Expert Views: Beyond a Top-down Approach to Aleppo’s Reconstruction

As the Syrian government presses on with reconstruction plans for the northern city of Aleppo, Syria Deeply’s expert community warns against excluding residents from the rehabilitation process.

Written by Jenny Morber Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Syrians prepare to renovate a factory in Aleppo’s Kallase industrial neighborhood, July 2017. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

In the 16 months since government forces reclaimed Aleppo from rebels, reconstruction efforts have slowly gained momentum, and former residents are trickling slowly back to the northern city.

The Syrian government and both formal and informal Damascus-affiliated institutions have so far assumed near-complete control over the planning and implementation of reconstruction projects. Experts and analysts warn, however, that excluding Aleppo’s local population from urban planning efforts could be detrimental to the city’s recovery.

As part of our “Expert Views” series, Syria Deeply’s expert community weighs in on the most important considerations for reconstruction in such a complex physical, historical and social environment, and the mistakes to avoid.

AlHakam Shaar is a native of Aleppo, and a research fellow for the Aleppo Project at the School of Public Policy at Central European University.

Rebuilding, whether you are talking about the physical, material or social elements of it, is very problematic without the return of the people. And a lot is still standing in their way. There’s a huge fear of persecution. There are also physical barriers, logistical barriers and huge costs involved in the process of returning. Something between 200,000-300,000 people are back, which is less than a fifth of the original population. Buildings are unsafe. Just a week ago, a family of four died when their building collapsed, which was damaged during the war. People usually still find a way, but before addressing questions about massive urban planning schemes, we should first give people a chance to return and give them the means to be present physically in the city.

We also need to talk to the displaced, the exiled, the refugees, and those who have stayed inside Aleppo. There’s a huge body of knowledge to benefit from there. We need to listen to them, learn about their experiences, how they got there, why they got there, what would enable their return and what would enable their participation in reconstruction.

The Aleppo Project website publishes policy papers based on consultations, focus-group sessions and meetings with residents. We have also surveyed about a thousand people. We ask about their memories of the city, what places were special to them, what they think about home, where they are now, whether they have their papers and what would make their return possible.

There is a need to protect against dangerous types of rebuilding or urban planning schemes that disfigure the historical character of Aleppo. Most agree that there’s one thing you cannot allow, which is high-rises. For example, most houses in the old city of Aleppo have courtyards, which are areas of privacy because people outside cannot look in. Many women in the old city wear hijab, and courtyards allow them to get some sun without being seen from nearby buildings. That’s an absolutely basic thing.

Another thing to look out for would be the type of material that would be used for rebuilding. Aleppo was built using stone, and that has to continue. Although I accept that cities are dynamic, that heritage is dynamic, we don’t want to create a Disneyland of history. We have to accept some forms of change, but when we don’t have to, when it is quite easy to build the old way and there is enough expertise, with a bit of oversight we can protect that character.

Anna Sobczak is an architect and strategic urban planner specialized in urban development and housing issues in developing cities. She has worked for the German Technical Cooperation and for the U.N., most notably in Somalia and in Mogadishu urban rehabilitation.

Community-based urban planning during reconstruction will ideally restore the urban fabric of the city and most of its former social and economic networks. The process will be more important than the final outcome. If a local and participatory urban planning and reconstruction planning process is applied (that is community owned, driven and consulted), the process itself will help to rebuild vital trust between the community and authorities, and interlink divided communities and neighborhoods again.

It is also crucial to have a solid and enforced documentation mechanism for properties. The loss of land records and property documents poses a huge challenge for rebuilding Aleppo as people start to return. Original residents will find their original properties occupied by third parties, sold illegally, or destroyed, which will create a lot of disputes and local conflicts. If the urban rehabilitation process does not provide a transparent and fair way to document and track property records and does not guarantee both the rights of the urban returnees and present property occupants, then the process will create new injustice during the reconstruction process.

Aleppo’s cultural heritage must also be protected at all costs. It is crucial for the city’s thousand-year-old identity, which is based on cultural diversity, a cascade of monuments and urban patterns, and a rich social and ethnic makeup. If a city loses its old identity, it loses its soul. The rehabilitation of the city’s old town and key iconic monuments is crucial for healing and preserving identity. In particular, reconstruction bears the risk of modernizing with new roads and modern buildings that do not respect old urban shape or character. This must be avoided. If an ancient old identity will be altered, this scenario may create a new conflict in the future

Salah Haj Ismail was born in Aleppo and is an architect, engineer, and archeologist. He is a former professor of architecture at the University of Aleppo department of construction and building science.

We should not rebuild the city. Because “rebuilding” suggests there was something we want to go back to. We should build Aleppo again from scratch.

Before the war, 40 percent of the city’s population lived in illegal settlements that were built without any formal license from the state. This means they were not included as part of any formal urban plan for the city. These informal settlements, or “slums,” were mostly found in eastern Aleppo. There was wide segregation between the eastern and western districts of the city. Even before the war, a railway line divided the city into two parts. You could see from the urban plan, from the topology of the buildings, the poverty in the eastern part and the richness in the western part.

We should build a plan from scratch, that decides from the start on a number of urban planning factors such as population density. Before the war, population density decreased the size and amount of green spaces in the city and placed heavy pressure on the city’s infrastructure. There was also a lack of schools and overcrowding in classrooms. This new plan should meet the requirements and the demands, not only of my generation, but also of the youth who have left and have seen new urban forms, new lifestyles in Europe, Turkey, Lebanon, and even the United States and Canada. I think the first step is to ask these people what they want.

Another important thing is to develop new laws because part of the problem with Aleppo was the law. According to Syrian law, all urban planning schemes are generally centralized and directed by Damascus. So the problem is that the person who is making the decision in any area is someone who doesn’t know the city very well or maybe has never visited the city. If this continues, it will create bigger problems. A new organization or committee must be created that includes a mixture of experts and local residents.

Jan Petersen. Spatial planner, architect, and researcher based in the Netherlands. He oversees an interdisciplinary team to develop strategies and shape processes that rebuild resilient urban and conflict-affected environments.

Reconstruction has always been used as a tool to consolidate power, favor certain parts of society, and have persons allied with the government economically benefit from the process of reconstruction. Rebuilding can be very lucrative. Rather than a coherent overall plan, powerful individuals will shape parts of the city individually. The process is not so much geared toward recovery and renewal but rather the consolidation of power.

Yet, urban transformations by strongmen do provide some public utilities, such as power lines. Due to their association with the government, it is not uncommon for planning authorities to be pressured into delivering services – like modern highways – which immediately raise the value of the privately held land parcels significantly. Despite the misgivings regarding these autonomous, self-enriching modes of development, they are there to stay and need to be considered.

It is important to understand that the process of reconstruction is already well underway, without a comprehensive plan and without urban planners at its center. Companies from Iran and Lebanon are already lining up to take on large and highly lucrative projects, especially evident in the rebuilding of roads between major cities. Well before any urban approach toward rebuilding is in place, the city’s future is already being shaped project by project.

One of the main reasons why rebuilding cities is problematic is because reconstruction is primarily funded by states and international donors. The gap between the envisioned formal plan and the realities of informal forces is huge. Scare resources and precious time is wasted on a formal approach and technical understanding of the city. The actual forces that shape the transition of the city from war to peace are frequently overlooked or considered not to be part of the urban discipline. Not embracing this complex force field is a recipe for failure. Unfortunately, currently planning is often done from a top-down perspective. What is crucial is to incorporate professional expertise in developing urban plans that serve both the city and its residents.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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