Ian is a South African photojournalist specialising in documentary photography. He is fascinated with recording the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour, whether they are held in subtle gestures, compelling forms and lines or glaring paradoxes. His photographs have been exhibited in London, Rome, Bologna, Tbilisi, Cape Town, and Kathmandu, and his editorial publications include GQ, BBC News, and The Sunday Independent. His work can be viewed at: ianmcnaughtdavis.com.
Since 2008, the port city of Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast has attracted visitors with the bright lights of tourism, trade, and gambling. Soaring tourism statistics in the popular casino town has brought with it a construction boom — one that seemingly has no end in sight.
Rampant construction on vacant patches of land punctuates the city of 160,000. The echoes of jackhammering and grinding ricochet off the multi-story high-rise buildings that continue to sprout into Batumi’s skyline.
At the ground floors of these buildings, lie gridlocked streets where traffic must negotiate its ways amidst construction sites that spill over into Batumi’s pavements and roads.
‘The construction boom underway in Batumi mirrors a global trend in real estate speculation that relies on luxury development and entertainment to attract investment’, says Suzanne Harris-Brandts, an architect and PhD Candidate in Urban Studies at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Between 2008 and 2013, Batumi was targeted for urban development and re-branding under the orders of former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s UNM government, explains Harris-Brandts. ‘The government undertook many new construction projects and incentivised additional development by private-sector actors.’
The storeys of eerily empty flats throughout the city suggest the demand for real estate is far from the plentiful supply.
These vacancies result from both local and global forces, explains Suzanne Harris-Brandts. ‘From developers not fulfilling their construction obligations or pulling out of projects prematurely — perhaps due to market volatility — to so-called ‘ghost apartments’ that are not abandoned or unsold, but have chronically-absent homeowners, typically from overseas.’
‘To some degree, empty buildings also reflect a lack of government regulation and planning foresight’, explains Harris-Brandts, adding that poor architectural design has contributed to the emergence of a new landscape of mass building vacancies in Batumi.
There tend to be three types of building vacancies in Batumi, she elaborates:
‘There are buildings frozen with partially-completed construction; buildings whose exteriors have been completed but whose developers are unable to finish or sell their interior spaces; and buildings that have reached full construction completion and have sold many units, but to absentee homeowners. The latter are the so-called “ghost apartments” ’.
Life under construction
Harris-Brandts describes how the arrival of new construction sites may be linked to optimism and the promise of an alternative future for residents of Batumi. ‘On a less positive front, new-construction building vacancies can detract from the social lives of cities by diluting resident interactions and erasing existing communities.’
‘Still, the residents of Batumi have been innovative and resilient in adapting to chronically-vacant buildings; second-hand goods or fresh produce are sometimes informally sold out of unfinished ground floors and vacant Old City shop-fronts have at times been used as short-term fashion showrooms or exhibition spaces.’
Unregulated construction and poorly enforced safety restrictions can be hazardous to those working on construction sites. Batumi recorded the most accidents on construction sites in Georgia in 2018. The Georgian Trade Unions Confederation has reported that the majority of the 14 deaths and 16 severe injuries sustained during the year were in Batumi.
The official tourism portal of Adjara reported a 23% increase in the number of tourists coming to the region in 2018. The construction boom — spearheaded by tourism — shows no signs of busting.
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.