Lost in Green Space

One can hardly imagine a modern city without a public space where its citizens can escape the stress of urban life by stretching out and relaxing on green lawns. Vake Park and Dighomi Woods in Tbilisi are such places, even though they may not approach the scale of Central Park in New York City, Hyde Park in London, Parc Montsouris or Tuileries Garden in Paris. A segment of Georgian society, however, is fearful that the future of our capital city parks is endangered by encroachment from urban development.
   In the footsteps of constant infrastructure development, the city landscape and its politics are ever-changing. The criticism that invariably accompanies each change is sometimes fair and sometimes results from a lack of information. Many people believe that the Tbilisi government is inconsistent in its decisions concerning the urban landscape and that those in charge make political “compromises” by sacrificing the city’s oldest trees to its newest construction plans. Critics complain such decisions are unjustifiable, especially when it takes decades for young plants to replace mature trees cut down in the name of “progress.”
   There have been instances when trees were cut down after construction had already been completed, creating the impression of complete indifference to the natural environment. One recent example was the uprooting of several old trees by a development company after it had finished construction at a site on Irakli Abashidze Street in the Vake district, just opposite the former building of the Finance Ministry. 
   Erekle Urushadze, a project manager for Transparency International Georgia, complains about dwindling green zones in Tbilisi. The green territories of Vake Park, the Hippodrome, Dighomi Woods, the Vere River gorge have all been diminishing in recent years, he notes.
   For their part, the people in charge of the changing city landscape assert that this process is being carefully planned and that nothing alarming is happening with the natural environment. In any event, permission must first be obtained from the Architecture Service of the Tbilisi city government before any tree can be cut down within city limits. Representatives of the Tbilisi Mayor’s Office offer objective reasons for cutting down city trees: Besides hindering ongoing construction, some trees threaten to damage existing infrastructure too. For example, tree roots that had intruded into the basements of buildings on Aghmashenebeli Avenue made it impossible to carry out wide-scale restoration works there without cutting down those trees. Trees have also been cut down on city pavements with the aim of broadening pedestrian walkways and/or accommodating additional vehicle parking.
    Giorgi Korkashvili, the Head of the Ecology and Greenery Planting Department of the Tbilisi Mayor’s Office, asserts that each case is considered separately. As he sees it, the situation is not at all dramatic: “Cutting down trees results from intensive development works and is a painful topic for us as well, but there are instances when you cannot avoid that.”
   Sometimes uprooted trees have been replaced with young plants, including those of a decorative type. For example, several weeks ago sprouts were planted instead of plane trees along Aghmashenebeli Avenue as well as on Chavchavadze Avenue to replace old trees that had been cut down in order to provide car parking in front of a new shopping mall. Several years ago, the tilia bushes planted to replace basswoods on Melikishvili Avenue soon withered away.
   People opposed to cutting down city trees do not like the city’s replacement strategy either. They think that young plants simply cannot replace old trees. Not only are old trees not replaced at all in some places, but in those places in which they are replaced, the replacements are smaller-size trees of only a decorative nature. “Planting sprouts in outlying areas of the city does not much benefit its central district, especially given that no one takes care of those sprouts and many of them soon wither away. The replacement of cut trees or big dry trees with such trees inside the city does not happen,” Erekle Urushadze contends.
   According to Urushadze, the problem lies with the Greenery Planting Department itself because it does not – or cannot – conduct the necessary studies and also lacks a list of tree species suitable for planting in Tbilisi given ecological conditions in the capital. At the same time, preventive measures are not undertaken and, as a result, trees of various species in Tbilisi – tilia, horse chestnut, cedar and pine trees among them – become diseased and dried out. Moreover, norms are not observed when trimming and pruning mature trees, which is one of the reasons why they dry out. 
   Ecology and Greenery Planting Department Head Giorgi Korkashvili denies these accusations. He maintains that the earlier politics of planting greenery in Tbilisi have changed. For example, if a location is windy, black poplars or plane trees are now planted; in other locations, priority is given to evergreen species, including decorative plants. Korkashvili says that relevant work and lab analysis are undertaken at each concrete location before any planting is done in order to identify such environmental variables as which sprout will grow best in the type of soil in that location, how windy the territory is, and how often the planting requires watering. Identifying those variables is the responsibility of the Mayor’s Ecology and Greenery Planting Department whereas the actual work is performed by the private laboratory or research institution that wins the tender announced for that work.
   The Mayor’s Office, however, has had problems with the winners of its tenders as well. Not long ago, it cancelled a contract with the company Greenservice, which had won a tender in February 2012 and sold some one-hundred-twenty young cypress trees to the city government for GEL 225,000. After Transparency International Georgia expressed doubts about that cost, it came to light that Greenservice had purchased the trees at a lower-than-market price but neglected to reflect that fact in its tender documentation submitted to the Mayor’s Office. The city government assessed the company’s conduct as a failure to conscientiously perform its assumed obligation to the state and referred the case to law enforcement bodies for further consideration.
   Winners in a new tender will start planting new greenery in the nearest future. Observers are hoping that the services provided will be reasonably targeted and will spare the city budget expenditures for plants doomed to wither away. 
   On the one hand, it is understandable that some consider ecology a luxury in a country in which a large segment of the population is poor and unemployed and more concerned about feeding their families than preserving city trees. Those who do view clean air and green spaces as high priorities do not represent a significant electoral factor. Hence, political forces do not feel compelled to pay much attention to their demands. And, as experience has shown, any bureaucracy that is not held accountable can, and often does, act in a chaotic and incompetent way.
   In the future, the issue of ecology will likely become more topical, along with economic growth. If anything, it is hard to imagine citizens of a modern developed city not welcoming the opportunity to lie in tranquility on a green lawn after a busy day.
   For now, if you are lucky enough to find a patch of grass in Tbilisi, be prepared to ward off public security officers who are quick to assert their power: It is prohibited to lie on a lawn in Tbilisi. 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 107, published 2 July 2012.


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