Central Asia is having something of a moment with new cities.
Last month, Turkmenistan officially inaugurated Arkadag, a would-be “smart city” named in honor of the former president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
The day after that ceremony took place, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov laid a symbolic foundation capsule for Asman, a city on the shores of the Issyk-Kul Lake that the government says could one day be home to as many as 700,000 people.
Neighboring nations, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are not to be left behind in this urbanization frenzy.
These grand city-building endeavors reflect an inexorable trend. More people from these traditionally rural nations are choosing to settle in compact population centers, where comforts are more readily available and employment is theoretically easier to find.
In the case of Turkmenistan, the most vivid case of urbanization has been a fully top-down exercise. Then-President Berdymukhamedov first appears to have had the idea of building Arkadag in 2018. Already by October that year, he was inspecting a spot about 30 kilometers from the capital, Ashgabat, that would one day be the site of a large urban center equipped with a government complex, apartment blocks, schools, shopping malls, banks, state-of-the-art hospitals and clinics, a theater, a library, a museum, a park, a stadium, and even a giant flagpole and a horse-breeding school.
Five years and several billion dollars later, the city is now a physical reality, albeit a mostly empty one.
Turkmen authorities are desperate to impress how modern Arkadag is. An intelligent transportation system will regulate the flow of traffic and residents will be monitored by pervasive video surveillance. The city’s apartment blocks and houses are reputedly fitted with smart home technology allowing dwellers to keep track of electricity, water and natural consumption via their tablets. (The government is eager that people start being far more parsimonious in their use of all of those things).
When the current president (and son of the former leader), Serdar Berdymukhamedov, visited a model home on the day of the inauguration, he was shown how even robot vacuum cleaners could be activated by remote command.
By the time the second stage of construction is done, by which time more than $5 billion will have been spent, Arkadag will span over an area of more than 1,000 hectares, a space five times the size of the principality of Monaco, and house 73,000 people. For now, though, the city appears little more than an eerie ghost town.
Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan has reported that residents of Ashgabat eligible to get housing in Arkadag are not enthusiastic to make the move because of the restrictions. Most notably, private cars are not allowed to enter the city and must instead be parked at the limits, from where residents can board public transportation.
Over in Kyrgyzstan, President Japarov has similarly futuristic albeit hazy notions.
Officials have said Asman will be built in a decade at a cost of $20 billion, all of which will come from private investors. One idea that has been floated is that the outline of the city will, when seen from the air, resemble that of a komuz, the national stringed instrument of Kyrgyzstan.
As with Arkadag, the ambition is to see Asman installed with the latest in advanced digital telecommunication technologies. To placate environmentalists concerned by the appearance of a huge new population center overlooking Issyk-Kul, officials routinely refer to Asman as an eco-city.
“When planning, developing and thinking through every detail of infrastructure, we will carefully monitor compliance with environmental protection and sustainability standards,” Japarov said on June 30. “We will adopt the best world practices … in the sound management of water resources, waste disposal, and heating systems.”
As for what will keep people busy there, Japarov said that he sees Asman becoming a financial hub “connecting east and west, north and south.”
Kazakhstan beat everybody to the punch in the new cities game when the capital, Astana, was willed into being in the late 1990s.
More recently, though, attention has turned to the idea of radically overhauling the newly designated provincial center of Konayev, which was until March 2022 a town called Kapshagay. The thinking behind developing Konayev is to relieve pressure from fast-growing Almaty, which lies around 75 kilometers to the south, and attracting people tired of living in dilapidated dwellings in the regions.
In a highly familiar exhortation, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called last October for Konayev to become a “highly ecological, smart city.”
According to the broad-strokes city general plan, Konayev will spread across 19,000 hectares and have around 200,000 residents by 2050. Some early proposals depict the usual blend of glass-heavy high-rises, parks and suburban-type dwellings.
At President Emomali Rahmon’s behest, Tajikistan performed a similar exercise with Danghara, once an obscure rural backwater in the south of the country.
Danghara has the good fortune of being the capital of the district in which Rahmon was born. Over the past decade, this newly minted city has seen a frenetic rash of development. Hundreds of buildings, including multiple high-rise administrative office, have been built in Danghara and the surrounding area.
The city has also seen the appearance of shopping centers, factories, and well-appointed medical facilities, including an infectious diseases hospital. One plan is for construction of a brand-new international airport, despite the fact that there already is one in the city of Kulob, around 90 kilometers away. Entrepreneurs are strongly encouraged to set up their businesses at the free economic zone established in Danghara – the temptation is easy to understand since snap inspections are a rarity there as compared to what happens in the capital, Dushanbe.
All very grand for a district with a relatively modest population of 160,000.
Uzbekistan’s city-mania is expressing itself in a different manner. Across the country, commercial districts, all of them bearing a City suffix, are being built to accommodate modern and invariably high-rise buildings.
By far the best-known of these is Tashkent City. Arup Group, the London-based engineering service company that has been tasked with drawing up the masterplan for this vision, deploys standard anodyne urban design marketing bluster to describe Tashkent City as an “ambitious mixed-use district with a green heart, featuring business space, residential areas and a retail and leisure offering.”
Other undertakings in Uzbekistan look less thrilling.
At the start of this year, citizen journalist Umid Gafurov posted a video online showing the lackluster result of four years of work on what has been dubbed Bukhara City, a commercial district right by the historic center of the eponymous city. Gafurov showed that little had been finished other than a hotel and some hollow apartment block shells.