This article presents the civic campaign conducted in 2015–2016 to save Batumi Boulevard, the most significant recreational area in Batumi. The campaign managed to mobilize people keen to protect Batumi Boulevard over a short period of time and plan and implement a unified, efficient, and consistent campaign.
Batumi Boulevard beginning of XXe century (Source: ICOMOS Georgia) and Batumi Boulevard nowadays
For years, the maintenance of Georgia’s urban heritage and its role in the context of the city, including economic development, have not been properly considered. Because of this, the government has demonstrated an inadequate attitude towards cultural heritage — to save money or raise revenue for the city budget. For example, in historic cities, the protection of cultural heritage objects has been completely ignored when implementing investment and development projects, with the potential to destroy specific objects and the environment in general.The Autonomous Republic of Adjara is not an exception. The situation is especially devastating in Adjara’s capital city, Batumi, one of Georgia’s main seaside resorts and a city rich in valuable urban heritage. Developers have taken a keen interest in the city, Georgia’s second largest, which has been revived by the city’s potential for development. Unfortunately, the authorities failed to reach a balance between the preservation of the city and the interests of developers. A number of projects implemented on Batumi Boulevard may serve as examples.Civic initiatives and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on promoting cultural heritage and its protection in Georgia are neither numerous nor strong enough. In this context, the ‘Protect the Old Boulevard’ campaign may be deemed one of the most successful and popular civic campaigns to preserve urban heritage in Georgia.
Batumi’s seaside boulevard is one of the city’s most notable sights. It is located in the historical part of the city, running along a wide coastline between the beach and the buildings. Since 1987, the boulevard has been a monument of national importance as well as recreational area.The boulevard plays a special role in public life of local residents, and its history is an integral part of Batumi’s history, urban life, and traditions. The idea to construct the boulevard can be traced back to 1881, and the then–Governor of Batumi District, A.I. Smekalov. Two Prussian gardeners, Ressler and Reiner, were brought in to construct the boulevard by the city’s chief of police, Voznesenk. In 1884, Ressler passed away suddenly and Michael D’Alfons was invited to Georgia for 5 years and appointed to continue the construction. D’Alfons is known in local historical sources as the ‘Genius of the Batumi Coast’.By the end of 2009, the area of Batumi Boulevard had been increased significantly, and as of today, runs to a total length of 7 km. The ‘New Boulevard’, designed by a Spanish architect, was laid out according to modern standards and stretches over 1,200 meters.
Problem of the Boulevard
In 2009, restricted areas, i.e. elite resting places, such as the swimming pool of the Hotel Sheraton, appeared on some parts of Batumi Boulevard. The laws regulating land use and construction in Batumi are problematic, and in some cases inadequate. For example, according to the city’s construction regulations, objects whose purpose contradicts the purpose of the area are allowed in Batumi’s recreational areas, including Batumi Boulevard. These include hotels, cafes, restaurants, zoos, slot halls, church facilities, administrative buildings, parking lots, etc. Similar rules and regulations do not protect the public and create preconditions for violations such as those that occurred in April 2011.In April 2011, the cutting down of perennial plants and the beginning of construction of a business centre on the central part of Batumi Boulevard caused public outrage. Rallies began, a petition was created, and signatures were collected demanding an immediate halt to the construction. From the very beginning, it was clear to the public that the construction on the boulevard was the political decision of a high-ranking official.Based on the public interest in the case, a coalition of NGOs began obtaining information about it, submitting a request to Adjara’s Cultural Heritage Agency. The agency refused to disclose the information claiming that the planned construction on the boulevard and all related documents were classified as secret, and they were not legally permitted to disclose them. The NGOs appealed the refusal to Adjara’s Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture, of which the agency is a part, and later to Batumi City Court.Despite the evidence presented to the court and the legal justification, the court ruled in the government’s favour. The construction of the business centre has now been completed on the oldest part of the boulevard. Unfortunately, when making such decisions, neither the views of specialists nor the public interest is taken into consideration and the value of specific urban environments is disregarded. As such, cultural heritage and related values can only be preserved through civic engagement.Despite the fact that the boulevard campaign that began in 2011 failed and the planned business centre was built, it actualized problems on the boulevard. This made it easier to mobilize people when a new problem arose.
The Protect the Old Boulevard Campaign
Objective: Maintain the three historically formed alleys along Batumi Boulevard.
Implementer: The Protect the Old Boulevard Initiative group was made up of NGOs and members of the general public who showed an interest in the issue. 100% of people involved in planning and implementing the campaign, who were of different ages and came from different professions and backgrounds, united to achieve this common goal without payment.
Strategy: Permanent actions, public and closed meetings with policymakers and institutions, public lectures to promote the boulevard and cultural heritage generally, legal analysis of the process.
Context: On December 16 2015, Sanatorium Hotel Oasis Ltd gave a presentation on its Batumi Boulevard concept project, which was commissioned by LEPL Batumi Boulevard. According to the presented project, the boulevard’s layout was to be changed, with its three alleys reduced to two creating space for cafes and restaurants.The project caused protests from local residents, who thought the concept posed a threat to Batumi Boulevard as a cultural heritage monument and to its recreational function. Protests were further fuelled after the government of Adjara started working on the concept, including the destruction of one of the alleys.
Damage to the Batumi Boulevard due to construction work / Public meeting at the Batumi Boulevard
Several days after the presentation, the initiative group released the Protect the Old Boulevard petition with the following text:
“The petitioners are against the implementation of changes envisaged in the new concept for the Old Boulevard.”
“Batumi Boulevard has its own concept, which has been developed over 130 years. Since its establishment, the boulevard has been an integral and very significant part of Batumi’s history. We believe if the changes go ahead, the boulevard will lose the characteristics of its cultural heritage.”
“We categorically oppose the removal of a walkway, placement of cafes, bars and an artificial waterfall, construction of new buildings, and other changes envisaged in the draft concept for Batumi Boulevard.”
“We demand the following:
- Preserve the existing alleys and paths on the Old Boulevard, ensure their proper care, and maintain the existing green cover and plantings.
- Strictly determine a list of objects that may be built on the Batumi’s Old Boulevard. We think that capital construction should not be prohibited on the Old Boulevard;
- Review recently built buildings that have changed the appearance of Batumi Boulevard.
- All decisions must be public and made based on studies and surveys with the participation of field experts, who will document the necessity of all decisions.
- Immediately stop all projects and work currently being implemented on the Old Boulevard that are not intended to preserve Batumi Boulevard’s cultural heritage.
- In addition, we think it is essential to develop the city and create new squares and tourist attractions. Therefore, we suggest the government implement the concept in a New Boulevard. The current government will leave behind a positive and historic footprint through development of a new place, and by not changing the favourite place for residents of Batumi — Batumi Boulevard — and destroying its cultural heritage.”
It is noteworthy that several independent groups got involved in the process as soon as the problem arose. In the initial stages, coordination between them was quite weak. Different stakeholders coordinated with policymakers and planned activities independently of each other. Despite the petition, specific and clear demands that could have halted the on-going work and ensure adequate development of the boulevard in the future were not formulated.The initiative group was established later, made up of Society Batomi, Transparency International Georgia, and other CSOs as well as informal groupings and interested members of the public.The initiative group managed to design an effective campaign to disseminate information, involve more people in the process, take legal action, coordinate with policymakers, and formulate specific demands. From this stage on, the campaign became uniform and consistent, which ensured its success.Society Batomi had implemented campaigns on cultural heritage preservation for a number of years, and therefore had extensive experience in campaign planning and management.They succeeded in:
1 Consolidating all initiative groups and stakeholders
2 Inviting experts from Tbilisi to conduct public lectures
3 Forming a working group composed of local experts and specialists from the capital
4 In cooperation with the above, defining exact demands — the main demand of the Protect the old Boulevard civic initiative was to develop a Batumi Boulevard Conservation Plan.
During the initial stages, the campaign focused on informing as many people as possible to mobilize a critical mass, in order to influence the decision making process. The next stage was permanent street rallies and actions. The campaign had a significant presence on social media through its popular Facebook page, which had around 18,000 followers. The Facebook page was used as a key platform in the campaign to inform the community, recruit volunteers, and more. The “Three” photo campaign played a huge role in taking the campaign from a local to a national level, and social media came to play a key role in this as well.
The “Three” Photo Campaign
The “Three” photo campaign, a viral social media strategy, was one of the most effective tools of the campaign. People took photos of themselves holding up three fingers — to support the campaign to maintain the three alleys of Batumi Boulevard — and uploaded them to the Facebook tagging three other people asking them to do the same. The campaign spread beyond the boundaries of Batumi and the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, appearing around the country. This activity raised the problem from a local level, bringing national attention to the issue.Transparency International Georgia analysed the procurement and the whole process in general. Their analysis revealed the following:
- Rehabilitation works planned and implemented on the Boulevard often contradicted the activities allowed on cultural heritage objects.
- The committee established to plan and develop the Batumi Boulevard concept was mainly composed of public servants; independent experts did not participate in the process.
- There was reasonable suspicion that negotiations for the development of the Boulevard concept with LEPL Batumi Boulevard and Sanatorium Hotel Oasis Ltd were held in advance.
- Changes made to the project could have served as a basis for unreasonable spending of the budget.
- LEPL Batumi Boulevard submitted different projects to Batumi City Hall and the Cultural Heritage Agency to obtain a construction permit, meaning that some of the work on the Batumi Boulevard was performed without the permission of the Boulevard’s owner (Batumi Municipality), in contradiction of the law.
These problems showed how flawed the project was.In the beginning of January 2016, snow cover in Batumi reached half a meter, damaging perennial trees and seedlings. On January 4, Society Batomi kicked off an event in which the public could participate in shaking snow from trees. The activity became popular, allowing the organization to reach out and motivate people interested in saving and preserving the Boulevard. It helped these people to communicate among each other and mobilize them around the Protect the Old Boulevard campaign.During the campaign, a number of rallies, public and closed meetings with policymakers, briefings, and lectures were held. The campaign was actively covered by the media.
Various photos in the frame of the “Three” Photo Campaign
Happily ever after i.e. a happy ending
On April 4 2016, the press office of the Chairman of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara announced that the government would discuss the possible termination of the agreement with the company working on the Batumi Boulevard concept. According to information from the chairman, Archil Khabadze, a bilateral agreement on the issue had already been reached:“We held a meeting with the initiative group last week. We think it was a very constructive meeting and some of the initiative group’s demands were fair. We discussed and determined ways to solve the problems. We talked out the possibility of amending the agreement within the legal framework or terminating it. In our opinion, at this stage, procedures and negotiations on bilateral termination can be started within the legal framework”, he said.“As for the demands for conservation of the boulevard, this is not included in the budget at this stage, although we may start working on the issue in the future. Negotiations are underway, we have agreed with the company on the bilateral termination of the agreement. However, we will reimburse Dreamland Oasis for the work performed. We have made an oral agreement with them, although experts should work on this issue”, newspaper Batumelebi reported on 12/04/2016.
Effective communication, achievable and clear objectives, and balancing the interests of different people united around a single platform helped the Protect the Old Boulevard campaign achieve its goal.The Protect the Old Boulevard campaign is a clear example that persistence in advocacy campaigns often guarantees success. One lost battle often does not mean a lost war. Despite the 2011 campaign being unsuccessful at that particular moment, the protests contributed to the victory that was achieved in 2016.
This case study was compiled by Tamar Amashukeli for the Centre for Training and Consultancy (CTC).