The Impact of Urban Infrastructure on the Lives of Residents of Baku

On 20 December 2010, the Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus Regional Office (HBF) organized a roundtable in Baku dedicated to the impact of the urban infrastructure on the lives of residents of Baku. Participants of the round-table discussed issues that are problematic for the Azerbaijani society, among others: current state of the city infrastructure, ecological problems of Baku, the degree of comfort of everyday life for Baku residents, their involvement in the solution of social and infrastructural problems of the city.

It should be noted that the organization of such discussions in Baku by the HBF, where experts, academics and civil society representatives, as well as representatives of governmental institutions (in the roundtable, the representative of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the city government took part) and interested citizens participate, became a tradition. This roundtable was already the fourth debate organized by the HBF in 2009-2010.

The HBF usually selects the most acute and urgent problems for a discussion. The traditional venue of the debates, which is the KapelHouse of the German-Azerbaijani Cultural Society in Baku, brought together several dozen scholars, experts, public figures and residents of Baku to discuss problems of everyday life in Baku, which in fact are relevant to every third inhabitant of the country.

Baku has become the largest urban agglomeration in the South Caucasus. The city has been intensively developing over the past 150 years, including as one of the centers of the world oil production. Approximately three million people, which is about half of the Azerbaijan’s population, live within the Baku metropolitan area. Baku has become known not only for the dynamics of the development in the post-Soviet period, but also for large-scale environmental and social problems accompanying its rapid growth.

Professor Ali Abbasov noted that Baku, like many of the major post-Soviet capital cities is characterized by poor environmental and socio-psychological conditions of residence, the complexity of creating comfortable living conditions, transportation problems, and problems of recycling and waste disposal. The situation is exacerbated by a constant influx of population. The city has a high level of noise pollution. The rapid and uncontrolled construction had a detrimental effect not only on its infrastructure, but also lead to a rapid reduction in green areas. According to Abbasov, the main problem for the modern Azerbaijan is in the degradation of villages and small towns against the excessive growth of Baku‘s metropolitan area. All of these problems need to be addressed.

Professor Rahman Badalov rightly outlined the purpose of the discussion as an expression of concern for the present state of Baku’s development. In his view, if problems in the city development (social, cultural and psychological, architectural problems, challenges in urban planning and architectural design) will be subject to further discussions, the goal could be reached. Badalov stressed that specificity of Baku, in many respects, is determined by the complexity of the historical developments of Azerbaijan. Over the past 100-150 years, the country has experienced several major transformations and historical cataclysms. Badalov also focused his attention on the migration to urban areas and social and cultural formation of the urban environment. In his opinion, a new urban community has formed and it is difficult to predict its future character. Another important aspect of his speech concerned the issue of memory in the city. Baku has gradually transformed from the multinational and cosmopolitan city into the mono-town of "oligarchs”. The new architecture swept out everything on its way, including old buildings and neighborhoods.

Architect Emil Akhundov spoke about the problem of the city and its environment. Akhundov’s address was emotional. In his view, the nature is disappearing in Baku. The reason for such state of affairs lies not only within the uncontrolled development of the city, but also in the low environmental awareness of citizens. According to him, most citizens simply have no idea of how to live in the city and comply with environmental regulations. Akhundov brought some interesting examples to demonstrate Baku’s unstable and chaotic development. The expert believes that one of the important objectives should be urban education and awareness raising.

Professor Chingiz Ismailov spoke about the development of Baku and the shortage of space in the city. Ismailov, who is an expert in the fields of architecture, construction and urban planning, highlighted specificity of the situation in Baku. The major point of his speech concerned the problem of shaping the urban environment in the context of rapid population growth and problems with the availability of free areas suitable for construction.

Finally it should also be noted that popular Azerbaijani journalist Chingiz Sultansoy from the Radio liberty (RFE/RL) moderated the discussion.