Almaty City Development: Taking Chances
The Master Plan for the Almaty Development, approved in December 2002, was the first urban planning document of this scale to be drawn up under conditions dictated by a market economy. Its implementation, which is anticipated for 2020, is intended to bring Kazakhstan’s only metropolis to a completely new international level. However, according to experts the interim results cast some doubt over whether this goal is achievable.
City districts and residential areas
The main objective of the master plan is a set of urban planning measures aimed at creating a safe environment with convenient and pleasant living conditions. The main architectural aim is to preserve and enhance the image of Almaty as a City of Gardens.
The plans are extremely impressive and include the removal of resource-intensive industries which are environmentally unsafe. It also includes the development of tourist sites in Almaty, large scale landscaping of the river banks, an increase in the geographically landscaped area from 4 ha to 14.2 ha, together with the laying of new water and heat supply lines and other engineering systems. This is only a small part of those undoubtedly admirable plans envisaged by the Almaty Architectural Committee six years ago.
In line with the master plan for the Southern Capital, performance targets in the key areas of architectural development should result in a threefold increase in gross regional production between 2000 and 2020, a 2.5 fold increase in investments in real terms, and more than a doubling of per capita income.
Alongside this, Kanat Berentayev, Director of the Public Policy Research Centre, believes the Almaty Development Plan is out of touch with reality and is based entirely on wide ranging statements, which could be used to draw up development plans for any city. For example, by 2020 the municipal housing construction should total 1.9 million sq. metres, which is an average of approximately 90,000 sq. metres per year. This, in turn, represents approximately 1,200 apartments per year, according to the ratio specified in the main urban planning document. Berentayev is certain that "As the majority of the population is employed in Government financed institutions, we may safely predict that their housing problems will not be resolved.”
According to Berentayev, the master plan is a systematically validated long term improvement plan to develop a city with a single social and economic structure. With this in mind it should provide an ideal combination of pleasant conditions for work, rest and play. In new cities these difficulties can be resolved from the outset by using modern architectural solutions. In Kazakhstan, an example of development of a city area is the construction of the left bank in Astana. However, in old, established cities this has to be brought about gradually through renovation.
Both methods had to be utilised in the development of Almaty. On one hand, a new image of a modern city should be created in open areas by building complexes based on the concept of a seamless blend of urban buildings with the natural elements in structurally designed open spaces.
On the other hand, the plan should cater for the gradual modernisation of historic areas of the city, whilst preserving the existing architectural complex as much as possible. In addition, the architectural policy should provide for both the large-scale residential construction programme as well as the building of more up-market communities outside the existing city boundaries.
In the years following the implementation of the master plan, the reality is that Almaty has not only failed to reach international standards, but it has lost much of its individuality. The lack of a clear policy has led to disorganised building work which has upset the environmental balance of the city and deprived it of its historical landscape.
The dense development and the growing number of unplanned car parks has resulted in common areas adjacent to apartment buildings becoming almost extinct in Almaty. In addition the extra storeys added to old buildings have not only ignored the original architectural plans, but have also given a new look to the central part of the city, which now has somewhat disorganised appearance. New buildings give rise to even more complaints.
“In essence, each new site may be a masterpiece of architectural design, but as a whole the area simply looks like a collection of buildings not joined by any common theme. For example, the supervising authorities have allowed an extension to the floor area of the Stolichny supermarket by taking over the adjacent pavement, the erection of an enormous apartment building in place of the old Theatre for Youth, as well as locating new buildings within the common area of existing residential neighbourhoods” Berentayev says in disbelief. “An example is set by cities such as Kiev and Minsk which impress me. For instance, in Kiev the city centre is almost unchanged. Even though some buildings have undergone internal renovation, the exterior has remained the same, and just repaired. This city has retained practically all its greenery. Saint-Petersburg also leaves a similar impression,” Berentayev continues.
The lack of any policy on structural design in Almaty also explains the widespread construction of private villas within the natural park areas as well as the decline in green areas as a result of street widening. According to Berentayev, “Because the chaotic construction does not sit well alongside the established architectural image of the city and landscape, Almaty is unrecognisable and has lost its personality.”
Economy and infrastructure come first
According to experts, a master plan for city development should, in general, be based on economic considerations. In other words, issues concerning long-term economic development should provide a basis for city development. Ideally, a city development concept should come before the master plan is adopted. The first of such concepts was developed as early as 1996, when the capital was transferred to Akmolinsk. However it is unclear whether this concept was ever updated.
“It is remarkable that the master plan does not even include clearly expressed industrial, investment, structural, regional or other policies.” Berentayev believes that the plan simply comprises a collection of unconnected investment projects which are included in this or other development strategy, but are in no way connected to each other, the potential of natural resources, or the requirements of the country.
For example, the Almaty development plan envisages the construction of a bioethanol production plant, even though there are plans to build similar facilities in more than ten other regions of Kazakhstan. It seems that almost every region wants to establish its own biofuel production not so much because it is economically efficient, but more because these provisions are allegedly innovative projects and will therefore qualify for particular benefits and preferential treatment. The same is true for silica production as the starting point in the manufacture of state of the art microelectronics and photo cells. In Karaganda the construction of such a plant is almost complete and there are proposals to instigate similar projects at the Aktau Sea Port and possibly in other cities throughout Kazakhstan.
The general plan should maintain continuity of development and use the historically established scientific, technological and human capabilities to their full potential. “In this respect I agree that despite the transfer of the capital to Astana, Almaty will always remain the principal city for the country. In order to retain this title, the master plan should be based on clear development plans which are lacking in the current reasoning,” Berentayev emphasises.
The name Almaty not only refers to the city, but to adjacent rural areas as well as small and medium-sized towns. Essentially, we are seeing the establishment of the Almaty Economic Area, which may well involve close links with nearby settlements both in terms of food supplies and the relocation of certain industrial facilities. “This could mean building an Almaty metropolis similar to Moscow and the surrounding districts of Podmoskovje, or Saint-Petersburg and the Leningrad region.” The key factor is a well developed transport infrastructure which would facilitate commuting by speeding up travel between Almaty and the neighbouring regions. This could release the metropolis from environmentally unsafe production facilities, increase employment in the suburban districts, control population growth and reduce the burden on the city infrastructure.
However, these bright visions are shattered by an unpleasant reality. According to Alexander Kalinin, Executive Director of the Kazakhstan Association of Evaluators, Almaty has now lost its charm and has become the city of ‘one task a day’. This is because time wasted in traffic jams does not allow daily planned tasks to be completed. The same goes for parking problems, main communication lines being used to the point of collapse, traffic blocked by construction works, and more. “Clearly, construction of road junctions will not resolve the problems in the central part of the city where bottlenecks occur. Under these circumstances the prospect of Almaty becoming a regional financial centre may well be hindered by issues connected with transport, environment and communications. It may also be a barrier to hosting the Asian Olympic Games,” concludes Mr Kalinin.
This is not what we want
It is no secret that prior to the financial crisis the authorities had appointed private developers and companies to implement many of the infrastructure projects. As a result these companies invested massive sums in the projects in a bid to retain loyalty from the municipal authorities. According to Kalinin, Basis A Company has invested 6.5bn tenge on road building at the junction of Al Farabi and Furmanov streets. However, now that the liquidity situation has changed so dramatically, many developers are in debt and the authorities are forced to support them financially.
For the month of May only, developers in Almaty received 22.4bn tenge from state budget funds to complete the construction of residential buildings. They will receive a further payment of 17bn tenge by the third quarter of 2008. In total, more than 58bn tenge will be paid to developers in Almaty.
Meanwhile, the Almaty authorities have promised that the financial crisis will not have any impact on the implementation of the master plan. Viktor Dolzhenkov, the deputy mayor of Almaty, states that construction companies who received plots of land to enable them to fulfil their existing contractual obligations (as well as their own commercial projects) will be able to continue working on infrastructure projects. “Currently, the partnership between the authorities and the commercial sector dictates that schools and hospitals are built at the expense of investors. Under a signed agreement, there is an advance payment enabling investors to construct social facilities at their own expense, for which they subsequently receive compensation. In this way investors speed up the construction and commissioning of social facilities,” says Mr Dolzhenkov. He emphasised that there is no shortage of offers from investors who are ready for such collaboration.
The experts who answered our survey are of completely the opposite opinion. They believe the development plan is unlikely to be completed within the remaining 12 years, particularly when the current rate of development is taken into account, and they provide arguments in support of this stance. Firstly, the endorsed stipulations of the master plan are, at present, simply being ignored. Striking examples of this are the massive buildings in the clean zone near the rivers, or the building designs in the historic part of the city which are far from ‘classic’ in style. Secondly, within the next few years, experts believe that we are unlikely to see the degree of commercial construction similar to what we recently referred to as the ‘construction boom’. Thirdly, state budget allocations for building and renovation within the engineering infrastructure are also being reduced.
Even so, according to Oleg Alferov, Director of the Qncepto consultancy, one of the main barriers to implementing the master plan is the comprehension of the architectural policy in its current form. On one hand, the city authorities are ready to depart from the master plan, which is understandable as investments which do not comply with the requirements of the general plan are still better than no investments at all. On the other hand, construction companies take risks in the initial stages, when they buy plots of land often without knowing “What can or cannot be built on the plot, primarily in terms of access to communications”. Alferov refers to Europe as the standard where "planning for land use not only imposes strict limitations on the type and scale of buildings, but offers a detailed plan for constructions which employ municipal resources. The latter condition ensures the availability of communications in the area as well as fixing the cost of it. Of course, in this case a master plan would be followed to the letter and sponsors would be happy to invest in a totally transparent project."
According to Mr Alferov, developers in our country build engineering lines themselves on acquired plots, and spend years obtaining all the consents which results in a high construction cost. “No one can guarantee that a glass tower or some other structure will not appear next to villas built by a developer. In addition, the landscape design produced by the developers inevitably favours the developer, and is often not in the best interests of the city”.
Experts agree that Almaty needs a new master development plan and that the concept of area development should be open to discussion and subject to public review. Most importantly, once accepted the plan should, without any exceptions, be followed meticulously.
For 2008, the Almaty city budget is 182bn tenge:25bn will be spent in the education sector23bn will be spent on public health and 4.5bn will be spent on social security.11.8bn tenge will be used for the construction of educational and public health facilities32bn has been allocated to implementing the Residential Development Programme and will be used for the construction of housing covering 470,000 sq. metres, which includes 40,000 sq. metres of rental apartments.
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