The hidden dimensions of a city during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Text by Sarah Cowles
Photography by Dina Oganova
In the middle of March, I join a friend for a trip to Tbilisi National Park, one of Georgia’s 15 national parks, and a dense and parallactic forest of mossy Fagus orientalis, Ilex colchica, and Taxus baccata. We search the red-brown carpet for spring flowers: purple Primula vulgaris, chartreuse Helleborus caucasicus, and Petasites albus. We drive through rain showers to the town of Tianeti; we observe highway workers gather under marshrutka (bus) shelters for birzha, the ritual sharing of strong spirits and snacks.
“That does not look like social distancing,” I tell my friend.
We stop at the café in Tianeti village. “Can we get dambal khacho?” I ask. It’s a local mountain blue cheese, served warm on hot bread with ghee. “Shansi ara, axali kanoni!” (No chance, new law!) She brings takeaway instant coffee and cream puffs to the sidewalk.
As we descend the congested Georgian Military Highway in the Aragvi valley toward Tbilisi, hundreds of trucks straddle the verge and pavement, idled cargoes of produce and mineral water from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. Drivers sleep, piss, pace, and make repairs; the normal delays at the alpine Georgian–Russian border, now exacerbated by the crisis. I dodge the oncoming cars and curse. On this highway, there’s no margin of error, no guardrails; driving is all wit, no wisdom.
“Don’t go out unless absolutely necessary. If you have a high fever and cough, consult a doctor. We wish you health!” reads an SMS from Mtavroba (the Georgian government). The streets are already empty of cars; only the buzz of mopeds prevails.
In Tbilisi, it is Gizhi Marti (crazy March); the lion and the lamb are fighting every day. Cold Caucasus winds slice the plateaus at night. I wake to silence and snow. Had the city cooled in the slowdown? With fewer cars and a decrease in air pollution, is there now new space in the atmosphere for precipitation? On the news, bearded monks in black Ford F-350s and Toyota Land Cruiser Prados circle Republic Square, scattering holy water in the slush to combat the virus; the first salvo in a split-screen battle over containment and cure, between faith and science, the church and the state.
Our studio, Isthmus Group Georgia, is celebrating its first anniversary when the pandemic arrives to wipe out our momentum. Our clients push back hotel opening dates, and banks aren’t issuing construction loans.When the U.S. Department of State issues a global “do not travel” advisory, our horticulture specialist ditches his tools and then books a complex itinerary to the United States, providing maximum potential for infection.
“Are you sure? You want to return to America? Have you been watching the news?” I ask.
“I’ll be back,” he says. I want to believe him. And I want him to continue planting his test plots of Caucasian endemic species in our test nursery in Kakheti, in Eastern Georgia. “Do you promise?” I ask.
I load Excel to look at our monthly projections and shut it again; the unpaid invoices are faded rags tied to the wishing tree. My bank issues predictions. The stress scenario and the baseline scenario: a 25 percent and 50 percent drop in tourism.
I review our contracts, highlight “Article 7: force majeure. Circumstances beyond the control of the parties.” On Google Trends, searches for the term track upward in step with U.S. coronavirus cases. My business adviser assures me everything will be fine. (In the 1990s, he tells me, he solved a cash shortage in the Georgian banking system with midnight runs of greenbacks from the airport to the central bank in a secondhand Volkswagen Golf.)
“Listen, Sarah, don’t worry,” he says. “The elections are coming in the fall; if the government will not start spending money in terms of social and economic support, they are at risk of having many protesters in the streets.”
In the studio, we wrap a project, unplug the workstations, reconnect at home through VPN, the virtual private network of distancing, stuttering video calls, and communication breakdowns.
I hold a sketch up to the screen on a video call: “Do you see, the mass of the Celtis is toward Akhospirelis Street? We have to put the seating on the other side.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you repeat?”
Will projects designed from March to May 2020 have something just…off? I wonder.
At home, with projects on hold, I pick up Julian Raxworthy’s Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Gardening. Four pages into the chapter on Sven-Ingvar Andersson’s Marnas garden, I close the book, grab the spade from the cellar, and put on my rubber boots.
Is there a German word for the specific sadness felt by the gardener of a rented home?
The soil is friable, dark, fragrant; a deep and fertile dimension I’d been too busy to explore. My neighbor Marina joins me, seeding the rows with tomato, coriander, and cucumber seeds from cone-shaped envelopes of notebook paper. My colleague Davit trims the plot’s ancient grapevine, setting aside the tsalami, trimmings that burn hot for Georgian barbecue. In the back, I prune spiky plum shoots, lop a witchy quince, and leave the dead pomegranate thicket for a chain saw day. I order Ukrainian seeds and Dutch dahlias from the only online hypermarket. Wearing muddy gloves, I am less tempted to read the grim news updates pinging my phone from the United States.
“Why do you think Georgia’s managed to contain the spread so far?” I ask Gegi Pirtskhalaishvili, an epidemiologist at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi. “Well, the U.S. is big, and we are small,” he says.
The Lugar Center, established and funded by the United States in the post-Cold War years, houses a museum of chemical and bioweapons. It also performs research on ways to combat novel threats to humans, livestock, and crops. In this remote outpost, scientists are tracking the DNA of the new virus, and initiating vaccine tests on the frontier between Russia and Iran and informing Georgia’s political and health leaders on methods for containing the pandemic and treating those infected. “We’re flexible, we have the supplies we need to test, and we are working closely with the U.S. CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and WHO [the World Health Organization],” says Pirtskhalaishvili. “But we won’t be through the quarantine measures until the end of May.”
Georgian leaders responded quickly to the threat of the new virus, canceling flights from China as early as January 29. Scientists at the Lugar Center established COVID-19 testing protocols in early February. Just days after closing flights to Iran on February 23, Georgia had its “Patient Zero,” a businessman returning from Iran via Azerbaijan. In mid-March, the government closed schools, and ski resorts closed and enacted distance protocols. Cafés, bars, and gyms shut down next, and by March 20, only essential services were permitted to operate, and all air travel, other than repatriation flights, was suspended.
Sealing off the country meant sacrificing Georgia’s booming tourism industry. Georgia’s currency, the lari, collapsed against the U.S. dollar and the euro, and the national bank shoveled money to stem the slide.
On March 21, with only 49 reported cases of COVID-19, the parliament authorized the sagangebo mdgomareoba (literally, “extraordinary conditions,” or state of emergency), shutting down nonessential economic activity, intercity public transit, and limiting gatherings to three people. In his address to the nation, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia outlined four priorities to manage the pandemic: health care, social order, logistics, and economic assistance. Overnight, billboards appeared with the hashtag #darchiasalxhi (#stayhome). In the postsocialist era, the government’s message is sponsored by petrochemical companies and developers. Police cruise the streets, with loudspeakers reciting the new rules and chastising those who gather too closely.
You can’t drive across town in Tbilisi; you twist up and down grades, torque around anarchic traffic circles, or fishtail in hairpin U-turn slots painted in the boulevards. Without the usual traffic in the double spiral of Heroes Square, I overshoot the exit to Mziuri Park.
I’m meeting David Giorgadze, the architect of the new skatepark in the city. The skatepark is both a victory for young people and proof that community-led initiatives are viable. Skateboarders and bikers play in the balmy sunshine, while workers in safety orange vests guide a bulldozer that dumps fresh gravel on the parkour course.
The concrete skate bowl is cast in an old channel of the Vere River, now running between armored revetments 100 meters northwest: a regulated river in an unregulated city. In 2015, heavy rains caused a landslide 10 kilometers north in Tskneti that dammed the Vere River. When the dam gave way, it unleashed a wall of water that scoured through the city, swept away homes illegally built in the river’s margins, and flooded Mziuri Park, the zoo, and Heroes Square, killing 20 people, drowning some animals, and freeing tigers. The Vere had reclaimed its dimensions where the city was squatting, but to city leaders, the flood was an accident: force majeure.
New Mziuri Park, according to the faded rendering stapled on the fence beside a counterfeit IKEA showroom, features a blue lake and lens-flared dappled shadows. On the ground today, New Mziuri is a confection of wilting transplanted trees and shrubs, the lake a green Lemna-coated, eutrophic borrow pit.
In the floodplain, workers plant wilting Cupressus, Thuja, and Juniperus, from Turkey, smudging “greening” among Mziuri’s really completely bonkers collection of Soviet-psychedelic masonry, monumental statues of Shrek-like fairy-tale heroes, and a giant snail-shaped pergola. The park’s new work includes an homage to Herzog & de Meuron’s Dominus Winery, made here as a public toilet. Soon, a brutalist fragment of a cableway station, stenciled with the words “NOT NOW,” will undergo its inevitable remonti (renovation), transforming from counterweight to médiathèque.
In the minimally regulated city, developers continue digging in the Vere ravine, doubling down on the river’s floodplain. Looking at the Populus alba trunks with flood scars reaching high above my head, I reflect on Trump’s recent words about coronavirus testing: “The whole thing was broken. And we rebuilt it and, you know, this—I wish it was done before and I’m not even blaming anybody. Nobody could have predicted something like this.”
The building surge that continues in Tbilisi is the legacy of the country’s reformist president, Mikheil Saakashvili, of the United National Movement party. Saakashvili leveraged development grants from the United States, Europe, and Asia to modernize Georgia’s legal, information technology, and physical infrastructure.
The national remonti project replaced foreboding yellow tuff-clad Soviet architecture buildings with a megadose of master of architecture thesis projects in glass, concrete, and flashing: new police stations, public service halls, courts and ministries, airports, bridges, and rest stops, everything inside digitized, efficient, shiny-surfaced. He courted foreign investment and touted anti-corruption measures and ease of doing business.
The Georgian Dream party, elected in 2012, has done little to invest in the nation’s economy: The agriculture sector lacks logistics and storage; construction materials, in high demand, are exclusively imported; and the best and brightest seek higher-paid work in the West. More funding is flowing from the East, with many betting on China’s Belt and Road Initiative to reconnect Georgia to Eurasian markets.
Pre-pandemic, tourism in Georgia rocketed, growing nearly 8 percent between 2018 and 2019. Leveraging their homes, many purchased second flats to renovate and list on Airbnb, or made improvements to rural homes for conversion into guesthouses. The crash in tourism revenue will fall on small investors and service workers. With a summer of cancellations ahead, many will default on their high-interest start-up loans. This reliance on individual risk in investment makes for a brittle economy, unable to weather shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, before Easter, my friend and I head for Algeti National Park and Manglisi, a former Russian army base and a popular summer retreat. Above Tskneti, we stop at the lookout, where engineers reattached the road after the 2015 landslide. The view is clear to Mount Kazbek and the jagged peaks of the North Caucasus.
Rolling through Manglisi’s deserted and potholed streets, we pass crumbling wooden dachas. In a sleepy market, I buy a handful of onion sets (score!) for the garden, and a bag of Turkish Doritos, puffy from the altitude. At 1,200 meters, the Algeti canyon is cold, dormant, muddy, its settlements in a shadow, patrolled by hefty Caucasian shepherds.
On the return drive, the softer snow-covered peaks of Samtskhe–Javakheti and Armenia stretch infinitely in the southern horizon. We stop at a fever checkpoint near the Kojori Battalion.
“What city are you from?” the soldier asks as I hand him my passport.
He laughs, waving me into the tent where a man in personal protective equipment aims an infrared thermometer at my forehead: normal.
Three days later, a nightly curfew is imposed, and cities are closed: no one in, no one out. Extraordinary conditions. Curfew means new dimensions of time and space; will I get there and back in time?
It’s quiet at night; the barking of dogs relays off canyon and high-rise walls; the towers of the Nutsubidze residential complex shimmering bright, in focus. In the early morning, there is only the sound of roosters and repatriation flights from Europe; the passengers are delivered straight to quarantine in empty four-star hotels.
Georgians shrug and comply with the limits on liberty. Davit attributes this to the collective memory of far worse times: infrastructural and financial collapse, civil war, food shortages, and hyperinflation in the post-independence 1990s. People patiently queue in front of stores; they obey curfew and sigh, as if restoring to a last-known “good” version of software.
Public health leaders appear on Georgian television stations multiple times a day outside hospitals and labs, communicating the severity of the threat. Politicians fade to the background to echo their advice. On my laptop, I stream the briefings from the White House: Dr. Anthony Fauci to the side of the podium, Trump muscling to the front, with daily improvisations on the pandemic: possible cures, possible causes.
Through April, there is a slow rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Early in the crisis, the Lugar Center ran rapid polymerase chain reaction tests, so health officials could disregard WHO guidelines—testing anyone, not just those with fevers who reported flu-like symptoms. They caught twice as many positive cases as before and reduced community contagion.
Though political leaders made rapid and difficult choices to close the economy and stem contagion, they blinked when facing down the powerful Orthodox Church. While the church gave in to social distancing (affixing a grid of two-meter stickers), the bishops refused a full shutdown of services, and insisted on performing communion with a shared spoon and bowl of wine.
The inconsistency in policy angered many, especially religious minorities, and debates raged on Facebook between religious and secular posters. A popular animated meme shows Orthodox monks’ and priest parishioners’ heads represented by the prickly symbol of the virus. When each parishioner drinks from the spoon, their head is replaced by the coronavirus sphere.
Although many Orthodox leaders across Europe suspended services for Easter, Orthodox leaders in Georgia insisted the church stay open. On TV, Paata Imnadze, the Deputy Director of the National Center for Disease Control, tearfully pleads with the public: “I understand that this is our tradition; however, let’s refuse to do it once in order to survive, in order to save the church. Don’t go to church in order to save our church.… We will not be able to count the coffins in Georgia.… Do we want this? Stay at home.”
The government responded with an end run the Friday before Easter: It banned all travel in private cars and closed cemeteries, where families traditionally gather after Easter weekend.
Before the holiday, David Giorgadze, of the skatepark project, invites us to collaborate on the renewal of Gudiashvili Square, which was saved from insensitive redevelopment by citizen action. We attempt the work from home thing and fail miserably. I can’t follow the scroll of thumbnails; I am lost in the threads on Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Slack. The architect is lost in different meeting tabs; the client is in his car. We can share screens, but we can’t share a table, a pinup, coffee, gossip, side-eye, and all the silent communication.
Gudiashvili’s beleaguered trees are topped, chopped, have been backfilled and backed into, and lean precariously over the square.
“So, I recommend you remove most of these trees; they are old and dangerous to people and property.”
“Yes, but we have to preserve the character and there will be big noise if we cut down the trees.”
“As the dendrologist, I won’t be responsible if you do; the city must take on the liability. I don’t know what your laws are on this, but I would look into that.”
“There is no liability, for you, for us. If it falls on someone, it is just an accident.”
My home is on a ridge above the meeting of two rivers, the neighborhood of Bagebi. At night, cool, clean air descends through the house.
On the first day of the car ban, I walk my dog in the side canyon behind my house to an old trail following an irrigation channel. Cloudy sunlight washes over distant prismatic meadows of Papaver and Delphinium. It is enchanting, the most ephemeral week of spring, the “Sakura season” of simultaneous joy at the colors and mourning its very transience: extraordinary conditions.
The 2015 flood scoured these canyons clean, and now thickets of poplar, Cotinus, and Salix reclaim the benches, the rivulet finding its way in the sediment and gravel, avulsing in heavy rains. There’s a flood warning camera pointed at a bridge rebuilt after the blowout, adjacent to a new homestead perched on the channel. There, but for the grace of God, go you.
Needing pictures of the 19th-century courtyards as background for the Gudiashvili Square project, I set out on an eight-kilometer transect through the car-free city’s neighborhoods, from Bagebi to Vake, Vera to Mtatsminda to Sololaki. Without cars, the sound of the city is remastered, with motorcycles revving up the grade toward Turtle Lake to the beats of Biggie Smalls; without car exhaust, there’s the smell of bread, warming soil, roses, and wet pavement.
On empty Abashidze Street, I catch parallax views down cross streets to the mountains. A VIP with a transit permit speeds past me in a black Mercedes, his turbo sucking in the clean air. I follow Vake’s folds as they tumble toward the packed towers of Kekelidze Street, turn left where the Varaziskhevi River runs underground to meet the Vere River in Heroes Square, and right again to Rustaveli Avenue, the heart of the city and Georgia’s main political stage, a place of state violence against peaceful demonstrators in the lead-up to independence, and again in the new millennium, when protesters call out authoritarian swings of leadership.
Three days into the car ban, looking at the improved quality numbers, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze decides to “consider banning private cars two days a week.” Scooters appeared on the streets, and there is a plan to purchase more city bikes.
Side effects of the pandemic revealed new civil dimensions, shallow and deep, and dimensions yet unimagined and incomprehensible: Should we ban cars a few days a week?
There was a time when planners accounted for the space of public health. In the mid-20th century Soviet planners expanded the city to adjacent plateaus, in microdistricts, master planned, full-service suburb-cities, connected to the center by metro and even aerial tram. Planners applied the principles of sanatorium design to microdistricts. They designed fresh air and sunlight, housing with open-air balconies and swaths of forested common space. The steep ravines were left open so cool Caucasus air would flow down at night and flush the city. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, without control and planning, citizens appropriated those features as a surplus to be remade for the immediate needs of economy and security. The forests surrounding the city, designed to reduce wind and dust, are now dying from disease, or are cut down for projects touted as “ecologically clean areas.”
For a time, we walked in the streets of Tbilisi and glimpsed distant prismatic meadows. For a time, public welfare took precedence over oligarch-led laissez-faire capitalism. But these extraordinary conditions, a police-enforced quarantine regime and a shuttered economy, are untenable long term.
Health care, social order, logistics, and economic assistance. Did Prime Minister Gakharia open a new dimension of politics, by accident? Imagine a society with priorities in this order, outside of extraordinary conditions.
It would mean caring for all bodies, not only the wealthy, the young, the formally employed, and the able. It would mean eliminating poverty, valuing reproductive health, funding the training and salaries of health care workers. (But with liberty and bodily autonomy, so you can still party all night, go paragliding, smoke a cigarette, or leave your bike helmet at home from time to time.)
It would mean an economy that supports medical and social science research that may not be net profitable or yield immediate results. It would mean building material reserves of emergency supplies. It would mean experimenting with restorative justice in lieu of prisons. It would mean food security.
It means investing in new dimensions, spatial and material reserves: wide sidewalks, room to breathe, and space for water to surge and air to flow.
Sarah Cowles is the director of Isthmus Group Georgia, a landscape architecture, planning, and research studio in Tbilisi, Georgia.