Saturday, July 27, 2013

Astana: City of Babies

If you are not what they call a "child person," Kazakhstan is not the place for you.  

In Astana, especially now that it's humanly possible to be outdoors for large periods of time without dying of hypothermia, it suddenly feels as if the city is crawling with children -- all under the age of ten.  On any given day, public spaces, cafes, and parks are overrun by gaggles of school-age children, wobbly toddlers, and sleeping infants -- sometimes belonging to same family.  

Now, don't get me wrong. I like children. I want to -- and plan to -- have a couple of my own in the near future.  In fact, what I like about this public display of fertility is that it gives this city a bit more of a "homey" feel, which is often difficult to find in this largely sterile landscape of steppe and glass.  But it makes for a strange urban environment to be constantly surrounded by what feels like armies of young children. 

Statistics back up this stray observation.  Since independence, Kazakhstan has experienced a tremendous growth in its birth rate, an effort to populate this sparsely populated country and stave off a potential demographic crisis that was compounded by ex-migration in the 1990s.  Despite being the 9th largest country in the world, Kazakhstan has a population of about 16 million, which is somewhere between the individual populations of Florida and Illinois.  

The government encourages its citizens to have babies -- lots of them -- and clearly the incentives appear to be working. A generous maternity leave policy (at least by American standards), coupled with social pressures to have kids young, make it both common and possible for a woman in her mid 20s to have at least two children -- with plans for more, of course.  I often ride a bus to the university that stops by the maternity hospital in town, and I am always amazed at the number of expectant mothers who get off and on the bus at that stop (to be fair, this is a skewed sample).

The ubiquitous presence of children makes Astana feel even more like Disneyland, than a "real" city at times, but I find myself reluctantly appreciating this aspect of public life.  In a way, this, more than anything, makes Astana live up to its promise of embodying the "city of the future."