In 1870, Frederick Law Olmsted read a paper at the Lowell Institute entitled “Public Parks and The Enlargement of Towns.” The ideas he expressed then still play an important role in the teaching of landscape design today. In his paper, Olmstead addresses the social, political, and cultural aspects of landscape architecture, based on his own New York Central Park project. Comparing the characteristics of modern life with the needs of citizens, Olmsted points out when we talk about the essential characteristics of an urban, democratic, park:
“Practically, what we most want is a simple, broad, open space of a greensward, with sufficient play of surface and a sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade. This we want as a central feature. We want depth of wood enough to not only comfort in hot weather, but to completely shut out the city from our landscapes”.
It may seem surprising to begin this article about Tbilisi’s projected new park with the recollections of the architect of New York’s Central Park but the name “Tbilisi Central Park” contains an allusion that makes it inevitable to remember the most famous park in the world, while thinking about a non-existent Tbilisi central park, currently known as the Hippodrome.
Tbilisi remembers the hippodrome as a free space. For years, the former horse race track has been empty though surrounded by buildings and an overpass that cuts through the dense development of Saburtalo. Its emptiness meant that it served many purposes simultaneously – a playground, a running space, an exercise arena and so on. Though it has a clear geometry it’s very emptiness provides many possibilities of use. So, it is particular but also universal.
It’s worth noting that people have repeatedly asked over the past ten years for it to be turned into a properly designed park. Just before the last election, on October 6, 2020, Tbilisi City Hall finally presented a project for a new park. The designers are the Dutch group LAP. The architects proposed to divide the 36 hectares of the hippodrome into 26 zones. Their approach is to create a universal experience through zones which include a panora platform, an artificial lake, botanical, Japanese and French gardens, an amphitheatre, an educational centre, spaces for food and animals, football and basketball courts, a skate park, and so on.
Instead of defining the common needs, goals, and values of park visitors (following the Olmstedian principles of a democratic Central Park), the architects have decided to impose their ideas of what people should want. The result is a bizarre project which consists of several different types of parks within a single space. The renders published on LAP’s website show that pedestrians will be able to get to the park via two underpasses and a bridge from the east. The visualization also shows two entrances for cars to the north and east, which are connected to three parking zones. In total, they envisage 500 parking spaces in the park. Currently cars are not allowed.
Moreover, the old hippodrome area is divided into both elevated (grandstands) and level, open spaces. But the architects have imposed another curved, geometric shape by designing a flow path that separates the lower part of the park into “inner” and “outer” zones. As a consequence, the park is very fragmented with a skate park, a fountain, a French garden, a botanical garden, a lawn, a media library, and, believe it or not, a Japanese garden in the “inner” zone. The “outer” zone includes a “border forest” to the north and a car park enclosing it, while to the south there is an Amphitheatre, a pond and a football field, which ends in an ecological hill, trekking trails and a panora platform. As to architectural forms, so far, the in renders only show the figure of a horseman sitting on a column of awkward proportions. This seems to be the only reference to the hippodrome’s past.
It is very difficult to know how all this came about. No research related to the project is available to the general public, so it is impossible to tell why the decisions were made that have been made in the planning process. To find out more about the project, we contacted LAP to ask why they envisage 500 parking spaces in the park, how they saw the interdependence of public transport and the future of Tbilisi Central Park. However, no one from the company has responded so far. Looking at their website, it is difficult to judge their work in practice since almost all of the projects are presented only as photo montages or renders.
Speaking about the hippodrome, the architect, David Giorgadze, (David Giorgadze Architects) recalls Tempelhof Feld, which is very popular with Georgian tourists to Berlin (it is 355 hectares of vacant space at the old airport in Berlin, which Berliners themselves have taken over):
“The hippodrome is a space of great strategic importance for Tbilisi. Sadly, the designs that have been made public reveal an outdated approach that does not meet Tbilisi’s present or future needs. To get an idea of what could be possible, look at the development of similar spaces such as the Hasenheide Park in Berlin and the Tempelhofer Feld spaces in Berlin. At the edges of these two spaces, we see an interesting balance between tree planting and open space. The Tempelhofer Feld is an example of how the old airport runway and the meadow is used by locals and tourists alike.
In the case of the hippodrome, the original function of the space is clearly visible, which is a significant challenge for the development of this space. So it needs an in-depth study of the expectations and attitudes of people towards the existing use of this space and the hippodrome to give us ideas about how the space can best be developed”.
Unsurprisingly, the Tbilisi Central Park project immediately provoked protests For the architect and activist, Elene Tsertsvadze, the hippodrome is part of everyday life:
“The hippodrome is like a home for me. I grew up in the hippodrome. When I was little, my grandfather used to take me there for a walk, or horse-riding. When I was a little older, I used to go out to play with friends. I run in the morning and do aerobics, ride my bike in the evening and read a book, sometimes I draw, sometimes I write, sometimes I just go to sit on the grass. In short, I live in a hippodrome. There are lots of people who are just like me, some walking the baby, the dog, training, playing. I personally know about a hundred people who go to the hippodrome daily.”
She believes that with this project, the main value of the hippodrome will be lost,
“Having used the hippodrome for so many years, I can see how the space has been used and developed by the people who value it. It is an example of how people create space tailored to their needs and how it naturally takes shape, how one function can be transformed into another function to maintain the uniqueness of the place.”
In order to defend the democracy of the hippodrome, Elene turned to activism, and although most people in Georgia are largely indifferent to such issues, she hopes that her work will yield results:
“Tako Abramia and I started thinking about what we could do to protect the hippodrome, we found some like-minded people, friends, architects, city planners and started surveying visitors. We found that most shared the same opinion, lots of people were concerned like us and these people are the force of our movement. Conversations with these people assured us that we are right and we should start speaking. We need to start telling other people what we have to say and provide information. The hippodrome is so important to us, and has rendered so much invaluable service over the years. It deserves our efforts.”
Today it is very difficult to get to the hippodrome, the entrances from Bakhtrioni and Tsintsadze streets are closed. Work on the project, which began in October, continues. This also means that there is less and less time for a dialogue between the citizens opposing the project as presented and the decision-makers. Meanwhile, Elene also talks about the inaccuracy of the renders: “The planting of the Japanese and botanical gardens is unreal. These trees are not and will not be in the project. And there are errors between the renders and the plans, for example, parking zones are shown on the plan, but in the renderings, they are dedicated to woodland. The photo is forest but in reality, we will have parking. “
The parking issue is the greatest cause of dissatisfaction to the protesters who argue that a parking zone has no place in a modern-day park. Using any section of the area as a parking lot will take up significant space as well as encourage visitors to drive to a green space. To understand what differentiates the hippodrome from other parks and what an alternative might look like, we contacted architect Devi Kituashvili (MUA):
“In my opinion, the hippodrome as it is now is very interesting, because it what’s been formed by a combination of locals and users of park. This type of development is called grassroots, and modern, urban design methodologies are revolving around this phenomenon. This is the main difference between this park and other parks in Tbilisi. The new plan should be based on the existing uses, as they tell us exactly what the community needs. Additional features can be added later.
From my point of view, the new park should be as wild as possible, with large trees, wild grass and minimal infrastructure, such as paths (with pre-prepared compacted soil, with the possibility of drainage; signage for planting and the additional infrastructure they need; some small cafes, one storey and with outdoor seating not exceeding 100 square meters and built only with temporary, or recycled materials; , a good waste management plan, integrated connections with the surrounding settlements, businesses and other private and public facilities (using existing tunnels and other necessary connections).
Only minimal parking is required for personnel and service needs. Also, before any design is created, there should be agreement on what activities should be allowed. In my view the park should be for sporting and recreational activities such as jogging, walking, field games and exercise corners rather than public events such as music festivals or drinking or clubbing. In the landscaping, I would add water elements designed to drain the water resource.
I would also consider collecting and composting waste left over from organic waste collection and park maintenance and other works. This will provide the park with essential food supplements for plants in the future and will significantly reduce the amount of waste generated on site.
New York City Central Park is 340 acres and it directly borders 9 districts of Manhattan. In his famous address, Olmsted assesses what a city park should look like: “Openness is the one thing you cannot get in buildings. Picturesqueness you can get. Let your buildings be as picturesque as your artists can make them. This is the beauty of a town. Consequently, the beauty of the park should be the other. It should be the beauty of the fields, the meadow, the prairie, of the green pastures, and the still waters. What we want to gain is tranquility and the rest of the mind.”
Author: Lile Absandze
English Edit: SW
Cover Photo: mapio.net