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City of Apple Trees: Almaty 2121

The Ecotopia 2121 Project speculates upon the future of 100 different cities across the globe. This week, we highlight the future of Almaty.

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan with a current population of nearly two million people; half of them ethnic Kazakhs, a third of them ethnic Russians, and the rest of various Asian ethnicities. Almaty is situated in the far south of the country beside the northern-most mountain of the Tian Shan alps. The foothills nearby are held to be the geographical birthplace of the primordial apple and Almaty is labeled The City of Apples-- with historically famous urban stands of apple trees dotted around the city, as well as various sculptures honoring the Apple.

However, according to locals the numbers of these Apple tree stands have drastically dwindled to near-extinction over the last few decades.

Apple trees are not the only significant loss for Almaty. Its status as the national capital was taken away from it in the late 1990s. For most of the 20thcentury, and for all of the Soviet era, Almaty was the seat of government for the Kazakh Socialist Republic but this status changed soon after Kazakhstan broke-off from Soviet Russia and the Kazakh parliament and government offices were transplanted north to the brand new city of Astana.

The main reason for the transfer -- though it was never officially announced as such -- was to bolster Kazakh numbers and Kazakh identity over the ‘beached Russians’ predominating in the northern parts of Kazakhstan. Thus, the transfer was an effort to deter Russian separatism within Kazakh borders and also an effort to deter irredentism. (Irredentism is the name given to the effort by which one nation attempts to reclaim its purported lost homeland from another nation). Currently, Russian irredentism is being played out in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova and it may well grow stronger later in the century with regard to Russia’s aspirations in Central Asia.

In the early 21st century, the Almaty city authorities tried to accept the transplantation of the capital with good grace as they went on to re-brand Almaty as The First City, and The Southern Capital, as well as The Industrial Hub of Kazakhstan. However, there is also evidence Almaty’s general populace did not hold much respect for the relocation since it seemed to them that the Kazakh political elite were abandoning ordinary Almaty citizens to face the city’s choking air, dirty streets, and occasional earthquakes, all on their own.

Whatever the reason, shortly after the transfer, Almaty authorities soon developed a General Plan of Almaty for 2030 aiming to create an ‘ecologically safe, secure, and socially comfortable city’. The general objective was to promote Almaty’s image as a Garden City. However, they’ve got an uphill battle. Almaty is listed as one of the top ten most polluted cities in the world, described by many as being a huge gas chamber because it occupies a valley between mountains that tends to trap-in noxious air. The combination of oil refineries, metals processing plants, industrial factories, and a growing fleet of cars (both old and new), produces an infamous smog almost every day.

Much of the time, this smog grossly exceeds recommended health standards, imposing a huge health cost on Almaty’s citizens; increasing their risk of lung disease and cancer, and contributing to many thousands of premature deaths per year. Added to this, there are many other environmental problems afflicting Almaty: the water is contaminated by heavy metals, household garbage often piles up in the street, open spaces are being transformed into factories and warehouses, and there’s a risk of radioactive dust blowing over the city from nuclear sites in other parts of the country. These factors together have also led to the demise of the stands of apple trees.

Due to the booming oil and gas sector, Almaty‘s heavy industry is just set to expand over the coming decades and so, probably, the pollution will become worse, pushing Almaty further and further away from its Garden City aspirations. The citizens of Almaty will likely feel rather aggrieved that their city has been confined to being nothing but a huge manufacturing plant, churning out goods for the Russian market, and producing tax revenue destined to flow to Astana.

For decades, though, Almaty’s peoples will probably just put up with this situation, since at least they are suffering for the benefit of their national economy. However, the following five forces -- as they unfold singularly and together in the latter decades of the 21st century -- will turn Almaty citizens against Astana’s rule.

Firstly, the citizens of Almaty of Kazakh ethnicity will note that despite the monologues about Kazakh identity drifting over the airwaves from their President in Astana, it is obvious that the Kazakh political elite in the capital are very cozy with Russian companies and Russian investors and even keep their own assets stored in Russia to a) avoid market dives in Kazakhstan and b) to evade investigation by curious locals.

Secondly, an inevitable string of environmental accidents are likely to be wrought upon the Almaty cityscape by Russian-owned firms (such as gas-plant explosions, for example, to the contamination of drinking water, for instance).

Thirdly, there is a noted unwillingness for the politicians in Astana to push for real restitution from Russia for past eco-crimes, including compensation for the radiation still spread all over Kazakhstan from Soviet-era atomic bomb tests.

Fourthly, Astana seems intent on making money for itself in ways that wreck the land in the rest of the nation. For example, some politicians in Astana are set to agree to the start-up of a strange new nuclear industry in which Kazakhstan agrees to import Russian nuclear waste for permanent storage in the south of Kazakhstan. If the go-ahead is given, the nuclear waste will not be labeled as such of course; it will be called something like reserve nuclear materials or pre-recycled atomic fuel in an attempt to either hide its risky nature or to make it actually look like it is an asset in some way.

Fifthly, members of south Kazakhstani tribes near Almaty begin to notice that all the highest paid and best-positioned civil servants are from northern Kazakh tribes. The southern tribes are likely to feel they are being ignored and they begin to dwell upon the idea about how much better-off they would be if Kazakhstan was split into two: North and South. The ethnic Russians of Almaty also wonder, as well, if such a split might be good for them too since the over-stressed and underprivileged position of Almaty is plain for all to see. For instance, one problem Almaty residents keep getting angry about nowadays is that they are being sold over-priced, poor quality, cancer-causing car fuels whilst Astana keeps cheap good quality fuels for itself. Almaty’s public infrastructure, too, (the schools and hospitals and streets and parks) are generally noted as being notably inferior to those in Almaty.

At the moment, the power of the President of Kazakhstan is so total that few politicians, even those in opposition parties, want to publicly point out the staggering industrial crimes of the government and the toll it is exacting on Almaty. However, it’s likely some future President will not be so powerful and Kazakhstan will gradually become more democratic. This may open up the space for Almaty politicians to proactively call for a halt to nuclear waste imports.

If this call attracts public support, these politicians are likely to see the value of pursuing a regional eco-Almaty defense against Astana; campaigning for a radiation-free Almaty with clean air and clean streets; and re-adorned with apple trees, no less. It is sure to take decades but before the dawn of the 22nd century, the following policies will materialize:

-clean air acts will be introduced to ban the worst pollutants,

-cars will be taxed heavily for entering central city streets. Russian-made cars will be taxed even more. Eventually, the taxes become so onerous that people find alternative ways of getting about,

-bike lanes, public tramways, and indigenous Almaty-made electric eco-vehicles will provide free transportation for registered ‘non-car owners’ in the city,

-as the oil and gas reserves run out, the Almaty economy will switch to light industry, to services, and also to urban horticulture,

-the right of citizens to stands of community apple trees will be formulated as part of an Almaty city constitution. This means that stands of apple trees will have to be replanted, and investment in their well-being seen as a cultural benefit and as sign of Almaty’s civic pride.

By 2121AD, Almaty could be in the list of top ten cleanest cities of the world, and visitors from afar will come see the City of Apple Trees standing up against the might of Russia and the petro-dictators of Astana.


Almaty 2121 by Alan Marshall

To read the full story about the cities of Ecotopia 2121 purchase the project book via this page. For a preview of the Ecotopia 2121 project, see this page. For further sources on Almaty, see readings below:

Alexander, C. “Soviet and Post-Soviet Planning in Almaty, Kazakhstan.” Critique of Anthropology 27, no. 2 (2007): 165–181.

Bhavna, D. Kazakhstan: Ethnicity, Language and Power. London: Routledge, 2004.

Gossling, S., C. Michael-Hall, and D. Weaver, eds. Sustainable Tourism Futures: Perspectives on Systems, Restructuring and Innovations. London: Routledge, 2012.

Feshback, M., and A. Friendly. The Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Siege. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Huttenbach, H. R. “Whither Kazakhstan? Changing Capitals: From Almaty to Aqmola / Astana.” Nationalities Papers 26, no. 3 (1998): 581–587.

Janik, E. Apple: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

Kenessariyev, U., et al. “Human Health Cost of Air Pollution in Kazakhstan.” Journal of Environmental Protection 4, no. 8 (2013): 869–876.

Luck, T. M. “The World’s Dirtiest Cities.” Forbes Magazine, February 26, 2008.

Magau, N., and R. Kaschek. “Remarks Concerning Traffic Problems of Almaty.” Central Asia Business Journal 2 (2009).

Nabhan, G. P. “The Fatherland of Apples.” Orion, May/June 2008.

Rasizade, G. “Russian Irredentism after the Georgian Blitzkrieg.” Contemporary Review, March 22, 2009.

Sabol, S. Russian Colonization and the Genesis of Kazakh National Consciousness. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Sevcik, M. Kazakhstan’s Proposal to Initiate Commercial Imports of Radioactive Waste. NTI Report, 2003.

White, S., and C. Moore. Post-Soviet Politics. London: Sage Publications, 2012.

Wolfel, R. L. “North to Astana: Nationalistic Motives for the Movement of the Kazakh(stani) Capital.” Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity 30, no. 3 (2002): 485–506.

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