The Eventful Turn: Baku and Mega-Event Led Urban Changes
In a post-industrial era where cities across the globe have taken an entrepreneurial approach to urban territorial management, mega-events have become a prominent part of urban policies (Harvey, 1989). The Olympics and the Formula 1 World Championship are examples of internationally-significant mega-events, typically with an abundance of visitors and global media audiences of billions. While they possess a mass-spectacle character, mega-events come with large costs and dramatic urban changes. Although for years it was largely the exclusive domain of cities from the ‘Western world’ to host mega-events, recently this event geography has diversified. Baku, Azerbaijan is one such contemporary addition.
Politics and Urban Development in Baku
Azerbaijan's regaining of independence in 1991 and transition to a market economy brought massive urban changes to the capital, Baku, primarily powered by state revenues from hydrocarbon resources. While advancement in the oil industry led to major economic growth, it also strengthened the political regime often criticized for its authoritarian and corrupt character (Freedom House, 2015; Hughes & Marriott, 2015; Transparency International, 2016). Although Baku is governed by a mayor and district heads, they are directly appointed by and accountable to the president (Valiyev, 2014), leading to the concentration of power in the hands of latter. Furthermore, Azerbaijan’s judiciary depends heavily upon the executive and fails to provide recourse against basic human rights violations (Buchanan, 2012, p. 24). This political environment greatly impacts the urban development of Baku. Various urban projects initiated at the national level by the governing elite often get implemented without transparent discussion or scrutiny at the local level. Baku’s overall approach to hosting mega-events further underscores the authoritarian nature of this regime. For example, hosting the F1 race has been presented as the initiative of President Aliyev and as the Minister of Sports and Youth concluded ‘all the brightest ideas are born in his (presidents) head’ (Sovsport.ru, 2016).
Since 2010, the government has been committed to diversifying Azerbaijan’s oil-dependent economy by turning Baku into the primary tourist destination of the region (Valiyev, 2016). Hosting an array of large-scale international events was considered an integral part of this strategy. The Eurovision Song Contest 2012 was the first major event that took place in Baku. Its success was followedby the billions of dollars of state funding poured into infrastructure and venue construction to improve the ‘urban portfolio’ of Baku, primarily for several (unsuccessful) Olympic Bids (2016 and 2020). Consequently, Baku was chosen as the host of the less-recognized inaugural edition of the 2015 European Games, with the government spending over 10 billion USD and hosting approximately 6,000 participants, but receiving very few visitors (De Waal, 2015; Mayer, Arnegger, & Soltanova, 2016). In 2014 Baku obtained a ten-year contract to host the F1 race. The temporary trackwas constructed on public roads throughout the downtown, alongthe waterfront boulevard and around the old town (UNESCO World Heritage site) (BCC, 2016). Baku is set to host more major events in the future, including the same F1 race, the Islamic Solidarity Games 2017,UEFA 2020 and other large-scale symposiums and expositions. Although much has been written on this mega-event frenzy, it has mainly focused on human rights violations and the political environment in Azerbaijan (De Waal, 2015; Recknagel & Geybullayeva, 2016). Equally important, is the rarely-discussed urban transformations that have taken place leave a lasting legacy on the city.
Event-led urban regeneration?
Mega-events are often catalysts to multifacetedprocess of urban change. This is more evident in emerging economies (Hall, 2006), such as Azerbaijan where effects are greater due to a lack of the quality (event) infrastructure. The government of Azerbaijan has spent billions of dollars on the delivery of event venues, including Baku Crystal Hall (an indoor arena), a new 68,000-capacity stadium, a world-class aquatics centre, gymnastics arena, and many others. Numerous luxury hotels were also opened to reflect the new glamorous image of Baku, and to host visitors coming to experience mega-events. These projects might be seen as positive additions to the city, but they mask deeper issues that are rarely discussed during the celebrations of the event. Many cities, including Baku, are failing with the functional use of these venues after the event’s completion. This creates ‘white elephants’ - structures that put a financial strain on cities, are costly to maintain and are underused after the event. Furthermore, mega-event projects carry broader opportunity costs that reduce government spending that could have been channeled to other more relevant local projects, such as health care or education.
Preparation for international events in Baku has also fast-tracked the urban transformation of the central parts of Baku. In some cases, these changes were part of the larger modernization and renewal efforts orchestrated by the government, but the event-hosting augmented the process. These activities largely concentrated on the beautification of the facades of buildings and did not address more acute housing problems. In some instances, this process even damaged existing buildings (Grant, 2014). City beautification also included the installation of ‘view protection’ structures - high walls constructed along prominent roadways that wereerected to seclude informal or deteriorated housing from the sightlines of visitors excluding the residents of these areas from the new image of Baku.
The beautification campaign and the construction of future ‘white elephants’in Baku often triggered evictions and the displacement of homeowners and residents from areas that were slated for regeneration, or that were chosen for a future venue location. The authorities evicted thousands of residents to make room for the Baku Crystal Hall and to extend Baku Boulevard in the wake of the Eurovision 2012.A semi-formal settlement that was ‘in the way’ of the development of the current Baku National Stadium was also demolished. Since the 2010s, it is estimated that around 80 thousand residents have been forcefully ‘relocated’ from central parts of the city to its fringes (Burger, 2010; Grant, 2014). Evicted families received compensation that was ‘well below market value’ and were left with ‘few options for legal recourse’(Buchanan, 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012, p. 3). Such displacements result in the break-up of communities and cause difficulties with employment maintenance for citizens, as well as promote the segregation of the relocated residents. The political environment makes it overwhelmingly challenging for residents to argue their case of improper compensation and eviction in the court.
Mushrooming event venues and event-led urban regeneration efforts also affect the accessibility of public spaces in Baku. This might occur temporarily (due to acertain event being staged in the public realm) or permanently(as public space is increasingly takenoverbynew venues and their surroundings are sanitized, securitized and heavily policed). The F1 race that was staged in the downtown of Baku in June 2016 was a proper example. Annually, for ten days minimum- and potentially for a much longer period- the area designated for the race and its adjacent spaces (including roads, sidewalks, squares)become closed to the public to prepare and host the event. In a way, the F1 race in Baku is the most exclusionary event that has been staged in the city so far. Even though it happens on the public infrastructure the access points to the event are strictly limited to the corporate and political elite of, wealthy locals and ticket-purchasing tourists who can afford the costly admission (from 90 to 665 USD) of the event realized through public funds.
What’s next for Baku?
Baku’s entry in the ‘mega-event industry’ brought massive changes in the physical and social landscape of the city. While there are some positive legacies from the mega-event, a critical perspective on this urban development process should not be lost. The investments in the infrastructure and venueshave created the need to maintain costly structuresin its aftermath, while also triggering the displacement of thousands of families from their homes. Although regeneration and beautification projects have improved the look of certain districts of the city, they rarely enhanced the living standards of residents. As Baku is set to host an increasing number of major events soon, it is likely that we see similar cases repeated, unless there is increased local scrutiny of government plans and more critical involvement from international organizations, such as UEFA or Formula 1 Management.
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 Considering the gap between rich and poor in Azerbaijan and the average monthly salary of around 250 USD the F1 race tickets were unaffordable to most.