Last week I watched again the FCO’s “Going for Green” film about the 2012 Olympics and the sustainability agenda which is at the heart of London’s preparations. We were showing the film to some local architects, urban planners and are now planning to take it to show to urban planning students. Obviously the film is now a year old and a huge amount has happened at the Olympic Park. But it’s still a very striking film, bringing out the scale of the project and the ambitions for it, and the groundbreaking solutions the architects and engineers have come up with to realise it.
What struck me most forcibly this time was the vision of turning largely derelict, contaminated industrial wasteland into a new urban park, preserving and developing the wildlife habitats alongside the sports facilities and what will be a new community after the Games finish. It’s a refreshing change from concerns about development of green field sites and should have some resonance in Yerevan.
One of the sadder sights for me over my 4 years in Yerevan has been seeing what remains of the park around the Opera and the “green belt” around the city centre disappearing under ever extending cafes and restaurants. It’s striking to look back at pictures of these areas from the Soviet period.
And places where there could have been opportunities to increase the green space in the city centre, for example around the Surb Katoghike church, have been passed up in favour of more construction. I’ve just seen pictures of proposals to redevelop Victory Park which would also seem to mean much of it would disappear under construction. Meanwhile derelict or half-completed buildings and waste ground remain undeveloped. Some people would argue the cafes are busy and popular. But where is the space for children to play, or for people to sit without having to pay?
More encouragingly, we have seen some results for spontaneous campaigns to challenge development which threatens natural resources, both in the city and outside it. The recent success of the campaign to save the Trchkan waterfall is striking. It’s always difficult to balance the pressures for development and commercial interests against environment. But getting that right and preserving the environmental heritage and biodiversity is crucial for a country like Armenia which still has considerable potential for developing sustainable tourism and activities which could directly benefit the regions and villages which most sorely need development opportunities.
The decision to halt development at Trchkan is encouraging if it marks a move towards greater responsiveness to public concerns, and if it is matched by increased transparency and steps to tackle corruption. More action to tackle deforestation and save forests from illegal logging would also be welcome; we sponsored a report in 2007 on “The Economics of Armenia’s Forest Industry” and it may be time to look at a further update five years on. Although I haven’t yet seen a direct causal connection estabished, it’s hard not to speculate that deforestation could be one cause of serious landslides.
The previous Mayor of Yerevan made some clear statements on his opposition to development at the expense of green space. I hope the new Mayor will confirm that commitment and ensure it is reflected in practice. And, as we get closer to parliamentary elections next year, I hope we will also see the political parties developing clear commitments to make environmental issues a priority.