Progress often comes with a cost for the environment, as Tbilisi residents are finding out. But activists in the Georgian capital are determined to hold the municipal authorities to account. Dato Parulava reports for commonspace.eu
For several weeks now Tbilisi's city authorities have been besieged by green activists, angered by the cutting of dozens of mature trees that used to line the city's major avenue. The activists say that municipal authorities give a blank check to developers, letting sprawling tower blocks gobble up the city's green spaces.
Several environmental activists from a group calling itself "Guerrilla Gardeners" maintain a round-the-clock sit-in in front of Tbilisi's City Hall. Protesters' numbers occasionally swell as citizens with a variety of urban development grievances come to join their ranks. The gist of their demands is to review municipal development policies and reorganize an environmental preservation arm of the City Hall.
More than a hundred people took to the streets on September 2 calling for resignation of the City Hall's Ecology and Green Spaces Department's head Nino Sulkhanishvili and her deputy Nugzar Kakhniauri. This was one of the largest rallys in the series of protests initiated by Nata Peradze, the founder of "Guerrilla Gardeners". Peradze went on a hunger strike in protest of cutting 68 trees on Kazbegi Avenue. Despite growing number of people joining the protest, officials who sanctioned the cutting refuse to resign, but promise to change City Hall's green space preservation practices.
Peradze said that she resorted to the radical form of protest when City Hall's Sulkhanishvili told her that she had no idea if the felled trees were dead or not. "I made an emotional decision. Had I stayed home, I would have exploded," said Peradze. She lodged a complaint in the Prosecutor's Office, which launched an investigation. The probe is yet to produce any results.
After seven days of hunger strike Nata Peradze was hospitalized on August 22 with deteriorated health. A fellow activist took her place in a yellow tent, pitched in front of the city hall.
I Am Tbilisi
The protests expanded beyond the subject of green zones being invaded by concrete. The protester's slogan - "I am Tbilisi," - covers a number of issues that the residents have with the city development practices.
Shrinking green spaces, expanding concrete jungle, polluted air, an environment not friendly to pedestrians and growing car traffic are among the problems the protesters want solved.
Tbilisi Mayor Davit Narmania added fuel to fire when he insulted a student for making a critical remark at a meeting between the activists and the city's chief. The mayor later apologized, but is far from being forgiven.
Demonstrations went on with loud music blasting in front of the city hall. A flea-market auction was organized, generating 782 Laris (339 US Dollars) for "Guerrilla Gardeners" to plant trees in the city.
What is there to protest about, and how do officials respond?
Urban planner Zurab Bakradze says that he joined the demonstrations because the City Hall treats city residents the way an invading enemy would.
"The city doesn't develop at all. It is collapsing every day. Public interest and public space is what makes a city. These spaces are shrinking every day because they are being occupied by buildings of different investors," he said.
He thinks that the City Hall has to stop being oriented on expansion of the city, that public spaces must be returned for community use, saying this is only possible by reducing the number of private cars, making city friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists.
"It has become impossible to live in this city. There is no green space, no air to breath or a place to gather. Social spaces that remained after Soviet Union are being destroyed. I have come here as I want to live in a European city, which definitely doesn't look like Tbilisi," says Tornike Shevardnadze, a student at Tbilisi State University.
He feels responsible for the current state of affairs because he voted for Narmania, but now finds himself in a situation where trees are being chopped down and pedestrians, especially people with disabilities are deprived of rights of free movement in the city.
Meanwhile, city officials promise constructive solution to problems. Head of Ecology and Greening Department Nino Sulkhanishvili said, in general, Guerrilla Gardener's protest on city's environmental issues is fair, but she doesn't agree with the forms they express it.
"Office means nothing to me, but resignation wouldn't be a smart decision right now as investigation is still proceeding. I will not leave with false accusations with a label of someone who is to blame," says Sulkhanishvili, adding, department authorized cutting of 45 dried tries only.
The Head of Tbilisi City Assembly Giorgi Alibegashvili agrees on the necessity of reorganization, but calls for constructive dialogue, stressing that the demonstrations could be politically motivated.
What Do Numbers say?
When he became a mayor, Narmania's made his famous promise to plant one million trees in Tbilisi, but it seems, the mayor bit off more than City Hall could possibly chew. In 2015 he announced, 130 000 trees were already planted, promising to reach the one million target by 2017. But he came under fire as hundreds, possibly thousands of saplings began to die because of what "Guerrilla Gardeners" say was an improper planting and care.
Earlier this year, even more people took to the streets as research by the International Energy Agency (IEA) said Tbilisi was the world's deadliest city in terms of death rate related to air pollution. Georgian Ministry of Environment claimed that IEA's numbers were did not reflect the current situation as they were taken from measurements taken by the World Health Organization in 2012. The Ministry said that the more up-to-date measurements from 2014 showed that air pollution in Tbilisi was in line with the average for other Eastern European and low-income countries.
One of the primary reasons for air pollution is the growing number of cars in Tbilisi. Mayor Davit Narmania recently stated, car numbers in the capital have doubled compared to 2010, reaching up to 400 000 in 2016.
Meanwhile, while City Hall is busy reorganizing departments, there is a yellow tent stuck on its footsteps as a reminder that there are more than 1.1 million residents in the capital who seek to live in a healthy environment, in the promised land of Tbilisi with 1 million trees.
Dato Parulava is a young Georgian journalist and Tbilisi resident. He contributed this report for commonspace.eu
Photo 1: Activist Nata Peradze Photo 2: A yellow tent reminds municipal officials of people's environmental concerns. (pictures courtesy of Dato Parulava