Vignette 3.2 Almaty, a City Designed with Climate in Mind

It is July in Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan and its former capital. The air is hot (it is 32?C in the shade), but the city feels cool. What's the secret? When you arrive at your hotel, you decide to leave the air-conditioned room behind and explore on foot. All streets are laid out in a classical grid pattern, with north–south avenues running uphill to the distant mountain peaks behind the city, and west–east streets running parallel to the slope. Lots of people are outside, going about their business. Built by the Russians as Verny (“Faithful”) in the 1850s, this city was later renamed Alma-Ata, meaning “Father-Apple” in incorrect Kazakh, and now is called simply “[City] of Apples,” Almaty. Located in the heart of the Eurasian continent, as far from the ocean as one can possibly get, the city enjoys a fine climate despite its inland location. It also has spectacular scenery, not unlike that of Denver, Colorado. Right behind the last street, the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Zailiysky Alatau range soar to elevations of 4,000–5,000 m (Figure 1a). While not as huge as the Tean Shan further south in Kyrgyzstan, the Zailiysky range is an amazing unspoiled wilderness full of sublime beauty—a paradise for skiers and backpackers.

People began settling in the area in about 1000 B.C. In the Middle Ages, settlements in the Almatinka River valley served as stopover points on one of the few branches of the famed Silk Route from the Near East to China. When the Russians came in the 19th century, they seized the opportunity to build a grand, beautiful, modern city in a convenient location near water and well protected by mountains. Clearly, they wanted to establish a permanent Russian presence in Central Asia. In 1854, a small fort was built. In just 5 years, the population grew to 5,000 people; by 1913, it was 40,000. The city was the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic between 1936 and 1991. Today its population is about 1.4 million and very diverse, with Russians and Kazakhs evenly represented. There are also many residents now from other Central Asian FSU republics, China, Korea, and other countries.

The climate of Almaty is highly seasonal, but is milder than Siberia's, due to its more southern location at 43?N (the average temperature is –4.5?C in January, +23.6?C in July). The growing season is long, about 8 months, and there is little snow in winter. For 2 months in midsummer, there is a moisture deficit that affects vegetation, and temperatures may peak at 35–37?C in the afternoon (about as hot as it gets in Elko, Nevada).

The city planners designed Almaty with climate in mind. As you walk around, you notice a few features that allow for cooling in the scorching heat of summer. First, the streets are lined with huge, magnificent poplar or plane trees that provide ample shade. Second, right beside each sidewalk flows cool water in a concrete trough about 0.5 m across (Figure 1b). This water flow cools the surrounding air. Third, there are over 120 fountains in the city, many located in large parks. The parks themselves are everywhere, with beds of roses and other flowers, and beautiful deciduous and coniferous trees. Every city block has lots of additional vegetation, and many homes are built in a way to maximize ventilation in summer and to provide good views of the city. Some new commercial developments are being built underground, both on street corners in the pedestrian underpasses, and in the main downtown area. Cooler in summer and warmer in winter, these are popular gathering places for the city youth. Almaty is perhaps at its loveliest in late spring, when all the orchards around are in bloom; apple, peach, apricot, and cherry blossoms are truly spectacular.