Futurespotters Video Interview: Elene Margvelashvili from Iare Pekhit in Tbilisi, Georgia

Although we had heard mention of Elene’s pedestrian rights group, we were disappointed not to be able to connect for the workshop in Tbilisi.

But we happened upon her in a local bar and convinced her to tell us her story anyway. It was very loud and dark inside, so we shot outside (which was also loud and dark, but less so, for most of the interview anyway). Apologies for the noise and murky footage, but the clarity of her ideas should make up for it!

Meet @Elene Margvelashvili from Iare Pekhit:


Iare Pekhit (‘go by foot’) is a pedestrian rights organisation in Tbilisi, which has been around for over a year. They’ve held actions on the streets around the city, run letter-writing campaigns and given recommendations to politicians. However, without much experience or political clout it has been difficult to get the stakeholders to join the conversation.

In Georgia the majority of people are pedestrians, but these people are living in fear and in great danger of being hit by cars every day.


One issue is that in Georgia many people do not see issues like public space and public safety as basic rights. However, seeing the emergence of other grassroots public space activism in Georgia was a great inspiration for Iare Pekhit to get started, and it would be an important, positive step if these different projects and organisations could be unified in some way.

There are many other challenges they face- even when you do something very specific, for an issue that people have a clear interest in, it is very difficult to get people to commit and engage on issues that may not have any explicit material benefit or immediate impact - there is a lack of understanding of the sustained, longterm approach which is needed to bring about change.

In Iare Pekhit and other organisations, it is difficult to bring together a motivated, engaged action group. Money is important of course, but mostly to show that somebody is supporting your initiative. The government tends to listen to foreign influence more than their own citizens.

Ways you can help:

Iare Pekhit needs foreign experience and input - many other cities and countries have made great improvements in pedestrian rights and public space issues, and have managed to convince their governments and citizens to stop the cycle of turning cities into places not for humans but rather for cars, for businesses and for rich people.

There is actually one person in particular who Elene would like to get in touch with - perhaps the Edgeryders community could help out in some way: Enrique Peñalosa, who managed to turn around the disastrous transport situation in Bogota, Colombia in his time as mayor. He changed the mindset of the population and managed to convince people that pedestrian rights is not a technical issue but a political issue.  (He’s not your average mayor / presidential candidate - check out his quotes on wikipedia)

Any suggestions for how we could get him in contact with Elene? Some kind of concentrated, directed @Enrique Twitterstorm maybe? erm, would that be a Twitterjet? Of course if you want to get started now you could say hello and point his people in this direction.

In the meantime, what else can we provide for Elene in terms of advice, connections and ideas?

Which cities have been the most successful in improving public space and pedestrian issues? Do you know anyone there with experience who may be able to help out in some way?

@nickda@gmail.com or others who attended the workshop, how do you think the different public space activists and organisations in Tbilisi can best work together?

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Spot on!

Great points by Elene! All the issues she mentiones are challenges most social movements, acitivists and organizations face in Georgia. She will attend the bi-weekly meet up we are organizing in Tbilisi, which will already strengthen her network. I will also get her here on the platform to share her story and see how the edgeryders community can help her org out!

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Great to be on board!

Dear Inge, we feel very fortunate to have accidentally stumbled upon the Edgeryders at Bauhaus, thank you for the video and take our apologies for not getting back to everyone in time. Both me and Ellene are now registered and will actively engage in the discussions, the feedback we got just from this one video is amazing! Please feel free to contact us with any suggestions, questions, both here and at our e-mail: iarepekhit@gmail.com, we are very open to any collaboration ideas. So here we go… I will now try to answer all comments. 



great to have you here online as well! I’m sure this could be very beneficial to you!

Need to share the credit here :slight_smile:

@Elene Margvelashvili, I do like this discussion, it’s amazing. But I have to say that one of the reasons why you got so much (good) feedback from this video is… you. I really appreciate how you take the time to reply to every comment. It is considerate, and it is smart: because of course, when you do things this way, you will drive a lot of engagement, on Edgeryders and elsewhere!

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Dear Alberto,

Thank you for your kind words, I wish I could afford to personally met with everybody and really discuss ideas and work on them with the ones who feel passionate about these issues. I am really not a great user of online platforms, I don’t even have twitter and etc., but I really love spending time to hear and share ideas, so I will appreciate as much input, ideas, thoughts and experience, even criticism, please, to try to improve what and how we do things, offline :slight_smile:

We will be hosting a brainstorming session, an informal get-together at our space next week so anyone in Georgia, please join us

Policy change?

This is interesting, Elene is not the first person behind a civic initiative who mentions that the government listens to foreign donors more than its citizens. Is this generalized in Georgia? do you or anyone else have an experience to share in which a specific type of pressure, from the inside or outside, worked so that the government finally does smth about it?

I was telling @nickda@gmail.com about Rosia Montana, a Romanian gold mine threatened with expensive exploitation by a foreign company and long term environmental effects. After 10 years of sporadic protests and too tiny a mobilisation, the citizens taking the streets escalated last fall, when for over 3 months every Sunday we would meet and walk through many cities at the same time and with a clear message: Save Rosia Montana! Stop the Mining. As a result of the huge pressure, indeed some international exposure as well, the Environmental Public Agencies have cancelled or stop giving authorizations to the company for urban planning and beginning of exploitation, which up until now were anyway illegal, some say.

Another question for you Elene, is if you could sum up in 1 sentence what exactly are you asking the public authorities to do? I think in general the causes that are most clear and concrete, especially if they start small, have higher chances to get somewhere… Thanks for the inspiration!

Dear Noemi, Many thanks for your comment. To answer your first question, the type of pressure which works best with the Georgian government is either elections coming up or indeed some foreign mission supporting an initiative like ours.

In our experience, It has been extremely complicated to get to the decision makers in the Tbilisi municipality with different daily issues, if it were not for a particular project supported by a donor. For example, the smallest and most concrete of our efforts was to address the issue of the territory in front of the Radisson Blue Hotel in Tbilisi, which for years remained useless for pedestrians, there was not even a small portion of the sidewalk provided and was surrounded by a huge metal fence, leaving pedestrians with no space whatsoever. We requested public information regarding the territory, found out about its owner, but all our requests for meetings and further action were ignored, nobody was willing to make the owner take care of the space. It’s true, we never initiated a public protest or a petition regarding the issue, but that’s exactly what’s most frustrating about communication, as an organisation our efforts alone are never enough.

In contrast to this case, we were able to get a letter of support for our latest Pedestrian Art Project in two days, when it usually takes up to ten working days just to review a project. The official request from the Swiss Embassy, who is our donor for this project was good enough to speed up the process. Moreover, Tbilisi Development Department of the Municipality invited us for a meeting regarding the project, they “want to be part of it”, implying, that they would like to give out free T-shirts and flash drives with the municipality logos to the winning artists in front of cameras :slight_smile: We rejected the offer and suggested instead, that the municipality can get involved by addressing the issues of the three most problematic pedestrian areas we chose for the project. We asked them to create a functioning student space, with decent benches, trash bins, free wi-fi and an information board in front of the location I - University st. #2 (next to building 10 of the TSU); II) We calculated the costs of a three-day event on Mitskevich St., where the MOIA employees would ensure pedestrian safety on the zebra crosswalk and our volunteers would give out leaflets to the drivers and pedestrians during those three days and offered to meet and discuss what can be done for Vake Park, we were hoping that the Guerrilla Gardening activists would join us for this discussion. Unfortunately, we have heard nothing back from the Development department since. The main purpose of our latest project was to stress the importance of functioning, attractive and human oriented public spaces, any suggestions on further pressure points would be very helpful. We would love to get more funding for public art projects in the future and hope this can be an ongoing thing in Tbilisi, but in parallel, we want to force the municipality to start improving these spaces on their own. 

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Very dignifying

wow, I commend you for sticking on the principles and pushing for the change you want as opposed to saying yes to gifts; this is one of the most eloquent examples I have heard of what you guys mean by officials lending ears to foreign orgs.

Anyway, your experience is a sign that the Municipality is indeed watching you, so your call for help seems right: more (political) leverage. Since you write below that lack of legislation is a weak chord, if I remember well @nickda@gmail.com and Data were saying they have a darn good lawyer working pro bono for their Vake Park case, could it work to find someone like that as a consultant? Let’s keep looking!


“Experiences from abroad”

It is not exactly pedestrianizing, but @alessiobau and @Paola Bonini here on Edgeryders have a great experience with the city of Milano. They were in charge of the conversation between the City Hall and the citizenry on a project called Area C, essentially a congestion charge for central Milano. Area C is widely regarded as a success, whereas a previous similar experience called Ecopass had failed. Alessio and Paola have not been active for a while, but I am sure they will be happy to share what they know with Elene if asked. 

Experience with legislation change

Dear Alberto,

Thank you for comment, I will make sure to contact the people you suggested to talk to, Iare Pekhit will be organizing several brainstorming sessions considering that we finally have a working space for this summer, hopefully with more funding we will be able to keep it in the future. If anyone reading this comment would like to join us and share ideas, please e-mail us at iarepekhit@gmail.com and will make sure to send out a reminder when the dates are set. Our weakest point is having no experience with legislation work, unfortunately with the few of us on board and mostly working without any budget, we have not been able to find or afford a good proactive lawyer or somebody with enough expertise. We are learning to deal with loads of technical and financial issues, what we really need is some more funding for organisational development, as I said more proactive action team members and some free training or networking opportunities is just what we need at the moment. 

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collaborate with Elva?

I was wondering if perhaps Elva could be useful for this particular issue - just thinking about approaches to public safety and transit people have used here in Berlin, maps can be a great way to point out a problem, such as showing reported bicycle accidents by location which shows dangerous intersections and ‘blackspots’.  Or in a more positive light, a map can show where potential lies for creating safe zones. This shows people’s suggestions for ‘bike streets’ - those which could be turned into a low-speed or car-free zone without seriously affecting transit, and allowing for space for bikes to ride side-by side or to overtake safely. Similar maps could be adapted for pedestrians, but with the right expertise they could be more user-friendly and tell a clearer story. Are Jonne or Taylor from Elva on Edgeryders? Is this the kind of thing that they could help with?

ping @taylorbraundorrell

Mapping the plight of pedestrians

Hi Sam, excellent point! As a pedestrian I feel marginalized on a daily basis in the streets of Tbilisi. What I wouldn’t do for one day of car-free sidewalks! Or dog-poo-free, for that matter, but that’s another story.

We are actually already involved in a project on road safety with our local partner Partnership for Road Safety. Have a look here (Georgian only, I’m afraid). The project allows people to quickly send a comprehensive report on an accident or hazardous infrastructure using a web form or SMS. After verification by our implementing partner, reports are published on the portal. We use the reports to raise awareness within media (TV, social media etc.), workshops in schools, as well as meetings with government authorities. The portal could of course be adapted to map pedestrian issues. However, to really make it effective we would have to raise awareness for it amongst a large enough portion of the Georgian population, which would require a significant PR campaign. That being said, we’re more than interested in the issue and would be happy to discuss it further!

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How could Elva help?

Hi Sam, I talked to Mark from Elva on the phone today regarding something else, but unfortunately missed the first brainstorming event just a few days ago. Would he be someone to meet up with and discuss the ideas in detail? Thanks for the suggestions, Berlin is definitely what we are aiming at eventually :slight_smile: Friendly Roads is a project in Georgia, who have created a similar map to the one you mentioned, where accident witnesses or participants can simply text the locations they encounter, or upload photos of car crashes on the website, which are then placed on a map. We have discussed creating something similar for pedestrians with Eric from Jumpstart (I’m sorry I have no idea how to ping or “tag” anyone in my comments), we are now working on creating a list of particular pedestrian-related spots and categorizing them in some manner. We have no funds or capacity at the moment to start something like this, can Elva and Iare Pekhit write up a common proposal? Who would be the potential donors? Do you know of anything similar created for pedestrians in Berlin or anywhere else, something that has worked and that has been massively used? There’s also a website created by Transparency International Georgia, the reports of which are directly sent to the municipality, any ideas on how to pressure the municipality to actually FIX THOSE STREETS? 102 problems reported out of which 0 are fixed, and this info is on their main page. I have discussed this with Inge during our last bi-weekly meeting, the problem is the “cohabitation” of the two competitive parties in our government, which won’t let each-other do anything. For example the major’s office is now made up of the United National Movement people and they say that their initiatives don’t get funded by those in power from the Georgian Dream party. It’s ridiculous, because Tbilisi has never been so poorly handled as it is now due to this rivalry. God knows what happens after the elections!

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Map and campaign examples

Hi Elene, that certainly sounds like a frustrating situation with the local government!

I think that the difference between pedestrian rights mapping campaign and a map for fixing streets is that you can use it to generate a response from the public rather than simply as a ‘suggestion box’ which the council will likely ignore. The public is not likely to be outraged by seeing that there are potholes in Tbilisi, but people being killed on the streets is another matter.

You mentioned that a core issue is simply raising people’s awareness that their rights to safety and public space are being trampled on. While a map may not influence with the council to make changes, it can tell a very clear story to the public. That this is a big, important, life-threatening issue, and injuries/deaths are happening on a larger scale than you perhaps notice in your day-to-day life.

When you can show that you have public support, your options with the council will be much greater than they are now.

The only crowdsourced pedestrian map I can think of is the one put together by a public radio station in Los Angeles, comparing the intersections which the council regards as dangerous with the submissions of the pedestrian and cycling public: http://projects.scpr.org/static/maps/pedestrian-safety/

Crowdsourced mapping is where I saw the potential for a collaboration with Elva or Jumpstart, but crowdsourced or not, these kinds of maps have been used to great effect to tell a powerful story - here for example is a thorough infographic from the New York Times last week, which accompanies an article with human stories of the victims of accidents: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/05/04/nyregion/where-pedestrians-and-bicyclists-are-injured-and-why.html

One of the direct action pedestrian rights groups in New York, Right of Way, has actually done exactly what I was thinking of with a stencilling campaign, to draw attention to accidents in the place they happen - in fact, there are plenty of relevant ideas you can borrow from them. http://www.rightofway.org/campaigns

oh, and to tag somebody in a comment, just write an ‘at’ sign and start typing the first couple of letters of somebody’s name - once you’ve typed e…r… you’ll see @ericnbarrett listed as one of the options in the space below the comment form. Click on it and the mention will be filled in for you. (if you already know somebody’s username, just write @TheirName and it will work.

Collaboration with JumpStart.

Hi Sam, Elene et al…

I can’t speak for Elva but I know that JumpStart is very interested in this project. In fact, we were just discussing the possibility to create something exactly like this in our editorial meeting this morning. We also have a lot of experience with maps. I suggest that someone contact @ericnbarrett, who will be leading this initiative. 


Meeting next week?

I have met Eric several times and Iare Pekhit is currently discussing ideas on what exactly the map should be like? We haven’t contacted TI yet to discuss what’s wrong with chemikucha, perhaps our map could be part of it or on the same platform since people already are using this website? What is your opinion on this?

Another thought I would like to share with JumpStart is that, I find it very important to somehow unify all public space initiatives into one influential power to tackle this monster “attitude” of our government, be it allowing parking on sidewalks, cutting down trees or demolishing the old city… perhaps we can create some kind of public space association or members group to write up a certain strategic plan of action, an online platform like edgeryders? but solely for public space issues? Certain businesses or organisations could even join, which would than be identified as “good organisations” taking responsibility for parking, trash bins, green areas, public spaces around them? Eric has mentioned you several times in our conversation, please be sure to let us know If you would like to meet. Many thanks!

sounds like a track for the June event…

I find it very important to somehow unify all public space initiatives into one influential power to tackle this monster “attitude” of our government

this sounds to me like the start of a track which we could work on at the Spot the Future community event!

Anybody interesting in taking the lead on this issue should have a read of the ‘Curate a Track’ task and volunteer in the comments @Elene Margvelashvili? @nickda@gmail.com?

Hi Elene & Elene!

Both @Elene Margvelashvili and @ellenem of Iare Pekhit are now on the platform, yay! So you can ping them directly :). Welcome Elenes ;)!