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Sakura in the City: the Controversial Greening Project and Instagrammization in Urban and Media Landscape

As the city grapples with the intersection of urban growth and the pursuit of digital validation, the city faces a predicament: should it succumb to the seduction of Instagram or prioritize the safeguarding of its natural splendour and cultural legacy? 

Situated at the core of Yerevan, the emblematic Cascade complex area is undergoing a remarkable transformation – a change that reveals the growing hegemony of social media within our cultural fabric.  

The Cascade area’s transmutation is marked by the displacement of native “non-viable” elm species in favour of sakura trees, a choice of Yerevan’s municipality motivated by the  visual allure of sakura on social media platforms along with various factors such as location, architecture, and sidewalk width.

Although aesthetics were considered in urban design prior to independence, the main emphasis was frequently placed on crafting functionally accessible public areas for inhabitants. Soviet Armenian urban planning showcased socialist modernity through functionalist architecture and design. The environment prioritized grandeur and monumentality, featuring large public buildings and wide boulevards. The use of Soviet Armenian pink tuff stone was a notable feature of this architecture, which helped to create a distinct local aesthetic. The urbanscape incorporated extensive open spaces that were designed to serve as communal areas for social gatherings and leisure activities. 

Since the 1990s, the capital of Armenia has undergone significant changes in its urbanscape due to questionable urban development and real estate projects. The city’s rich architectural heritage and unique charm have been increasingly overshadowed by a haphazard mix of new high-rise buildings and infrastructure projects. This rapid growth has led to the demolition of numerous historical structures, eroding the city’s distinct cultural identity and aesthetic. Moreover, the lack of proper planning and regulatory oversight has exacerbated the problems of traffic congestion, pollution, and inadequate public spaces. Consequently, Yerevan’s once picturesque urban environment is now marred by an unsightly and chaotic cityscape. This has raised concerns among residents, urban planners, and cultural preservationists about the urgent need to adopt more sustainable and sensitive development strategies that consider both functionality and aesthetics.

According to Armen Begoyan, Director of Landscape Greening and Environmental Protection Agency, the decision was based on a scientific conference where experts recommended replacing trees that were close to the end of their lifespan. The sakura trees were chosen for their relatively small leaves, which would not block the aesthetic appearance of the buildings or residents’ light. The decision highlights the importance of considering location, architecture, and other factors when selecting tree species for a particular area.

It is remarkable to learn that the concern surrounding natural light has gained prominence, especially since it was not a prior consideration in approving contentious urban development and real estate ventures in Yerevan. Such projects tend to be constructed in close proximity, leading to the limited availability of natural sunlight for the inhabitants.

The sakura-planting decision has been met with criticism from some, including environmentalists and residents. Some argue that larger foliage trees are more effective in absorbing dust and reducing UV rays, which can cause cancer. Yerevan Deputy Mayor Tigran Avinyan has stated that all invasive species of trees, which have reached the end of their viability, must be replaced, and the opinions of Yerevan residents should be taken into account for the next 50-100 years.

Moreover, concerns have been raised about the lack of information regarding the disease affecting the old trees and the type of trees to be planted. Environmentalist Inga Zarafyan called for the development of an urban environmental strategy and a detailed sectoral action plan before any further actions are taken. 

According to Artur Khalatyan, Development Director of Green Yerevan, over 50% of Yerevan’s trees are in a deformed state and have lost their vitality. However, the trees being removed are not being discarded, but rather being processed into sawdust, auctioned off, or made into briquettes for distribution to underprivileged residents as fuel. The process of removing and replacing trees is not limited to the city centre but will be carried out throughout the city.

The decision has been defended by the head of “Green Yerevan” Agency Arman Begoyan, who explained that sakura trees were specially chosen for the Cascade area as trees with not very large foliage. The sidewalk there is narrow, and tree species with not too large foliage were consciously chosen to preserve the aesthetic appearance of the street. The sakura trees also have a pink color during the flowering period, which compliments the statue of Alexander Tamanyan located in the area, who is known for designing the “pink” Yerevan.

The potential health and environmental implications of tree replacement decisions have been raised by Kristina Vardanyan, an associate professor of the Department of Hygiene and Ecology and a member of the Yerevan Council of Elders. Vardanyan called for a written explanation from the municipality regarding the scientific justifications for the decision to use Sakura trees and argued that sycamore trees are the best species for Yerevan. She also raised concerns about additional ultraviolet rays and their role in causing tumour diseases, calling for more shade in the city.

The authorities have cited issues such as interference with wires and damage from local cafes as reasons for the tree removal. However, residents like Vahagn Vardumyan argue that the justifications are unacceptable and the leaflets attached to the trees do not provide sufficient information. Additionally, citizens are sceptical about the municipality’s promises to provide adequate water supply for the newly planted trees, as previous attempts have resulted in the drying up and death of saplings. Locals emphasize the importance of preserving existing trees for their oxygen production and environmental benefits.

The Takhtajyan Institute of Botany, part of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, issued a public statement asserting that they did not provide any expert viewpoint on the extensive tree removal and replacement operations in Yerevan. The director of the institute, Arsen Gasparyan, stated that while the municipality had invited specialists to participate in a workshop on greening the city, the institute did not receive a clearly developed plan for carrying out the large-scale works. Gasparyan called for the development of an urban environmental strategy and a detailed sectoral action plan before any further actions are taken. He also suggested the use of local species that are more stable and durable and the need for appropriate changes based on public awareness and professional discussion. 

It is surprising that in an era when many countries are actively working to eliminate alien species to safeguard their native ecosystems and biodiversity, such occurrences still persist. However, it is worth noting that while these efforts are essential for protecting native habitats, they also pose complex ethical, economic, and environmental challenges, highlighting the importance of striking a balance between preservation and intervention.

This brings to light the necessity of considering not only the environmental implications but also the broader context in which such decisions are made.

Urban planning and environmental protection policies in Yerevan have revealed the challenges brought about by development driven by privatization and deregulation. The city’s green spaces and unique architectural heritage have suffered as a result, with rapid expansion causing environmental degradation and social fragmentation. With a focus on privatization, the city’s cultural identity has been affected and vulnerable communities have been displaced, while sustainable development has been overlooked. As a consequence, Yerevan’s inhabitants are left to face the outcomes of a city struggling to balance its growth and responsibility to the environment and the collective good.

At the same time, the sakura planting controversy, encompasses another critical dimension that warrants media attention. As Armen Begoyan presciently observes, “urban inhabitants will soon begin capturing images beside the sakura trees and sharing them on social media.” (1in.am, 2023) Though visually captivating, this decision raises alarms about the potential harm to the environment and the gradual dissolution of the city’s cultural essence but also threatens the environment with its ravenous thirst for virality.

“Instagrammization,” the act of altering physical spaces to boost interaction on social media networks, bears significant consequences on our values and priorities. As scenic landscapes and eye-catching architecture monopolize our virtual channels, the chase for likes, shares, and followers can eclipse the significance of sustainability, accessibility, and functionality. In the context of a capitalist society that perpetually promotes consumerism and commodification, the “Instagrammization” of public spaces reflects the superficial values that undermine the foundations of our collective identity. The insidious “Instagrammization” of public spaces not only commodifies our cities but also prioritizes the global gaze over local needs. This process can lead to the homogenization of cultural expression and the loss of what makes each city unique.The example of Yerevan’s Cascade area complex is indicative of this broader issue. 

In the context of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notions of deterritorialization and reterritorialization as the design of the new power, the Instagrammization of Yerevan’s Cascade complex area can be seen as an instance of cultural and environmental destabilization. Deterritorialization refers to the severing of social, political, or cultural practices from their native context or environment, often leading to a loss of uniqueness and authenticity. Reterritorialization, on the other hand, refers to the process of establishing new territorial connections and reasserting cultural, social, or political practices in a new context. This process often involves the appropriation and reconfiguration of space to accommodate new practices, identities, and values.

In the case of Yerevan’s Cascade complex, reterritorialization refers to the attempts to re-establish a sense of place and cultural identity by appropriating and transforming the space in response to the destabilizing effects of deterritorialization. This process involves the use of social media platforms to promote and showcase the new identity of the area, which is centred on aesthetics, consumerism, and digital media.

The city’s promotion of prominent sakura trees while removing endemic vegetation puts the stability of local ecosystems in jeopardy. This process prioritizes the commodification of cultural identity for the sake of globalized consumer culture, rather than genuine reterritorialization. Consequently, it constitutes a form of cultural and environmental imperialism that erodes the distinctive cultural heritage and identity of the local community. The urban environment is plagued by the fetishization of aesthetics, and this trend not only threatens the city’s ecological health but also risks turning Yerevan into a superficial, homogenized destination indistinguishable from countless others in the global social media landscape.

The prescient philosophy of  “three ecologies” by French philosopher, psychoanalyst and social theorist Félix Guattari proposes a holistic framework which views the world as interconnected systems of social, mental, and environmental ecology. Social ecology deals with power dynamics and societal issues, mental ecology deals with individual thoughts and experiences, and environmental ecology deals with the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Guattari believed that considering all three dimensions is necessary to address the challenges facing the world.

The Armenian authorities have been facing the challenge of preserving their cultural identity while staying relevant in the global arena. While they understand the importance of preserving and sharing their cultural heritage, they also strive to keep up with global trends and present a contemporary image of their society. Unfortunately, the deteriorating urban landscape of Yerevan reflects the decline of human interaction and the loss of meaningful communication on social media. The city’s neglected infrastructure is suffocating its inhabitants, just as the relentless commodification and manipulation of human emotions on social media are breeding a culture of isolation and superficiality. Both the physical toxicity of Yerevan and the psychological toxicity of social media are the consequences of a modern society that prioritizes profit over the well-being of people and the environment.

Ultimately, promoting the “Instagrammization” of Yerevan’s urban landscape is a short-sighted approach that exacerbates the commodification of nature and culture, and worsens environmental and social problems. Acknowledging this issue is crucial, and it is imperative to explore alternative solutions.

As we stand on the precipice of an environmental catastrophe, the inherent contradictions of capitalist-driven economic development and environmental protection threaten to engulf us in their destructive wake. It is imperative that we embrace a comprehensive perspective that recognizes the interwoven nature of economic, social, and environmental systems, replacing the exploitative status quo with a paradigm truly grounded in restoration and regeneration.

Taguhi Torosyan
Art curator and researcher

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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