, Kim called for ‘space sharing’, rather than ‘partitioning’ between the large group of legitimate street uses and users ensuring both fairness and urban vitality. Mapping how the sidewalk system in Ho Chi Minh City operated and transformed over time brings about questions of how the different users (vendors, property abutters, and police) negotiated space. This showed a high level of cooperation not only between property owners and vendors, but among vendors themselves, taking turns on the sidewalk or sharing the costs of capital investments such as plastic chairs and tables for their customers. Hence, the flexibility of the sidewalk accorded by the variables of “time, alternative narratives, and local enforcement” seemed vital for resolving conflicts or even anticipating them.

Similarly, changes of use of that street corner in Nabaa do not abide by pre-set boundaries.

The eventful history of the neighborhood from the 1950’s till the civil war (1975-1990) has made it rife with political parties today. Hence, the use and significance of spaces are governed by specific power relations and political structures within the neighborhood that dictate its usage at specific times of the day. On that corner, these hierarchies are represented by Abou Ali, a man in his sixties and affiliated to a powerful political movement in the area. In the memory of someone deceased in the family, Abou Ali has placed on the public space of the sidewalk a sabeel (fountain) that serves water for passersby (Figure 3). It is supplied with a reservoir, planters, a projector and a sound system that plays chants from the Quran. Abou Ali has a schedule to turn it on or off. Located on the street corner, the space becomes a place for gathering in the evening. On this corner, Abou Ali has the ability to dictate what, how and when the space can be used or not (i.e. who can park near his shop, what fees one has to pay, who uses his water sabeel).

[Figure 3: Located on the street corner, the space around the sabeel, which is supposed to be a memorial,
becomes a place for gathering in the evening. Image by Petra Samaha]
Broadly speaking, on every other block there is another Abou Ali belonging to a certain political hierarchy and setting the rules on his part of the territory. For instance, a block away from that street corner, where the main square and the busiest commercial street of Nabaa are, photos are not allowed to be taken on the streets, a rule imposed by another political party for security reasons. During religious ceremonies, streets in that area are completely closed to vehicular traffic and controlled by the personnel of that same party.

So these power structures embodied by multiple ‘Abou Alis’ materialize on the streets of the neighborhood. The spaces do not abide to planned designs and pre-set boundaries but become subject to the circumstances. Pedestrianizing roadways, turning sidewalks into private parking spots or small gardens, and other tactics contest the ‘conceived space’ of the neighborhood and allow a constant reproduction of the street as a ‘lived space’ to accommodate all the users’ needs.

These tactical arrangements of conflict anticipation deployed by users to fix their claims manifest either concretely (through visible tactics), or in abstract more subtle yet powerful ways. Invisible ways can be imposed and taken for granted (i.e., Abou Ali), or spoken, negotiated and defined through one-to-one conversations (i.e. between street vendors and property abutters, be they shop owners or dwellers), where the main justified persuasive negotiation argument is economic livelihood, or rez‘a) (Figure 4).

[Figure 4: Negotiations and invisible tactics: bargaining over space as well as prices. Image by: Petra Samaha]

 

In these negotiations, one’s position in the local socio-political hierarchies is key determinant of the particular configuration on which the street sets temporarily before it is changed again. And even though conflicts always seem in sight, especially with the diversity of nationalities and sects in the neighborhood, cooperation (like the case of Ho Chi Minh City) and tolerance seem to play an important role in negotiations. While this might seem surprising, a similar observation was noted by Jan Nijman (2009) by analyzing the space in Dharavi (a slum that houses about one million inhabitants in Mumbai, India). He described “a milieu that is conductive to intense social organization and economic production”, where boundaries between different space functions, public and private, inside and outside, are blurred and hard to distinguish. The open space of the neighborhood serves as workplace, a playground, a market or a resting place for elderly (Figure 5). Nijman argued that these different claims over space are not only governed by territorial control but also a high level of tolerance ‘in terms of human density and movement’ which mitigates potential conflicts.

[Figure 5: The open spaces in Dharavi (Mumbai) serve as a workplace, a playground, or a terrace. Image by Petra Samaha]
Most common strategies of mitigating conflict over spatial appropriation in Nabaa consist of diverse small gestures of neighborhood improvement, particularly greening, that serves as a strategy to fix a claim over space. In fact, the neighborhood’s streets are rife with pots and planters that are often made from up-cycled material. They serve as greening strategies, but also as a strategy to “reserve” a “spot” (e.g. securing a parking slot). By doing so, dwellers do not stop at fulfilling their personal interests, but also contribute in making the common areas of the neighborhood a better place. The majority being rural migrants, perhaps this is their only way to make Nabaa look a little bit like home. At times, the items used are flags or other sorts of markers that reflect certain identities or beliefs. Other movable and flexible items used are water bottles, chairs, and light bollards (Figure 6).

[Figure 6: Movable and flexible items to appropriate the space for a limited time. Image by Petra Samaha]
The more powerful the claim(-er), the more permanent/immovable the arrangement becomes: fencing, chains, metallic bollards, and other sorts of barriers. While plastic chairs are seen almost on every sidewalk, sofas are spotted at some corners depicting a more permanent claim over the space (Figure 7). Typically, metallic bollards placed around Abou Ali’s shop also reflect the power he has allowing him a long lasting appropriation of the sidewalk (Figure 8). While these practices are common almost everywhere in Beirut, very few streets can compete with the vibrancy and density found in Nabaa.

[Figure 7: More permanent and non-negotiable claims. Image by Petra Samaha]

 


[Figure 8: The Metallic bollards and heavy planters placed by Abou Ali. Image by Petra Samaha]
Additionally, the neighborhood is rife with shrines.  While the religious values that dwellers hold on to are not to be contested, another raison d’être of such shrines is reportedly to stop street littering, given that people typically refrain from throwing garbage in front of religious spaces. Indeed, I observed numerous corners where shrines had been set up to be green and well-maintained by dwellers, sometimes serving as refuge for children to gather and play (Figure 9).

[Figure 9: Religious shrines as a strategy to stop littering. The corners end up becoming clean and green and, at times,
serve as play areas. Image by Petra Samaha]
Nabaa, as many other places in Beirut and surroundings, represents a mesh of overlapping political, social and sectarian power structures. In addition, the neighborhood casts very well the challenges of security and high percentage of Syrian refugees. Hence, resorting to a negotiated use of space, while avoiding conflicts and violence, becomes a meticulous challenge. Bearing that in mind while analyzing public space organization and management in Nabaa unfolds three main findings:

  1. Nabaa dwellers make and remake the spaces of their neighborhood on a daily basis. In the ways they crowd the street, appropriate and green the sidewalk, mainly satisfy their needs, they acquire their right to the city, or at least part of it, not only in terms of space appropriation but also in shaping and shifting the meaning and use of space. These practices that are deemed temporary and informal can eventually become permanent urban planning and design strategies that cater for the needs of city dwellers instead of fighting against them. After all, formal and informal do not live in dichotomy, especially not in Beirut. They coexist at different levels, and while the pendulum between the two swings at various degrees, there is some sort of a practical balance that can be sought.
  2. The flexibilities allowed by informality bring into question the impracticality of static and rigid policies sometimes deployed to deal with them. The tolerance of low-income communities in Nabaa facing high population densities and scarcity of space, notably within the public realm, reveals a whole set of informal mechanisms of space management and organization that can be eventually deconstructed to also inform urban policies and projects. As, Jane Jacobs wrote (1958): “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
  3. Finally, even though these negotiations allow low-income dwellers to participate in city making, they do not necessarily entail a just sharing of space. Being mainly controlled by political structures that reflect wider sectarian clientelist hierarchies across the country, they most probably reproduce inequalities at yet another level. After all, such structures are somehow at once the cause and effect of the weakness of the State.

So the concluding question becomes: how can we understand these processes that make the most challenging spaces of our cities work? And how can we build on them for better livelihoods and a more inclusive city?

 


[1] Research on Nabaa was initially conducted for the completion of a thesis for the degree of Master of Urban Design at the American University of Beirut (2015). Other findings are published in “Rethinking Shared Space: The Case of Nabaa Neighborhood, Bourj Hammoud,” working paper co-authored by Petra Samaha and Rouba Dagher, with the support of the Social Justice and the City Program at the Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut. A special thank you goes to Mona Fawaz for her comments on an earlier version of this article.

 

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

By Heather D. DeHaan  
In western popular consciousness, Islam is a faith that rigidly patrols its boundaries. In this conception of Islam, the “House of Islam” combats the world of unbelief, religious infidelity is punished by the state, and uncovered women are banned from public space. The only boundary that the West might wish to introduce–a religious/secular divide–is staunchly rejected. Given such an understanding of Islam, the western public cannot quite fathom Islam’s variability or the fact that “flexible” Islam exists.

Living in the secular Shia state of Azerbaijan made me consider anew the question of Islam, for Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet Islam offers a paradox: a distinct “male” gendering of public space, despite the presence of “liberated” women in European cuts of fashion.  Unlike Russia, where the figure of the babushka (the Russian grandmother) dominates public space, public space in Azerbaijan is distinctly male. Here, there is no sign of the male emasculation associated with Soviet-era repression (in which the state usurped the role of father) or with post-Soviet unemployment (which left men unable to provide). Indeed, neither Soviet nor post-Soviet economic struggles appear to have limited the size or cohesion of the Azerbaijani family, and Azerbaijani men remain central to family life. While not unaffected by Soviet life, Azerbaijani traditional culture remains exceptionally strong.

As a westerner, this vitality might not be immediately visible, for Azerbaijani streets tend to be filled with small groups of men who have apparently nothing to do. They gather at the junctions of streets, on the edges of the dvor, and around metro entrances. Shifting restlessly, but not with any sense of haste or impatience, they engage in long conversation marked by few words and multiple drags on a cigaret. Some of them are taxi drivers waiting for a customer to appear. Others appear to be arranging a deal of some sorts–a swap, a trade, or something else. Some are surely pensioners, while others are probably unemployed. High unemployment alone cannot explain this phenomenon, however, for in places such as Russia or Georgia, similar post-Soviet unemployment rates failed to produce this male-dominated street scene. The men on Azerbaijani streets signal something else–namely, that public space is coded male.

This gender coding is unmistakable. For every woman in the metro after dark, there are at least a dozen men. In the heart of Baku, men and women together remain out late, but this does not change the overall gender imbalance on the street after dark. Males dominate the night, and to some extent they even dominate the day, for they are the ones responsible for public errands as opposed to domestic chores. Azerbaijani teahouses are purely male “hang outs,” and even public parks seem to privilege men, who gather there to play chess, dominoes, and backgammon, or perhaps just sit.

Not that women are entirely absent from public space; only, they tend to be busy with activities other than leisurely conversation in the street. When small clusters of 2-5 women appear, they are generally on their way to somewhere, never stopped on a street corner.  Although women do frequent restaurants and cafes, these are crowded and expensive mixed-gender spaces. Bathhouses are gender segregated, but going to the banya is regarded as something that “the boys” do when seeking to relax or bond. Women do occasionally stop and chat together in the dvor, but not as often as men, and they are usually busy supervising children as they talk. In any case, the dvor is something of an extended familial space, being only quasi-public. The hair salon provides a site for female sociability outside the home, but such salons consist of interiors sheltered by curtains from public view.

Despite male dominance over public space, women walk Azerbaijani streets with remarkable freedom from harassment. As a rule, Azerbaijani men do not ogle women. They make no unwelcome advances, and one has the sense that they would be dreadfully embarrassed if some action on their part caused offense to a woman. Moreover, such respect is granted no matter what the woman’s attire–headscarf or revealing “European” cut of clothes. Freedom of dress may be a legacy of the Soviet past–of an imposed secularism in which fashion was a mark of cosmopolitan sensibility, but thankfully it’s a practice that has lingered. This is a world where women have the freedom to choose–to work or not work, to sport a headscarf or not. They can also wander into “male” space and not be harassed.

This spatial arrangement is tied to domesticity, being a city-wide expression of household arrangements that sustain the family. Yes, Azerbaijani women may opt for careers or European dress, but nearly all have families, and the pressure to bear children is very high. To support family, which Azerbaijanis value deeply, men assist in childcare, running errands and taking children outdoors to play. Meanwhile, women cook, clean, and keep the home in order, whether or not they have careers. Despite women’s freedom of career, social roles tend toward the traditional, and the street’s gender code illustrates this. Male-coded streets not only reflect the political and economic dominance of men over women (top posts in Azerbaijan are, of course, dominated by men), but also a deep male-female interconnectedness–that is, a shared strategy for managing all space, both interior and exterior.

Navigating such spaces can be complex, for class and neighborhood also divvy up Baku’s urban terrain. In Baku’s large markets, where low-brow and more transient men appear, a “ruffian” may comment on some woman’s clothing, provoking a fistfight with “her” man.  The offending comment might be relatively innocent by western standards–a mere reference to a logo on a shirt, perhaps; but, such remarks represent a transgression, an impropriety that insults the woman’s honor and thus that of the man. Such conflicts involve manhood–that is, the male defense of honor and territory, as defined by the woman and her relationship to these men. In a typical scenario, a man from a middle- or upper-class neighborhood enters the “lower” world of the market. The man in the market then responds, challenging the newcomer’s social code and place at the same time.  Cultural and economic differentials help provoke the conflict. Class and territorial boundaries–not just gender lines–are at play.

To understand this complicating feature of the gendered landscape, it’s important to remember that Soviet Baku was historically divided into neighborhoods, each with its own codes of dress and comportment. Many were ethnically mixed, turning “territoriality” into an expression of class. Memoirs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s describe how young men in one neighborhood organized to keep “their” women away from the men of other neighborhoods; in fact, dating a woman from another neighborhood was a sort of “coup.” Women could cross neighborhood boundaries, but the men who accompanied them might be challenged by men from competing neighborhoods. In other words, the male coding of urban space in Baku did not exclude women, but left games of trade, influence, and policing to the men.

Perhaps ironically, Azerbaijan’s male dominance on the street appears to benefit women. In Russia or Georgia, where women “occupy” public space to the same degree as men, women require male accompaniment after dark, for harassment and assault are not uncommon. Yet in Baku, where men rule the street, women are generally safe from verbal or physical harassment, as if virtually veiled and protected from objectification. They are defined, after all, in relationship to men–as wives, mothers, sisters, and neighbors, all in a world where family traditionally extends into the dvor and the dvor into the neighborhood. Far from marking the “bogey men” of unemployment or conservative Islam, then, Baku’s male-dominated street marks the resilience of a complex traditional social code, one that is post-Soviet and yet distinct to Azerbaijan.

All of which highlights the variability in Islamic practice, something all too often forgotten in popular western conceptions of Islam. Thanks to Soviet influence, the strict Islamic segregation of space according to gender has broken down, leaving a milder gender code that nonetheless protects many of the fundamental principles that Islamic practices were designed to uphold, starting with respect for women. In striking contrast to southern Azerbaijan (i.e. northern Iran), Azerbaijani women in post-Soviet space enjoy freedom that defies the boundaries cast both by conservative Islam and by the West’s conception of it. Unlike the state-imposed boundaries of Iran or the imagined Islam of the West, Azerbaijan’s boundaries are complex and evolving, influenced by Iranian and Soviet pasts and a distinctly Azerbaijani present in which the boundaries of class, nation, faith, and gender shift continually.