When we look around Yerevan, one of the first noticeable changes to the urban landscape that we notice is the change in the use of park space. Parks were a major source of pride in Yerevan. Old photographs published in the pre-independence years attest to the large public gathering places, squares and parks that residents thoroughly enjoyed at no cost, both in winter and summer.
The center of Yerevan, designed by Tamanyan and founded upon Garden City principles, was a very park-rich city. Each park interconnected via parkways lined with fountains and shade-casting trees. Even today, when one walks down the parkways and parks designed by Tamanyan and the architects who continued with the implementation of the plan, one can imagine how beautiful and secluded the experience would be if not littered with temporary and permanent structures. One could have easily walked in areas of downtown Yerevan surrounded by open green space and trees.
In 1996, the early stages of the construction of new Yerevan began. Trees were cut down. A park watchman of 50 years remembers this with tears in his eyes.Trees were cut down with government approval for business development. “There were trees planted by Khandjyan. They were trees that four people couldn’t get their arms around; they cut them all down.” (Abrahamyan, 2003, p.1) The Elite of Yerevan, a combination of government and affluent members of society, treat open green space as a commodity with no consideration for its function in the city. Developers cut down trees in parks and build hotels in their place.
What used to be Oval Park, a green belt that runs around the small city center, is covered with a parade of café’s. (Interviewee, 2011) In the last five years of the twentieth century, an additional 700 hectares of urban forest were cut down for construction purposes. By 1998, the total tree-covered areas in Yerevan were reduced to 3.4 percent. (Abrahamyan & Baghdasaryan, 2003) “Environmental protection groups estimate that new construction has swallowed up 700 hectares of green space, twice as much as was lost when trees were cut during the energy crisis of the early 1990s.”(Hakopyan, 2008, p.3) The watchmen of the parks, who are responsible for watering the trees, are instructed not to do their job in order to allow for their slow decay.
A Department of Greenery employee states that as the population of Yerevan increases, the availability of open space decreases; a phenomenon that he states is against urban planning principles. A park, as defined by the Chairwoman of the Ecological Association, is defined by a criterion; green zones in a park are to be 75-80% of the total area, with 8% for paths and roadways, squares at 4-8% and structures at 2%. (Abrahamyan & Baghdasaryan, 2003) Studies in public health show that respiratory tract and cardiovascular diseases have risen sharply, especially in 25-45 year olds. (Abrahamyan & Baghdasaryan, 2003)
The pattern that emerges is that everything is being done at the cost of historic buildings and green space, and I believe Yerevan is not that dense and can be denser, but it has to be done carefully. You don’t destroy value to create new value. I don’t understand the psychology that has no respect for the past and feels that green space is something you cut here and plant there, not taking into consideration that it took 50-60 years to create the parks we have now with its ecological, public health, and aesthetics and that it will take 20-30 years to have a new park. There is some illusion that they provide that nothing is removed, and that all is being replaced (Interviewee, 2011).
Government authorities in a position to combat the destruction of parks and public space seem to be unable to influence any type of control over what is being constructed and where it is being done in the city of Yerevan. “I’m not afraid to say that we have no leverage against people who are a law unto themselves. At this very moment illegal land appropriations are taking place. It is impossible to control these people day and night. It’s painful for me as chief architect as well, to see what’s going on in our city, what’s being built without permission.”(Abrahamyan & Baghdasaryan, 2003, p.2) Narek Sargsyan, quoted previously, continues to state that they spend weeks and months working on designs that are eventually built into something different from the original, approved design. He suggests that a special police force could ensure the enforcement of construction decisions. (Abrahamyan & Baghdasaryan, 2003) “But the problem is more complicated,” says Sargsyan. “If Yerevan had a city council, the councilmen would have to raise the issues and speak on behalf of the residents. Today, we adopt decisions without knowing what the majority of the public think about them.” (Abrahamyan & Baghdasaryan, 2003, p.2)
“There are some parks that still provide an unpaid public service. Parks are being built, such as the Tamanyan Sculpture Garden Park, which is located two street blocks in front of the Cascade, and is financed by Cafesjian, a diasporan businessman.” (Flannagan, 2009) A second park built in this era is the Boghossian Gardens, known locally as Lovers Park, built with funding from the Boghossian Foundation. (Interviewees, 2011) A third is the English Park in front of Congress Hotel, which is very well- maintained (Interviewees, 2011). “The areas around the Genocide Memorial and the Sports Center are not maintained well, but they are not completely built up either. A person cannot picnic there but they can at Tumanyan Park, across the street from theTUMO Technology Center. The park is maintained by the diasporan builders of TUMO, who have agreed to care for the area. In summary, there are parks in Yerevan, but before there were great parks that were irresponsibly lost.” (Interviewee, 2011)
The parks of Tamanyan’s Master Plan and concurrent master plans are still identifiable in the urban landscape of Yerevan, even though their functions have changed to accommodate cafés and other business ventures. Oval Park with its green promenades that once enriched the city have now become battlegrounds between private capital and grassroots activists, as they fight for every square meter of available land. Fountains that once were prevalent in the city are in decay, while the open space around them has been converted to new functions. Commercial opportunists are constantly challenging traditional public space, while a budding grassroots activist movement attempts to protect the right of the public to open green space. More than 100 fountains located in parks and greenbelts throughout the city served an ecological purpose in Yerevan.They modified the ecology of the city and created an environment in which plants could thrive, while providing a place for people to converge after work and to take leisurely strolls with their families on weekends. Places to see people and be seen, fountains created a gathering point for social interaction, an oasis in the city, that allowed for peace from hectic city life. The private cafes that were built in the parks during the Rabid Development Years bring back the nostalgia for socializing near fountains, but on a smaller scale and for a higher price.
Yerevan, as a Garden City, is a tourist destination in itself, surpassing all other attractions in the city. Protecting the parks and restoring the fountains would not only restore civic pride, it would also restore spatial justice to the urban landscape. It would also provide further ecological, economic, societal, and cultural benefits to all members of society by increasing the urban activity in the city.
Grassroots efforts to protect the city parks have gained momentum, as they strive to restore spatial justice to the landscape. This increase of awareness, by not supporting businesses that are located on public open space, is a tactic that can be used in helping overcome elements of the landscape that are ill-designed to polarize profit in the hands of the few. As profit diminishes, businesses will be forced to close.