ASTANA –By the end 2050, more than 70 percent of humanity is expected to be living in urban areas. Half of Kazakhstan’s 18 million citizens currently live in cities and the nation is expected to reach the global average by mid-century.
Kazakh cities will play a crucial role in the country’s economic and social development. Building a constructive dialogue between city dwellers and creating a sustainable and resilient urban environment is the calling of Urban Forum Kazakhstan (UFK), a public foundation that seeks to establish equal and fair dialogue in urban planning across Kazakh cities.
“Until the beginning of this year, it was rather an informal platform. Initially, the task was set to moderate the urban dialogue in the city. In the first two years, we conducted urban environment and urban identity research in Almaty and hosted annual conferences, with a large number of participants and international guest speakers,” UFK co-founder Adil Nurmakov told EdgeKz.
The foundation’s main goal is to involve Kazakh citizens in the development, adoption and implementation stages of urban planning. The organisation developed a set of actions that is applied throughout its activities.
“The first stage is research, the second is based on the data. We initiate a discussion of a problem, after which a policy paper or policy recommendation is prepared, a final document that has recommendations for the city administration and for other stakeholders,” he noted.
In addition to research, UFK established an educational programme called Cities and People, which brings guest speakers from other countries. The international experts introduce locals to new perspectives on architecture, urban planning and urban comfort. UFK also supports grassroots initiatives of citizens in partnership with sponsors and NGOs. It assists active citizens and helps build relationships with local administrations, municipal departments and public councils.
“In two years, we had 14 projects; it was an important experience with grassroots activism. We gained insight into urban activism and now based on this experience, we are preparing manuals that will help active citizens, not only in Almaty but also in other cities, to initiate and implement their projects in their communities,” said Nurmakov.
There is a way ahead to equal and fair dialogue between municipal governments and active citizens and the two parties are only starting the conversation.
“The city authorities are in one room and send messages to the next room and people in that room discuss it vigorously and send notes back to the other room,” he noted.
There are some positive examples of how Almaty citizens and the municipal government were able to establish a dialogue and partner to protect the city’s architectural identity.
“The preservation of architectural heritage in Almaty can serve as an example and one of the projects that we partnered with is ArchCode Almaty. As part of this project, research and public discussions called for attention to historic buildings in the city, to buildings that are not architectural monuments but could become such in the future,” he said.
The Almaty city administration began to restore landmark buildings of Soviet modernism this year and has announced plans to include about a dozen buildings into the protected category.
UFK has outlined the key components required to initiate dialogue in any Kazakh region. Research to understand urban identity, urban problems and the readiness of citizens to participate in citywide initiatives is followed by projects based the outcomes that serve to convince municipal officials.
“We can follow the Almaty example, with intercity dialogue and support for grassroots initiatives, and through these projects we hope we can show citizens’ willingness to act and change the situation of their urban landscape,” said Nurmakov.
In the capital, there is a request for public spaces that are developed taking climate conditions into consideration. Given the harsh winters, the city must focus on providing more indoor public spaces for its residents during those months.
“The reality is that in Astana, people cannot spend a lot of time outdoors during cold temperatures, but the need to communicate and meet with each other is there and those personal connections stimulate creative energy and generate ideas that define the image of cities,” he noted.
Art Factory Hydra and TSE Gallery are among the recently-opened public places. The Astana administration also plans to reformat one of the city libraries, which will offer space for community gatherings and public talks.
The urban community is a component of civil society and UFK has set the goal of working with local communities or building local communities around a topic, where residents actively work for the common cause or idea.
“Plans are often written separately from the people living in communities; consulting and involving people will ease the municipal burden and create engaging communities,” said Nurmakov.
Professional and expert organisations, like local ecologists or bike users, are also instrumental in developing community oriented urban planning. Through the years, they accumulate knowledge and turn into advocacy groups that can promote efficient transportation or sustainable urban development.
UFK co-founder Assel Yeszhanova notes urban areas should develop as evenly as possible so that cities have more than one core and alternative urban attractors develop to provide diverse services.
“Through constructive dialogue with municipal officials, city residents will establish a shared sense of responsibility for the city and develop an active civil society with a strong sense of identity and attachment,” she told EdgeKz.