Natural and Unnatural Disasters: Heroes’ Square and the Rise of the Car in Tbilisi

Following her article on the history of Tbilisi zoo, Angela Wheeler explores another major site that was struck by the devastating flood this June: Tbilisi’s Heroes’ Square. 

Heroes' Square in the 50s and in 2013. Image: Speaking Stones/JumpStart Georgia.
Heroes’ Square in the 50s and in 2013. Image: Speaking Stones/JumpStart Georgia.

When Heroes’ Square dramatically flooded in June 2015, sweeping away houses and releasing zoo animals into the streets, critics were quick to blame either the Soviet legacy (a near-universal scapegoat) or the Saakashvili administration (which presided over the recent expansion of the square into a Gordian knot of tunnels and overpasses). Subsequent analysis revealed that the disaster was, in fact, largely natural – heavy rains triggered a landslide north of Tbilisi, sending debris and mud flowing down the River Vere. Freeways or no, the Vere basin would have flooded. The redevelopment of Heroes’ Square may not have caused this particular disaster, but it continues to contribute to another, more insidious one: Tbilisi’s subjugation by car.

Heroes' Square 1950s-1960s. Image courtesy: Urban Environmental Laboratory.
Heroes’ Square 1950s-1960s. Image courtesy: Urban Environmental Laboratory.

The role of Heroes’ Square as a major transit route dates back to the 19th century, when it marked the outer boundary of Tbilisi and the beginning of the Russian-built Georgian Military Highway to the North Caucasus. Before the Soviet period, this undeveloped fringe of the city was known for its nightlife, full of samikitnos (taverns) and gardens. Tbilisi Zoo, added in 1927 on the banks of the River Vere, contributed another public space for leisure and recreation.

The city began a significant northwest expansion in the 1920s, effectively creating a new district, Saburtalo, in a matter of years. In order to provide transit links between the center and the new outer residential neighborhoods, Soviet leadership embarked on an intense period of infrastructure development. In the 1930s, Cheluskinelebi Square (named for the heroic Soviet pilots who saved the crew of the ship Cheluskini) provided the junction for several new roads linking the Georgian Military Highway, Saburtalo, central Tbilisi, and districts across the River Mtkvari.

The circus in the background. Image: National Parliamentary Library of Georgia.
The circus in the background. Image: National Parliamentary Library of Georgia.

Despite its role as a transit hub, Cheluskinelebi Square (simplified to Heroes’ Square after the Great Patriotic War) was still primarily a pedestrian space, ringed by shops, a hotel, the zoo, and the circus. It wasn’t until the Soviet Union’s push for motorization in the late 1960s that automobile-centric redevelopment of the square was proposed. Unusually, the discussion was held in the open press: on July 4, 1974 a local newspaper printed an article entitled “On the Reconstruction of Heroes’ Square” (გმირთა მოედნის რეკონსტრუქციის საკითხებისთვის), and planning authorities hosted an informal public symposium.

1972 flood in Heroes' Square. Image: Tiflis Hamkari.
1972 flood in Heroes’ Square. Image: Tiflis Hamkari.

The final plan, implemented by local architects Kiazo Nakhutsrishvili and Vano Chkhenkeli, more than doubled the automobile capacity of the square. Despite a recent flood, the plan also included tunnels to connect Saburtalo highways and provide pedestrian underpasses. A system of culverts to divert water was added on the advice of local engineering authority Giorgi Japaridze, whose 1974 geological survey warned of erosion and landslide risks.

Although the expansion eased traffic congestion between the growing outer districts and the center, it effectively eliminated the square’s role as a shared public space. While cars monopolized the square itself, pedestrians were consigned to underpasses. Attractions like the zoo, circus, and memorial, once a network of family-friendly leisure spaces, saw a decline in attendance as the public began to avoid what was clearly a hostile environment.

1974-1978 redevelopment plan. Image: Urban Environmental Laboratory.
1974-1978 redevelopment plan. Image: Urban Environmental Laboratory.

A 1986 plan to further increase the motor capacity of the square was scrapped due to growing economic and political strife across the Soviet Union. Heroes’ Square languished following independence (and subsequent economic collapse) in the 1990s. Although high fuel prices kept most cars off the road, pedestrians continued to avoid the underpasses, which quickly deteriorated into urine-soaked warrens of petty crime without the maintenance and security provided under Soviet rule.

When economic conditions began to improve in the early 2000s, municipal authorities failed to reinvest in public transit. After decades of master plans handed down from Moscow, City Hall was content to let the free market take its course – and, facing dismal public options, Tbilisi residents responded by turning to private transportation. Increased vehicle ownership, rapid urban population growth, and lack of spatial or transit planning led to traffic jams across the city.

Electrified trams in the 50s, removed in 2006. Image: Speaking Stones.
Electrified trams in the 50s, removed in 2006. Image: Speaking Stones.

While cities around the world install light rail and bus lanes as means to reduce congestion and emissions, Tbilisi removed its electrified trams as recently as 2006. According to statistics from the World Health Organization and World Bank, Georgia holds the distinction of third-highest traffic-related casualties (15.7 per 100,000 people) among European countries, behind only Russia (18.6) and Armenia (18.1). For comparison, Sweden averages 3 casualties. The NGO “Georgia Alliance for Safe Roads” found that traffic accidents involving pedestrians have risen dramatically since 2010, now accounting for between 30-40% of all accidents.

Heroes' Square after the1974-1978 and 2009-2012 redevelopment. Image: Speaking Stones.
Heroes’ Square after the1974-1978 and 2009-2012 redevelopment. Image: Speaking Stones.

Looking to defuse traffic jams between the outer residential districts and the center, City Hall once again turned to Heroes’ Square. In 2009, engineering firm Caucasus Road Project was awarded the commission to increase capacity by adding a system of overpasses and rearranging access points to the square. According to Open Data, the Georgian government’s public information database, the resulting construction and design cost approximately 115 million GEL, of which fewer than two million was spent on research and documentation. The project was completed in 2012 without any public consultation or social impact assessments.

Today, Tbilisi continues to suffer from crippling traffic congestion, and City Hall continues to prioritize private transportation at the expense of pedestrians and public space. Lack of planning remains the greatest hurdle to livability in what is otherwise a beautiful city. Land use plans issued under various mayoral administrations did not involve public input and are only intended to provide recommendations rather than concrete development programs or coherent transit strategies. While the redevelopment of Heroes’ Square is not to blame for the recent natural disaster, hopefully City Hall will soon recognize its role in an unnatural disaster of far greater magnitude for Tbilisi as a whole.

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