In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital and largest city, there are very few neighborhood parks. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, about 80 percent of the city’s public spaces have been annexed for commercial use. Unless you’re in a private home, meeting in groups can be difficult without having to buy a meal or a cup of coffee.
Open public spaces are vital for any democracy; they are sites for assembly, debate, protest, and creative expression. In Bishkek, where civic participation is still weak, such spaces are even more crucial.
As Kyrgyzstan urbanizes and the population shifts from the rural provinces into cities, many residents aren’t comfortable engaging with their new neighbors. They don’t know how to work together to make demands of their local government. At the Urban Initiatives Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2014 to encourage civic participation, we were looking for a solution. How can we reclaim public spaces for Bishkek’s communities?
Since the beginning of 2015, we’ve been mapping the city to find places where people can come together. We’ve found an enormous amount of green space, but people don’t consider these places theirs, in part because they are poorly maintained and uninviting. We called such spaces “nameless parks.” Unfortunately, in post-Soviet society, a common space very often means one that belongs to nobody. We hope to change that, to make people believe that common means for everyone.
Recently, we found an abandoned park that had been a popular place for people to gather before a nearby cinema closed down. Over time, the space had deteriorated; when we arrived, it was strewn with bottles, cigarette butts, and other trash. No one wanted to spend any time there. The place seemed to be forgotten.
But it turned out this particular space wasn’t nameless. When we began our work, some children playing there told us they called it “Sloniki”—Russian for “little elephants”—because of the crumbling animal sculptures scattered about. We organized a team of volunteers to pick up trash and restore the cement animals. Kids and their parents joined in, constructing benches from wooden pallets and painting the sculptures, among other tasks. When the work was complete, we held a grand opening. We told people about the idea behind the newly refurbished Sloniki—that it was built by locals for locals.
Our goal was to encourage people to start looking after the park themselves, and that’s just what happened at first. They even contributed improvements, like building new water canals for the trees. But no strong leadership developed, and as time went on, some of the sculptures were damaged again. Then, an adjacent city construction project demolished many of the trees. People had been hopeful; now they wondered why they should care—the park would soon be swallowed up by the apartment complex being built next door.
We learned a lot from Sloniki Park. Without a sense of community, it’s hard to mobilize people. It’s important to find a local leader who will shepherd a project through from start to finish. In the future, we’ll reach out to other stakeholders to encourage their participation in the process. Perhaps the municipality or the developer overseeing the construction could have incorporated our park into their plans.
Still, we were inspired by the effort, and today, several months later, the park is still clean, even if some of the sculptures aren’t perfect. Now all the young moms in the neighborhood take their children there, acting as watchdogs. We need to support such activities; there are still many people who don’t realize the city belongs to them.