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Sustainable Cities in Post-Soviet Central Asia: The Case of Bishkek

From Sustainable to Resilient Cities: Global Concerns and Urban Efforts

ISBN: 978-1-78441-058-2, eISBN: 978-1-78441-057-5

Publication date: 25 November 2014



This chapter examines issues of sustainability in regard to post-Soviet Central Asian urban centers via a case study of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This urban center of approximately one million people is the largest in the Kyrgyz Republic, and one of the larger cities in Central Asia. Dubbed “the Tree City” during the Soviet Era, it, like other Central Asian population centers, occupies an oasis-like environment at the foot of a major mountain range, the Ala-Too Range of the Tian Shan (Mts.). This major mountain massif, which extends across the northern part of Central Asia and on into North-West China, has numerous peaks more than 4,000 m high and many glaciers. It is these snowfields that provide most of the water used by the city of Bishkek and its suburbs.


The findings represented herein are based on ethnographic field observations and interviews conducted in 2006–2007 and 2013–2014. A variety of documentary resources were accessed as well.

Research findings

During Soviet times, Bishkek and its environs were the location of industrial complexes focused on the processing of minerals and agricultural produce, much of which was shipped to other republics within the USSR. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of these industrial sites have fallen into disuse and disrepair. So, while Bishkek has numerous “socialist” planned parks, long-established green spaces, and a relatively large “urban forest” along major boulevards and thoroughfares, it is also dotted with abandoned factories, warehouses, and crumbling infrastructure. In parts of the city, and especially around its perimeter, urban fruit and vegetable gardens have reappeared, as many residents had to return to subsistence gardening to provide basic food needs for their households.

In the last decade, however, the local economy has begun to diversify and grow. This has brought more cars to the streets and a substantial number of new businesses and building projects, along with increasing amounts of air, water, and noise pollution. Concomitant with this new development has been the emergence of a nascent green movement, the establishment of environmental organizations, and a small but growing “green consciousness” as witnessed by the creation of new recycling programs, increased bicycle travel, and related activities pointing toward a more sustainable future.


In this chapter, the relative sustainability (social, cultural, economic, and ecological) of this Central Asian urban center are considered as it has emerged from its Soviet past to become the focal point of new enterprises, including a small but growing ecotourism industry. Bishkek, in common with other major cities of this region, which is far from the moderating influences of the sea, must adapt to the realities of what are likely to be increasingly severe climate change impacts – increased average annual temperatures, the rapid retreat of mountain glaciers and a reduction in the essential waters that they provide, and increasingly severe and numerous periods of drought. Whether or not Bishkek can successfully adapt to these changes and emerge as a more sustainable city remains to be seen.



Cartledge, D.M. (2014), "Sustainable Cities in Post-Soviet Central Asia: The Case of Bishkek", From Sustainable to Resilient Cities: Global Concerns and Urban Efforts (Research in Urban Sociology, Vol. 14), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 125-142.



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