Evolution of a city

Atkins | 15 Jun 2011 | Comments

Regenerating a city is about looking at its past as well as its future. In the case of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, planners are building on its heritage while incorporating existing environments and culture, as well as celebrating modern innovation.

Baku’s history is inextricably linked with energy and commerce. A strategically important trading post and former Soviet republic, it also holds the distinction of being the world’s first oil city – at the start of the 20th century, almost half of the world’s oil production originated in Baku.

However, time has taken its toll. Large areas of the city are now in need of regeneration and one such area – the so-called Black City district, in what was once the heart of the oil industry – lies a short distance away from the historic centre of Baku. In June 2007 the Government decreed that a major regeneration programme would be implemented, beginning with this area, the newly named “White City”.

“The Baku masterplan is part of an environmental programme to help the city redefine itself, post-Soviet rule,” says Matt Tribe, the Atkins design director for the White City project. “The development symbolises the ambitions of the new Government of Azerbaijan, its indigenous people and the identity of the country.”

Tribe and the team were tasked with designing a new district almost from scratch. It covers 221ha and will encompass ten districts. “Because it’s such a large site, with 1,000 buildings and a population of up to 70,000, it has to have all the components you would expect of a city,” says Tribe.

Cultural commitment

Of course, building a district from scratch within the heart of an ancient city is not without its difficulties.

“We had a challenge to ensure it was the right next step for the city and that it fitted in well with the evolution of Baku as a place,” Tribe explains. “Ultimately, the project is about the people of Azerbaijan rather than meeting the needs of private developers. This is more about providing the city with some of the missing pieces.”

Under the masterplan, most of the proposed buildings are five to seven storeys, while at the waterfront there are modern buildings affording great vistas across the Caspian Sea.

The plan also incorporates a shopping mall (something of a novelty for Baku since this kind of “all in one” retail approach is new to Azerbaijan) as well as providing civic venues, a convention centre and other public buildings catering to the wider population of the city.

In arriving at the design, the team looked to European cities. Alleyways and courtyards open on to boulevards, while pedestrians are given priority across most of the district. Cars are accommodated, but they don’t dominate.

“It’s very much about extending the city into its next phase, so it has a central business district and it has residential areas and shops,” says Tribe. “It’s akin to developing something similar to European cities such as Barcelona and Paris. Ultimately, it’s trying to achieve a sustainable community where the people of Baku can live, work and play.”

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