Azerbaijan: Baku's vanishing vegetation
Green space is dwindling in Azerbaijan’s capital. Plans to remodel the Botanical Garden appear to make the problem worse.
The Baku Botanical Garden, one of the city's last bastions of thriving plant life, is under renovation, and leaked images of the proposed plans have highlighted how the Azerbaijani capital's green space is dwindling.
In January, Azerbaijani media published images of projections for Baku's Central Botanical Garden, which closed for renovation in November 2022. The plans, reportedly drawn up by Baku-based MB Architects, depict new buildings and pedestrian overpasses, as well as a parking lot. The company also designed Nizami Ganjavi Park and Chambarakand Park in Baku in similar styles.
"Old buildings in the area will be reconstructed and replaced with new ones, such as the institute and its greenhouses. A key consideration in the design process was to minimize the impact on the existing green portion of the site as well as a future green program," Bakuplus.az quoted MB Architects as saying.
But Baku residents weren't impressed by the images, which showed large swathes of land paved or tiled over, denuded of vegetation.
"What I don't understand is that there were so many trees – where did they disappear to? They [authorities] will come up with an excuse that the trees were dry or they were not there from the beginning. But what is the renovation for?" Narmin Salmanova, news anchor at Public TV, asked in a Facebook post. "Shouldn't new trees be planted instead? What are those gaps they left in the middle [of the images]? We already have a strange concept of a 'park' anyway – a desert paved with slippery tiles and a bush. We don't find a tree to provide shade in the summer, and now the Botanical Garden will be bald, too?"
Reminded by her colleagues that the images weren't official, Salmanova added: "As a citizen, I'm worried about it becoming a Winter Park-style wasteland,” referring to another manicured space with few trees. “I hope we won't see a desert of just grass. This is a sunny, warm country and city. We seek shade all year round. Our city has already transitioned from a green city to a concrete city in the last 50 years. As a Bakuvian, I want to see the [Botanical] Garden as a forest."
Another resident, journalist Zemfira Alibayova, who visited the Botanical Garden in October, also expressed dislike of the images. "This looks more like an entertainment venue or a shopping mall inside a green space, than a botanical garden," she told Eurasianet.
Following the social media backlash, the Baku City Executive Authority denied that the images were part of the plan. "The information spread about reducing the number of trees does not reflect the truth; on the contrary, the existing greenery will be preserved," it told the media. "When it comes to the images in question, they are only one of the many projects that were initially submitted by individual authors but not approved."
The images, real or not, have led many Bakuvians like Salmanova to grapple with their hometown's rapid loss of green space in recent decades.
Baku's Botanical Garden, founded in 1934, has long been neglected, and there have been reports of trees being cut there in 2014 and last May.
In May 2022, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating 25 million manats (about $15 million) to the city to oversee renovation and construction in the garden. "As an important natural monument, the Central Botanical Garden has an important role in terms of environmental protection, nature protection and scientific research, teaching and education for all sections of the population," the decree read.
But Alibayova, the journalist, who is a regular visitor, says the garden has long been neglected. "The most uncared-for parts of the garden were the ponds, which used to be full of fish and now go untended," she recalled of a visit last October, shortly before the facility was closed for renovation.
Different reports scrutinizing satellite images of Baku have suggested that the city's green space has shrunk considerably over the decades.
Telman Zeynalov, head of the National Center of Environmental Forecasting, a non-governmental organization, links Baku's vanishing greenery to its rapid growth. "Trees are being cut and skyscrapers are being built," he told Eurasianet. "If Baku had remained [a city] with only a million and a half people, nothing would have happened to its green spaces."
Baku's population was just over 2.3 million as of January 2022, according to the State Statistics Committee. Yet because there is little data on the large numbers of people who have migrated from rural areas to the capital for work, unofficial estimates put the current population at well over 3 million, twice the official population of 1.6 million people in 1999.
Another ecologist, Sadig Hasanov, told Public TV in June 2022 that nearly 45,000 square meters of green space had been destroyed in Baku in the last decade.
The World Health Organization's ideal green space per capita in urban areas is 50 square meters, with a recommended minimum of nine square meters per capita. But in Baku that figure is only seven, according to Public TV. Green space occupies just over 5 percent of the Azerbaijani capital, while in European capitals the average is 41 percent.
A law on greenery in residential spaces, approved in 2016, requires that 40 percent of the area of new residency complexes and 25 percent of redesigned older residences be green. It is common knowledge that most old residences fall short of this requirement.
Local and central authorities have long blamed each other for felling urban trees.
Neither the Baku City Executive Authority nor the Ministry of Ecology answered Eurasianet's calls seeking comment.
Various experts, as well as officials, have blamed the lack of a Baku "master plan" for the shrinking green space. One official from the Ministry of Ecology said during a discussion of the topic on Public TV in June 2022 that the ministry had submitted proposals to various agencies to work together on preserving greenery in Baku, but the fact that there's no approved master plan delays the work.
Azerbaijan's State Committee of Urban Planning and Architecture did prepare and publish a master plan for Baku on its website. The section devoted to the environment says the target green space per capita is eight square meters.
The master plan covers the period from 2020 until 2040, though it has still not been approved. Most recently, the committee chairman, Anar Guliyev, told journalists in December 2022 that the plan was submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers and "will receive approval soon."
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.
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