Just over four months ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia announced a plan to build a new city named Lazika in the Anaklia Region of northwest Georgia. The news was driven by the desire to propel Georgia into a world market with an identity for the economic trade hub that its geographic location warrants. Aside from a promotional video and a few scattered images on various Georgian websites, little has been exposed about the master plan that will give birth to the economic engine on the coast of the Black Sea, which leaves many wondering if this new city will in fact be built to solve Georgia’s economic and social problems.
According to a New York Times article by Ellen Barry, On Black Sea Swamp, Big Plans for Instant City, interviews with Georgian citizens indicate a variety of opinions about the viability of this “Instant City”. While some are excited about the prospect of a city strewn with skyscrapers, advanced infrastructure, and glitzy hotels, others warn of the design challenges and flaws associated with building in the Anaklia Region, which Barry describes as “a stretch of marshy land”. But looking at the city from the perspective of urban design, many critics, from Lewis Mumford to Jane Jacobs will agree that the complex social, economic and political characteristics of a city develop over time, and most effectively when they occur organically after a series of trials and errors as a city develops its identity. Historically successful cities have acquired their identities not by spontaneous rapid growth but by the personalities of its citizens, planners, economists and politicians over many years. What is striking about this planning of Lazika, indicated by Barry’s report, is that “only one official is working on the planning of Lazika full time” with 10 to 15 part time workers, and the idea “came to President Mikheil Saakashvili just over four months ago while researching the China’s development”.
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There are some poignant differences between China and Georgia. The population difference is significant. China is going through a phase of rapid development where rural workers are steadily migrating to cities and population nationwide is booming. In order to accommodate this influx of citizens, it has begun a process of building pop-up instant cities. The large population creates a workforce that when handled properly can make a new city flourish. China also has many resources and is has very different political circumstances from Georgia, which has recently struggled with Russia’s boycott on Georgian goods. On the converse, Georgia’s 4.5 million population does not have significant growth. And the government plans to populate Lazika with 1.5 million residents. Where will those people come from?
While the excitement for a new city and all of its promises is understandable, criticism rests on the allocation of state funds to make this project possible. Criticism comes from those that look at this project as a waste of resources when many cities in the country are losing population and struggling with poverty. In response, President Mikheil Saakashvili says that this plan is a strategy to alleviate the poverty – the city he envisions is an economic engine that within ten years will be “a leading Black Sea trading hub”.
The Anaklia region is part of a “special economic region”, referred to as SER. The development covers 200 square kilometers of Western Georgia and is bound by the Black Sea and the River Enguri. Its geographic location is promising, according to the promotional video, located in a two-hour flight radius of major international cities including Moscow, Athens, Istanbul, Cairo and Madrid. Developing its infrastructure will be important to take advantage of its centrality as a port and trade city.
Plans indicate a development of primary and secondary highways criss-crossing the region, an airport, multiple seaports and railways that will connect the city and create widespread accessibility for the transportation and trade of cargo. The city is subdivided into functional regions. The western part is a processing center in combination with a transportation hub and logistics area. The north-western tip, indicated in the video by a cluster of skyscrapers, is the business district, which will cover three million square meters. Residential areas are divided into four levels: A, B, C, and D which are distinct only in that they show a division according to affluence and economic circumstance. Level A features small homes clustered together, whereas Level D features expansive mansions spread far apart. The center of the city is devoted to a large amusement park and wildlife preserve. The north-eastern coastline will be developed into a tourist region of world-class hotels.
While phasing for this project is still under wraps, the government is headstrong on turning this planned city into a reality in hopes that it will boost Georgia’s international identity and elevate it to a state associated with affluence, commodity, sustainable infrastructure and design, logistics and financial services and a variety of industries in the Trans-Caucasian Region. The construction is projected to continue until 2020, and little by little, news agencies in Georgia are releasing images of buildings that are supposedly under construction. Aside from the sweeping views of the promotional video, and President Saakashvili’s announcement of the plans to build the Anaklia region into the second largest city in Georgia late last year, there has been no significant release of town plans or documentation for what the city will actually look like.
The President has been commended for his public works projects which involved investments into the roadways, but skeptics still look at Lazika as a economic wormhole. The government claims that investors have been approached to shoulder the burden of the bill, but none have publicly expressed their support. It leaves many to wonder if the risk that the Georgian government is taking in this endeavor worth it?