Futuristic, expansive, cold, frigid, and even the “the space station in the steppes” are some words that are used to describe Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana. The city is beautiful, with futuristic and colorful buildings reflecting Kazakh folklore, history, and culture and a look into Kazakhstan will be.

Attracting large domestic and international investments, Kazakhstan’s nearly two-decade old capital, Astana, strives to be a worldly and international city welcoming investors, but the city lacks many features characteristic of other bustling and global cities. The mayor’s 2015 development plan, proposing fast food restaurants and strip malls already flooding a city with countless shopping malls and cafes, will fail to attract “global citizens” and those who want to experience authentic Kazakh culture.

Astana is a relatively new city. Established in 1997 and renamed in 1998 (was called Akmola), Astana has a population of 851,000 and is currently the second largest city in Kazakhstan. The city is 722 km2 (279 sq. mi.) as compared to Washington D.C. with a population of 658,893 and the size of 177 km2 (68.3 sq. mi.). Washington D.C.’s population is roughly two-thirds of Astana’s, but the size is of Astana is more than four times the size of D.C. Astana  has potential to grow not only in population, but in the commercial and residential sectors as well. The city, upon construction, took upon an ambitious urban development and capital relocation program to transform the Siberian steppe area. Astana was built over an already existing city and was a “planned city.” Astana is a “brand city” to project Kazakhstan’s influence well beyond its borders as Nazarbayev is poised to make Kazakhstan the Eurasian bridge connecting Europe and Asia while seeking recognition for Kazakhstan politically, economically and culturally.

As Nazarbayev promotes Astana, he is also distinguishing Kazakhstan from other Central Asia states, but also from the Former Soviet Union. The relocation of the capital from Almaty to Astana highlights the need for a more central location to quell tensions notably the ethnic tension between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians and celebrating Astana’s independence leaving the Soviet identity marred by memories of violence and poor governance behind. Astana’s city variations and the desire to attract foreign investors echo Nazarbayev’s political and diplomatic strategy of multi-vector foreign policy. The interesting observation was made regarding Sir Norman Foster’s design of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation: “the president’s determination to have the rest of the world perceive Kazakhstan as neutral host to international affairs is writ upon the Astana landscape—while the conference meets once every three years, the locals are confronted daily with a giant glass pyramid.”[ii] The mayor’s plans to adhere to the 2015 Astana Development plan are to include a system of a fast food chains and to replace shopping malls. Shops, restaurants, and shopping centers are equally distributed throughout Astana. Astana, if more strip malls were to be constructed, would be a “strip mall city.”

The city’s current land-use is focused on commercial and residential areas. There is abundant green space (parks and tree-filled areas), but this green space primarily lies outside the city (and behind Khan Shatyr and around Turan Avenue) and it is mixed in around Astana’s buildings including Bayterek tower/monument and around the Presidential Palace. Residential land use focuses primarily on Western-style apartments built for expatriates and young professionals. Traditional houses are expected to be built, but are hard to find currently. Due the city’s design, houses would have to be on the periphery and not able to be incorporated among apartments. To the north (referred to the as Old Center) of the Ishim River, the buildings are built during the Soviet times reflected in the outside aesthetics and most of the words are in Russia. To the South of the Ishim River, is new which has newer apartments. Construction on apartment buildings has already begun in South Astana on the outskirts of the main town. The apartments will mostly attract expats and young professionals as “2,507 apartments totaling 1,588,000 square [meters] will be put into operation during the first quarter of the current year.”

Astana lacks many Kazakh culture staples such as bazaars. They are more like a supermarket in a concrete building. Bazaars are part of Kazakh heritage and Central Asian history as the region was part of the historical trading route, the Great Silk Road. Kazakhstan’s appeal to be a global city should not include dismissing its culture and catering to people who may or may not visit. The loss of Kazakh cultural identity should be considered when planning. Many of the shopping malls contain the same stores. The Keruen shopping center including high end retailers such as Max Mara and Escada.

Nazarbayev University, named after President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is on the outskirts of the city blocking off a key demographic away from South Astana and its economy. The school was established in 2009. Cities in America, Europe, and Southeast Asia have student populations which contribute significantly to the local economies. Nazarbayev University, upon establishment, had partnered with seven schools to develop its programs, including the University Wisconsin-Madison. This is ironic as UW has been considered an institution that embodies democratic ideals, something that Nazarbayev’s Administration has not always complied with.

Newly constructed buildings are to contain parking lots. Parking in Astana is limited and atrocious. Luxury vehicles and imported vehicles crowed the narrow roads and vehicles are parked strategically on curbs blocking pedestrian foot traffic especially in busy areas near KazMunaiGas headquarters and the shopping area near Keruen shopping center. Many busy intersections do not have crosswalk signals and drivers without indication (no traffic lights) have to stop to let pedestrians cross the street. The businesses and shopping centers would best benefit from parking garages similar to the parking garage in Sary Arka (or Sary Arka) shopping mall.

Astana’s public transportation system relies on  buses and private cars. There is only one cab service approved by Astana, Komandir, which operates a fleet of crossovers and sedans. There are also private car companies many which pick up drivers from the airport; airport drivers are known to inflate prices. Astana, to better connect the North and the South, would benefit from a subway system. The city’s roads will be improved by reconstructing/repairing 108 kilometers of roads including 30 streets in 11 districts and more video cameras will be installed. Plans were signed in 2013 for a light rail system to be rolled out in three stages according to the “New transport system of Astana city” and connected with the bus system. This is needed as Astana has experienced rapid traffic congestion and a growing population expected to be 1.2 million in 2020. The light rail would have to sustain Astana’s harsh winter temperatures.

Astana is not a metropolitan area. More development will have to be done surrounding Astana if Astana wants to be a global city, and the closest populated places are Koschi, and Vishnevka, and Izhevskoe located along the Karaganda-Astana Highway. Two other large cities in northern Kazakhstan are Karaganda (2009 population: 456,634 according to UN data) and Pavlodar (population: 307,880 according to UN data).Astana attempts to mimic the bright lights and screens of New York City, but instead of showing advertisements (some do), one screen on Qabanbay Batyr Avenue shows prominent Kazakh historical figures

Compared to other new planned cities such as Putrajaya in Malaysia and Brasilia in Brazil, Astana was relocated to serve a federal administrative function. Putrajaya is located 25km south of Kuala Lumpur and is the federal administrative center for Malaysia because of overcrowding in the capital. Putrajaya was planned as a garden and a smart city—uses technology to better well-being and to reduce consumption—as 38% of the city is green space; the city has land designated as open space. Astana is the new Kazakh culture capital and business center. Just like Kazakhstan the development was slowed down because of economic factors: the 1997/1998 Asia Economic Crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union respectively.

Brasilia is considered a modernist city and like Astana was built into the country’s remote interior and was a capital relocation effort and was built quickly—Brasilia was completed in three years. Like Astana, Brasilia is a “civitas” encompassing administrative and urban functions. Astana has many government structures adjacent to shopping centers and strip malls. Brasilia and Astana share a division of “urban fabric between the civic space” and “was intended to make possible the speedy completion of the most prominent civic structures to create an emblematic vision of the nation's new capital.”


[ii] Rutz, Julia. 2015. Astana’s Mayor Outlines City Plans for 2015. Astana Times Web site. http://www.astanatimes.com/2015/03/astana-mayor-outlines-citys-plans-2015/ (last accessed March 29, 2015).

[iii] Danilo Matoso Macedo and Sylvia Ficher. N.d. Brasilia: Preservation of a Modernist city. The Getty Conservation Institute. http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/28_1/brasilia.html (last accessed April 4, 2015).

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Samantha Brletich

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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