ნოემბერი 2, 2015 § დატოვე კომენტარი
Vere Ravine: The Landscape of Contrasts
Every political ideology creates its own urban landscapes. The aim of each new political actor is to gain more power and therefore to morph the landscapes towards the aesthetics that would serve as a representation of certain standards set by the ideologues. In order to be more powerful and iconic these landscapes need homogeneity; the layers of the history and lifestyle that contradicts the new ideology should be erased and a new lifestyle needs to be propagated through the newly constructed landscapes. But to reach the homogeneity of the landscape is almost impossible, as the natural, political, economical and social forces that form these landscapes are diverse, operate simultaneously and mostly contradict each other. These overlapping forces create eclectic, dynamic and segmented spaces where the contrast between the past and the future is very vivid and tangible. Vere Ravine is a distinct example of the landscape of contrasts; Soviet heritage and neoliberal politics, squatters and privileged class, nature and urban development, all these aspects together constitute the landscape of the ravine.
Vere Ravine historically was integrated in the city structure as a recreational area. It is a long green artery running through the center of Tbilisi. The Vere River, one of the right tributaries of the river Mtkvari, was always an important part of the ecological and airing system of the city. The ravine, on historical maps, started to appear as part of Tbilisi from the second half of the 19th century. The very first construction interventions in the ravine started during the Soviet Union, when in 1927 a zoological park was laid out on the left bank of the river. Later, with the growth of the city, it became necessary to develop connections between different districts neighboring the ravine; in the 30s Heroes Square evolved as a strong transport node at the outfall of the River Mtkvari and later Ikalto Mountain was cut through with Tamarashvili Street. In the 1950s, because of increasing housing shortages as a result of urbanization processes promoted by Stalin, arbitrary slum types of housing construction developments appeared inside the ravine. Later, in the 70s and 80s due to favorable natural conditions for development of residential neighborhoods, an intense multistorey housing construction process took place on both banks of the river. But the danger of damaging the Vere River’s natural environment was so obvious that the approach of Soviet urbanists changed and it was decided to conserve and enrich the possibilities of the ravine as a recreational area. The idea was to build a children’s city “Mziuri”, that was meant to be a 13 kilometer long park with a train ride all along, starting from the Betania Settlement to Heroes Square. Only a part of the idea, the one close to the zoological park was realized in 1982. “Mziuri” developed as a busy public space and to this day it is used by many.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a transition happened from a bureaucratic socialism to capitalism. Central planning institutions: The State Planning Committee (GOSPLAN) and The State Committee for Construction (GOSSTROY) responsible for urban planning, construction and state owned land redistribution, were deregulated. Privatization processes, also known as denationalization, started as part of the wave of neoliberalism. Neoliberalisation processes impacted urban planning and development, and pushed them towards a market-oriented direction. Soviet town planning documents became irrelevant, since neoliberal urban planning needs more flexible intervention mechanisms for increasing investment opportunities.
During the 90s unemployment and poverty lead people to sell their houses. While in the Vere Ravine, without any infrastructure and accessibility, it was easy to squat or buy the land for a very low price. Therefore since the 1990s’ the tendency of building unsystematic, unplanned constructions in the immediate proximity to the river has become very frequent. In some cases the citizens would even build their houses right in the riverbed. This resulted in degradation of the natural landscape and minimization of green spaces. As a result of deregulation of the necessary institutions and fast growing urbanization, the water system and its habitat slowly lost their recreational function. The general attitude towards the river has become consumeristic; The river has morphed into a place for sewage and a garbage dump.
As mentioned above most of the people living inside the ravine moved into this area for different social inequality reasons. Most of them were illegal and squatting on the land. This part of the city was closed off from view, so there was more freedom and less restrictions regarding land use and construction. Most of the population in the ravine used the land around for gardening. The overall impression was a village of a sort in the center of the city: small houses with gardens and orchards on the hills and the river flowing beside. People in the ravine used to do gardening and even fishing. In 2001 an ordinance to regulate land use in Tbilisi was adopted, which meant to identify land use types and determine building construction parameters. But preparation of a land use zoning map was postponed, since the privilege was given in the interest of developers and investors who were mainly building multistorey housing inside low storey housing areas. Construction processes in the city were not intense and clearly visible until the next transition period, which happened after the Rose Revolution in 2003 during the governance of United National Movement Party with right-wing ideology. Extant rudimentary Neoliberal economics were strengthened by supporting privatization processes and by deregulation of construction and planning institutions. As a result, a completely new landscape emerged after 2003. Inspired from examples of western planning (mainly German) and construction regulations, first attempts were made for preparation of planning documents. In 2007, for pre-election populism, the government issued a decree for allowing legalization of arbitrarily occupied lands. A campaign named “What is Yours is Yours” was launched. But the way legalization was issued pointed to selective issuing politics for the benefit of a specific group of society. This campaign prepared the groundwork for the future construction boom in the city. In 2008, after the conflict in South Osetia, an operational General Land Use Plan (Master Plan) for the whole of Tbilisi was prepared and approved in 2009. Together with this document the ordinance for land use regulation from 2001 was changed and generalized, making it more flexible and leaving more room for questionable construction projects. Within the practice of neoliberal urban development it seems that planning is being downgraded, its only function is to adjust plans to the demands of various actors: investors, donor organizations, developers, NGOs and politicians.
One of the most radical changes in Vere Ravine happened in 2010, when Chabua Amirejibi Highway was constructed. A three kilometer long highway was built in the center of Tbilisi. It cuts through the ravine, and intrudes upon the riverbed of the Vere River, passes the zoo, Mziuri Park, Soviet-built blocks, slums, wooden houses, a newly built police station, an emergency station, and private gardens. The project was approved by City Hall without any proper design documentation or necessary studies implemented. It was said that the construction company was constructing the highway parallel to the ongoing design process. The formal reason for this intervention was the general transportation problem in the city caused by the growing number of private cars concluding in traffic jams during rush hours. However, over the last few decades city planning practice has proved that roads do not solve traffic problems they create traffic problems. By increasing accessibility by cars, the demand on cars increases and service for public transportation declines. Implementation of this project served many interests of the autocratic government of that time: pre-election populism temporarily created workplaces and economic development. Due to all the above mentioned developments, the city almost lost one of its best recreational areas in the center. The highway was cut through the ravine after six months of completion of Tbilisi’s General Land Use Plan (Master Plan). The plan did not include the highway project. Resistance towards this construction started. Under the governance of the United National Movement’s Party civil activism was not strong. The “Save Mziuri” movement was mainly concerned with saving Mziuri Park, when the problem was much broader and should have been approached in a much more complex way. Fast construction speed, top-down decision making, weak resistance, no solidarity and lack of acknowledgment of the importance to protest, all of these together were helping an ongoing neoliberal processes in the city. As a result, the highway created much more polarized space inside the ravine. The police and emergency stations were the only new buildings considered in the infrastructure of the highway and were located on the strategically selected areas for better surveillance. Also, newly constructed multistorey buildings were advertised for their good location and beautiful view over the ravine. All the rest of the surrounding slum type housing development was neglected. The pedestrian use of the highway was also undermined. In the design process the integration of public transportation was not intended. It was purely commodity for people who use private cars. The areas around the highway became more accessible and visible for investors. It became fertile ground for new construction sites. The construction of the highway was followed by new developments in the ravine. The tendency of the constructions increased risks towards total gentrification of this area while maximizing consumption of recreational zones through privatization in order to make more space for capital accumulation. The landscape in the Vere Ravine started to manifest empowering neoliberal ideology: economical development based on open, competitive and an unregulated market. The landscape started to change and more sterile aesthetics appeared.
In neoliberal economics land under government property are used as one of the main commodities for gaining profit. The land is divided by price value. It is the best source for income and profit. But since the land is so valuable the most non-valuable land, with bad infrastructure, inaccessibility, bad views and so on, are left for the marginalized and poor society, where there are higher risks for natural disasters.
The Vere River is known for its overflows. The overflows that caused severe damage occurred in 1924, 1961 and the last on the 13th of June, 2015. The heavy rain and landslide in the Vere River’s catchment area caused huge water overflows in the ravine. The effects of the flood were intensified by the infrastructural developments; tunnels under Tamarashvili Street, Chabua Amiredjibi Highway and Heroes Square created barriers for the river, therefore the Vere River accumulated more water around these barriers and flooded the surrounding area. The river claimed its own riverbed. People were killed, many left homeless, the dog shelter was completely ruined, part of the Zoo was destroyed, many animals died, some escaped and most of them were killed afterwards. Mziuri Park was partially flooded and some areas of the Highway collapsed. The disaster caused infrastructural crises in the city.
A few different interpretations of this disaster appeared. The position of the left wing was that “Naturalization” of the disaster and reducing it to necessity was the interest of the elite; interventions implemented in different periods were carried out with defects and every government had its own share of responsibility. On the other hand, the government officials blamed soviet heritage and the people for the inadequate decision of building their houses in the area around the riverbed. Also, the Orthodox Church announced that the zoological park was based on sin and it was only natural that the disaster happened.
One thing has become apparent for everybody, something radically changed. The disaster cleared the space and opened up new discourse. The time after a disaster is the most vulnerable, but at the same time most fertile. Two main ways to reconstruct the ravine are evident: complete regeneration of the landscape as a recreational area, or new, grander construction opportunities for investors and developers. Neither of these approaches concerns the vulnerable part of the population – the victims of the disaster. Since it is clear that Vere Ravine is a high risk zone for living, the possibility for the inhabitants to live again in the ravine cannot be considered. Therefore the disaster deepened social differences and the victims are even more marginalized. Accommodation and integration of these people in the city is unclear as the government has no interest to allocate enough resources for the marginalized,leaving the victims with only one option, to squat on another non-valuable land.