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Astana: Turning an Ice Kingdom

With such a harsh climate to contend with, greening-up Astana takes careful planning. Alima Bissenova reports

THE STORY OF Astana is usually told as grandiose spectacle – of modern government buildings, shopping malls, and entertainment centers designed by pop-star architects and erected in record time. One of the final great landmark buildings, the fantastical glass-enclosed, tropical garden and beach, the Khan Shatyry designed by Norman Foster, is on course for completion this year. However, if we take our eyes off the spectacular architecture and construction sites and look at the empty-looking spaces between, we can see no-less-grandiose happenings on the sidewalks, parks and squares, and on the outskirts of the city. It is the work of making Astana a green city with potentially more than half its territory covered by parks, planted boulevards, and horticultural displays.

Considering that Astana is in an extremely harsh, arid steppe climate with a short vegetation period where not many trees and plants grow naturally, turning Astana into a garden city requires significant government investment and, more importantly, a long-term commitment of design, labor, and care. “Our plan is to cover the city with trees and plantings,” says Yerlan Kozhagapanov, deputy mayor of Astana. “A green center will provide cooling conditions in summer and insulating conditions in winter.”

Along Astana’s new ring road towards the northwest are rows of birches, poplars, and maple trees standing two to three meters high. This is an already visible result of Astana’s “green belt” project scheduled through 2015. Longer term, in 20 to 30 years, the plan is for the city to be enveloped in an artificially created forest joining the natural pine and birch forest of Borovoe further north. A continuous, 300 meter-wide green corridor is to stretch along the Esil river and connect it with the “green belt” forest to the southwest. “It takes two or three years to construct a building, but it takes decades to develop new parks and gardens,” says Yann Mingard, a Swiss landscape architect and photographer impressed by the scale of the work. “It is a more challenging task which really needs visionary and thorough planning.”

Allocating a river as a center of a recreational green zone has a history in Soviet-era planning. In 1961, the Soviet Master Plan of Astana’s urban predecessor, Tselinograd, which was authored by a group of Leningrad architects, designated the area around the river as a recreation zone (zona otdyha) – an open public place and natural park on what was the edge of the city. In the 2001 new Master Plan by the famous Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, Astana was re-conceptualized as a “river-city.” The river Esil was designated to be a “center of life.” As the late Kurokawa said in a 2003 interview: “The Esil will unite nature and civilization, creating a symbiosis between the city and landscape.” City planners today understand that the river should also be protected from pollution and large-scale development.

Ten parks built around the river by the municipal greening company, Astana-Zelenstroi, mean to do just this. In 1997, before the relocation of the capital, green areas within the city measured 68 hectares. Today, green space in the city (not counting the “green belt”) has increased almost tenfold to 660 hectares, with eight square meters per resident.

The trees planted in Astana’s parks and “green belt” come from the Astana-Zelenstroi tree nursery in the village of Hersonovka, 40km south of Astana. “It takes nine years to grow a birch tree and 11 years to grow a poplar tree in the nursery before it can be re-planted in the city parks,” says the head of the nursery, Gennadii Li. Today, 700,000 young trees grow there. If intensive grooming is required for trees that grow in this climate, imagine how much work and care is needed to water and protect the exotic trees that don’t grow in the conditions of southern Siberia, but nevertheless are being planted in Astana, such as mahogany and Manchurian nut trees. The Astana-Zelenstroi has 1,100 employees to water grass along the sidewalks and in parks and squares, prune city trees, and protect them against disease and insects.

The work of greening starts at freezing temperatures in winter with the planting of “sleeping” fur trees and continues throughout the year. Tree planting requires significant preparatory work: draining ground water if it is too close to the surface; fertilizing soil; and in some places changing the native soil altogether. The soil of Astana is known to be difficult and in many places barren. “There is a saying in Kazakh about the soil of Astana: “ustinde - muz, astynda - tuz” (“ice on the surface and salt under the surface”) says the deputy director of the Astana-Zelenstroi, Eric Tokmurzin. “This is an exact description of the problems that we face, but we nevertheless have to make it workable.”

Astana’s commitment to greening despite the harsh climate is comparable to other global green cities. By comparison, Toronto plants up to 20,000 young trees a year. In Astana, the years 2006 and 2007 each saw more than 38,000 trees planted. Although in 2008-2009 the amount dropped to 20,000 annually, Astana-Zelenstroi plans to pick up the pace. “Fundamentally, we want to improve the quality of life in Astana,” says the head of the Astana-Zelenstroi, Zharkyn Zhumagulov. “The trees and shrubs that we plant soften the wind blowing from the southwest, stop the snow, and prevent erosion. They provide a place of refuge from the glass and steel and concrete, from the stresses of the urban environment.” ?

Alima Bissenova, a native of Astana, is working on a Ph.D. dealing with urban development and housing at Cornell University.

SOURCE: Invest in Kazakhstan 2010

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