Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tashkent (from Bonn)

I spent three weeks at ZEF now, in Bonn, and, I have to say, both city and institute are quite inspiring environments. In Bonn, I was impressed with the architecture, the cultural life, but even more so the layout of the city, with green areas and snippets of agricultural land penetrating deep into the urban fabric, and with medieval villages incorporated without completely losing their identity. At ZEF, I was impressed with the rich texture of approaches and methods, their selective blending, and certainly by the intensity of debates, even after ten years of Khorezm research.

That helped me in thinking through the Uzbek experience. Not that I have final answers, but at least some storylines are crystallizing -again in discussion with colleagues at the institute. The role of knowledge in evolving land use governance, shifts in the organizational environment of the agricultural system -largely responsible for land governance- and a study of policy integration in the planning system are in the pipeline. In all these stories, questions regarding the actual role of Tashkent, of the center of power, return. Once again, no simple answers.

It looks like post-Soviet Uzbekistan is more centralized in the production of knowledge than in the application of power. The cliche image of an authoritarian pyramid, with everything revolving around the leader, does not appear suitable. Just as in Soviet times, there is flexibility, there are players at different places and levels. With regard to knowledge, it looks like Tashkent is becoming ever more important. Tashkent universities and institutes seem to have adapted better to changing scientific ideologies, they received more attention from the state, and the Tashkent network benefits more from international organizations, to a certain extent even from international competition (several foreign universities have franchises there) Moreover, the de- institutionalization of knowledge in the countryside seems much more extreme -old roles associated with a certain expertise have disappeared, or became disconnected from the expectation of expertise.

As to city design, there is, like in Bonn, a lot of green space, most of it Soviet-era park space. Some of those parks are draped around a web of litte natural streams that made the area attractive in the first place. The Uzbek government made a great effort to ´streamline´the city, to clarify and reinforce the Soviet neo- baroque structure of parks, boulevards and vista´s connecting public buildings (See the map) Parts of the old town, originally marked by a dense maze of little streets, have been integrated into that structure. This strategy, however rigorous, does encourage development, and also in this regard, Tashkent is the place where it happens. Whatever the flows of resources look like, they end up in Tashkent, more than in the past.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tashkent (from Belgium)

Yes, it has been a while. I spent two weeks in Tashkent, trying to improve the framing of the Khorezm research by means of extra interviews. Time well spent, I believe. Rarely access to internet there, so few blogging opportunities. Monday night, I arrived in Belgium, tomorrow to Bonn, to ZEF, for two more months Uzbek research. More stories later.

But now, something about Tashkent. A different world it is, a slight shock after some months in Khorezm. No trace of doubt that this is where it happens; this is the center of power. A sustained building boom, continuous improvements in infrastructure, attention to urban design, mushrooming businesses, a cosmopolitan population, an influx of migrants from the provinces. And prices more common in European capitals.

Tashkent is a Russian creation, much more than other sizeable cities in Uzbekistan. A few buildings predate the Russian arrival -a 16th century medrese, religious school, being the most notable example- but most "old" buildings are pre- communist, in neoclassical or eclectic styles, sometimes close to Art Nouveau. The 1865 map above gives an indication of the starting point. Communist development, boosted by (forced) immgration of Russian, Greek, Armenian, Italian architects, produced a neatly ordered city of over three million. Post- independence planning usually follows the communist pattern, with a gradual enclosure and replacement however of the remaining traditional neighborhoods, the mahalla´s. Some of them will probably remain, since some major players prefer to live in the best of those neighborhoods, still marked by low single family homes, with green courtyards.

Despite the severing of connections with the dissolution of the USSR, Tashkent is still recognizable as the intended capital of Soviet Central Asia. That is, as the capital of something larger than the present country. (Just as Vienna still betrays its past as the center of something bigger) Also in research facilities, this is visible: the major institutes responsible for the Soviet development of Central Asia, for irrigation design, rural development, city planning, agricultural engineering are still there, be it in a considerably shrunken state. The institutional apparatus that guided Soviet development in its heydays, can not reasonably be sustained. Even in the later years of the USSR, after most reclaimable land was reclaimed and most usable water used, it was clear that not every institute was still necessary.

Nor was it affordable. The Soviets could not afford Central Asia anymore. One reason was the oversized research and development apparatus, a second one the inefficient agricultural economy that apparatus groomed. Both Soviets and the post- Soviet government tried to get rid of the system, with its overuse of water, land, its oversized workforce and its problematic adapation. Once more, experts in Tashkent, sometimes the same experts, in the shrunken institutions, have to rethink the use of land and water. The Uzbek government does realize the urgency, and foreign donors got the message as well.