Save Vake Park in Tbilisi

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Save Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2014

Yesterday saw a few hundred citizens and activists, along with some foreign residents, converge on one of Tbilisi’s central parks to oppose the construction of a hotel on what many consider to be its territory. Illegal construction and the decimation of green spaces has long been an issue in all three of the South Caucasus countries. An event page was posted on Facebook for the action.

კვირას, 14:00 ყველანი ვაკის პარკში – დავიკავოთ ვაკის პარკი! წამოიღეთ ბადმინტონი, ფრისბი, წიგნები, ბავშვები, ძაღლები და გავატაროთ ერთი სასიამოვნი დღე პარკში. ესეც პროტესტის ფორმაა. რუპორების და ყელში ამოსული საპროტესტო აქციების ალტერნატიული, სასიამოვნო ფორმა. ჩვენ ვდარაჯობთ ვაკის პარკს. ეს ჩვენი ვალია. მასშტაბურ აქციას შემდეგ შაბათს დავაანონსებთ. დავიწყოთ საპროტესტო “გირლიანდის” დამზადება – ყველამ წამოიღეთ ქსოვილზე(!) დაწერილი თქვენი ხელმოწერა წარწერით – “მე ვიცავ ვაკის პარკს” (დაახლ A4, ანუ თაბახის ფურცლის ზომა) – და გრძეელი გირლიანდის დამზადება დავიწყოთ ადგილზე. ვინც კვირას ვერ მოვა მერე და მერე დაამატებს თვის ხელმოწერას.

This coming Sunday (January 19th) at 14:00 we gather at Vake Park to protest against an insane plan of building the 7-floor hotel in it! Bring your Badminton rackets, Frisbee, Books, Kids, Pets and let’s have a fun day at the Park. We’ll be making a garland of protest with pieces of cloth (approx. A4 size) tied to each other so feel free to bring your own cloth of any color, with your name and words “I’m protecting Vake Park” (in your native language) on it.

Speaking to some of those assembled for the action, it seemed that many were resigned to not being able to prevent the construction from going continuing. According to them, the section of the park where the hotel will be built was privatised, thus raising questions about whether there are any legal means to stop it. However, it is unclear whether an environmental impact assessment — which should be conducted — was undertaken.

Democracy and Freedom Watch has more on opposition to the construction.

Environmental activists consider it illegal to construct what they claim will be a seven-storey hotel inside the park because it is a recreational zone, but City Hall says the property where the new hotel is planned is privately owned and not part of the park.

Opponents of the project mobilized supporters outside Tbilisi City Hall Friday for speeches and a small concert that lasted several hours.

They have written a complaint to Tbilisi City Hall, and also want to block the project by going to court, and demand a stop in the construction work until the court has made a decision.

But during a meeting with representatives of Tbilisi City Hall, the negotiations ended without results, so there will not be a halt in the construction work.

Tbilisi City Hall claims the construction is legal and that the location of the new hotel is private property.

Acting Mayor Sevdia Ugrekhelidze said permission has been granted and claimed that protesters are poorly informed because the area where the restaurant Budapest lies is not part of Vake Park. She also says that new hotel will have five floors.

“Tbilisi needs development, more hotels and beds.”

What is interesting, however, is that Tbilisi City Hall is still seen as United National Movement (UNM) controlled. Since the 2012 and 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections, the government and president is Georgian Dream aligned. Some government ministers have also spoken out about the construction.

Minister of Environment Khatuna Gogoladze said the same day that she is also against the construction of the new hotel. She says Tbilisi is densely populated, with a rapidly growing traffic. When planning new development under such conditions it is important to preserve the city’s recreational zones, she said.

Gogoladze said she thinks there shouldn’t be new construction projects in the central districts, and that green zones should be maintained if possible.

As rally participants plan to continue their campaign until a halt in construction work, some supporters abroad are posting videos to show how well European cities are taking care of their green lungs.

Environmental activists in neighbouring Armenia also came out in support of the protestors, posting a video in solidarity with their counterparts online.

Even so, I have to say, Mashtots Partk was a somewhat phyric victory. As you can see from the video, the area was mostly concrete and can hardly be called a park. In fact, most of Yerevan’s most important green areas, with the exception of Tumanyan Park away from the main commercial areas of Yerevan, have already destroyed.

Studies show that as a result of planting between 1928 and 1988, 1,930 hectares ofYerevanwere covered in trees. Green zones made up 11.4% of city land. In 1990-1995, during the energy crisis, 470 hectares of trees were cut down inYerevan, bringing the area covered by trees down to 7.3%. The energy crisis was overcome, but surprisingly, the deforestation has picked up speed. Between 1995 and 2000, an additional 700 hectares of trees were cut down for construction purposes. By 1998 the green zones had fallen to 3.4%. And today, the mayor keeps giving away parkland.

“In fact, today our city doesn’t have green zones; those isolated trees in the parks are powerless to influence the city’s vital functions. Green zones in parks must constitute 75-80% of the total area, pathways and roads 8%, squares 4-8%, and structures 2%. If these standards are not met it means the park as such doesn’t exist,” says the Chairwoman of the Ecological Association, Srbuhi Harutiunyan. The people committed to protectingYerevan’s green zones have not been very effective in their struggle, as they are the first to admit. “Armenians don’t like forests, they don’t like trees-they like stones and concrete,” Harutiunyan explains.

[…]

The most popular recreation zone inYerevan, the park surrounding the Opera House, has been transformed into a mass of cafés. “I take a completely different approach to the Opera. I think that it should be a municipal zone. The square should be expanded and merged with Hyusisayin (Northern) Avenue. It’s a huge town-planning issue. In this case, the whole area should be reconstructed. When we finish that project, it will be put up for wide discussion. Some cafés will be pulled down and the problem will be solved,” Sargisyan says.

But clearly, the chief-architect of Yerevan is powerless in the face of officials who place themselves above the law. It’s an open secret which government member controls which café? in the center ofYerevan. They themselves don’t deny it-indeed they proudly visit their own cafés, but on paper they prefer to mention the names of their mothers-in-law or distant relatives.

The fact is that the city is suffocating. The chief architect’s candid admissions don’t change that, nor do they free anyone from blame. Yerevan’s parks have been seized from the people by government officials-members of the National Assembly, ministers, presidential staffers, army generals, police chiefs -in short, the nation’s elite.

Here’s hoping the same doesn’t happen in Tbilisi.

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Save Vake Park, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian 2014

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