Urban Planning and New Government 2

Sarhat Petrosyan, architect, urban-planner, urbanlab founder
Հայերեն տեքստն հասանելի է այստեղ

During 2012 Parliamentray elections, with my article titled “Urban Planning and New Government” I made several suggestions aimed at improvement of public administration in this field. Naturally, it was followed by an unprecedented illogical decision, that is creation of State Committee of Architecture, which after several transformations, today functions as State Committee of Urban Planning. With the new government formation and by overcoming my so called “fears”, that my suggestions might again result in even worse results, as well as taking into consideration the appointments of officials in the field, I made up my mind to once again touch upon the main issues of urban development and planning.

Especially by realizing that our colleagues engaged in the field, apart from familiarizing themselves with the ongoing situation, are also going through crisis management and have to still meet public expectations (populism), which means drafting a long-term vision shall be delayed even further, or even fade for some time.

First of all I am hopeful that the new government, given the changes after its formation, shall not treat urban development or more accurately to say urban planning  as an unimportant field among others, and  the HR and development policy shall not be trusted to third circles which may or may not be part of their political team, exactly the same way as it has been over the past weeks, and decisions shall not be made among civic activists who are protesting for preservation of green areas by simply “embracing the trees” or those who are struggling for underground passage lighting, by all means, by saying this, I do not intend to depreciate those actions, which, by the way, were exercised by me personally during my professional civic activities in the past.

Nonetheless, there have been two successful appointments in two key positions – Head of the Urban Planning Committee and Deputy Minister of Culture, in charge of coordination of cultural monuments, who are well aware that they can anticipate my support (from my organization as well)  in any format.

So, without further hesitation, I would like to present several suggestions, which slightly differ from those presented back in 2012. I bring in new issues which include the institutional experience gained over the past 6 years and are anchored in almost unconditional trust towards the new government and towards old civic-struggle friends of mine, who make part of the government.

I have used and shall be using the term “planning” (պլանավորում), since it is high time to get rid of the archaic term of “town-construction” (քաղաքաշինություն) inherited from Soviet command structure.

I have had different occasions to share my view point that the term “town-construction” fails to express the interdisciplinary reality of spatial planning in open competitive system, and leads to a completely wrong direction, which consists of chief and secondary architects, and where the chief ones get to decide what to build and where to build, just like it used to be during Soviet period and the subsequent years.

To this end, the democratization of urban planning and horizontal dialogue have no alternatives in the new political system, a thing we touched upon early in 2000’s.
Thus, planning as a discipline for spatial programming for a country’s development, is everywhere and any major or minor decision aimed at economic and social life development, gets to deal with space at some point. This means that we get to deal with that in every field, regardless of our will.

That being said, similar to 2012, I still do insist that there is no need for such a body to regulate the filed, on national, that is government level.

By fully sharing the present, conventionally speaking, the approach of transitional government not to initiate structural changes, we all do understand that the new government formation is pretty close and it would be appreciated to have a clear planning vision in the upcoming government program, which shall reflect present local and international tendencies.

Let’s try to understand what functions can be viewed in planning on national level, regarding which government might aim to exercise field policy. Factually today the field is trusted to local governing bodies in rural and urban communities, particularly to community heads.

Well in the future, by remaining faithful to the logic of local democracy, the right of making individual decision should be granted to the council of aldermen (city council), aimed at excluding subjective decision making as well as corruption risks.

Nevertheless, the decision is acceptable and based on decisions of the immediate environment of the local community their immediate built environments should be formed.
There is also a mistaken idea that urban planning documents – master plans and other documents of communities, are developed on state level. In fact, according to both current legislation and international norms, this is exceptionally a local government function and there is nothing to be done here on national level.

The communities used to commission private organization to draft such documents in the past, which were later approved by the council of aldermen (city council). These documents go through inter-ministerial commission discussions, which is in fact coordinated by state authorized body, which can be any sectoral ministry in fact.

The other misconception we have is the urban planning inspection function of state authorized body, which is incomprehensible, since based on  legislation, both local self-governing bodies carry out inspection functions, as well as there are technical and licensed authoritative inspection institutions. This leads to concluding that there is absolutely no need for inspection functions on national level, or given critical cases, inspections can be carried out towards local self-governing bodies, instead of exercising these towards every single construction scattered throughout the whole country.

Particularly given such tough inspections only corruption risks increased in the past, and by even excluding those risks there was still no way to reach desirable results, moreover, the given situation only worsened favorable investment environment.

Currently the state authorized body’s another function is creation and development of normative database (building codes), which is simultaneously being implemented by several other ministries as well, among them Ministry of Health, Transport, Ministry of Emergency Situations as well as Ministry of  Ecology – in fact all these makes tiny portion of planning function. Nonetheless, it should be taken into consideration that there is no need to invent a bicycle, and that all these documents are basically translations from those used in EU and EAEU, which means it does not require serious efforts from any of those bodies.

And finally, the inclusion of state construction and investments, which was one of the initiatives of the previous government, should be implemented by state procurement and body in charge of economic development respectively. It is important that the head of the state authorized body or the architect who is part of the body, should not be a government (in-house) architect, since it contains huge corruption risks and we have previously happened to see such results over the past decades.

In the past I have had several occasions to speak about the sector being so monopolized, being in a situation when someone, who turns out to be the top of pyramid that manages order distribution, who, as a result of negotiations with investors on behalf of the government, decides how to manage design orders, deciding which architect gets this or that order.

This is an unacceptable tradition and the new government should do its best to exclude the continuation of such practice.

The only other aspect, along the spatial planning policy, which can supposedly have government level engagement in, is licensing. The Chamber of Architects of Armenia was established for the purpose of license decentralization and shall be self-regulating project licensing. Still back during Tigran Sargsyan’s term, within cooperation with OSCE Centre for Legislative Regulation (better known as Regulatory Guillotine) we suggested to get rid of all licenses available in the sector and tighten only the expertise circle by turning it to a state function.

Thus, we can conclude that the functions of a Committee comprising more than one hundred employees, can be coordinated by an adjunct sector Deputy Minister or an entire department. To this end, as previously stated, the Ministry of Territorial Administration is the most appropriate ministry for this case, although I have been recently tending for the Ministry of Transport or Ministry of Economy. The last option can particularly make a positive impact on tourism development, since the main development issues of tourism sector, which has been declared as priority area, are currently within planning sector and require serious professional and multidisciplinary approaches. The most important thing here is not to make it part of the Ministry of Culture, Emergency Situations or Ecology, since the latter have contradictory function in the field of urban development.

By reducing the government’s current functions in planning sector, I think that the next most important issues of the sector shall be the creation of Integrated Cadastre, which, based on today’s legislation, is called Urban Cadastre.

This new, Integrated Cadastre can be created based on Real Estate Cadastre database, by incorporating all cadastres needed for a state in a single database, which can be one of the main tools for spatial planning.

Forest, land, monument and other registered cadasters should be curated by one single body, by combining all informative spatial databases, this way enabling the government to make appropriate and accurate decisions.

Today, given the absence of such single database, the directions of infrastructures in various communities, among them central parts of Yerevan, and especially underground infrastructures, are determined based on folklore methods. This is one of the major obstacles of Armenia’s economy, and being the only independent expert of World Bank’s Doing Business Report on construction sector, I have been pointing out to this issue for years now. This is the reason why Armenia has a quite bad position in terms of construction permits. 

Naturally, serious legislative and sub-legislative work still needs to be done for switching the sector development on the right track. In particular, we should exercise a zoning plan as main legal document of urban development, as a result of which there will be no need for absurd planning permissions (Architectural and Designing Requirement Specification), we should reevaluate the institute of public discussions as cornerstone tool for ensuring transparency․

We should also rethink the purposefulness of overriding public interest and many other reforms, for which the future Deputy Minister of the sector shall have lots of actions to complete.

Of course, this will not solve all the sector gaps, yet it is only through the decentralization and liberalization of public administration that one can solve the issues of urban ignorance or more accurately the issues of monopolized and corrupt sector. 
The democratization of urban governance has an immense potential for the development of economy and for the formation of “quality” environment, in other words – it has to ensure public happiness.

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