March 3 2010 | Anita Silva posted at Abitare.it March 1
How Urbanization can be defined and understood in relation to Iraqi Kurdistan?
When we discuss of urbanisation we look at the combination of economic, political and social factors that determine the growth and expansion of cities. We observe the ways in which these elements interplay, detect which are the main driving forces that produce the physical transformation of space and understand what the role is that people play in shaping their surroundings.
The study of urban development in Kurdistan is very interesting as it is deeply interconnected with its political history. The past three decades have seen in the Region a rapid expansion of the urban fabric and infrastructure. Hawler is a striking example in this respect, with an estimated annual population growth of 4,35% the city has boomed from about 90,000 inhabitants in 1965 to an approximate 1,3 million in 2010. Until mid 1970s the majority of Kurdish population was spread around the villages mainly leading a rural life, occasionally using the cities as vital knots of a larger network. The 1980s village clearance campaign conducted by the Ba’ath regime and the following wave of destruction during Anfal caused a massive mobilisation of people who were forced out of their lands and either relocated in the mujamma’at in the plains or compelled to move to bigger urban centres. These events caused a dramatic acceleration in the process of urban growth and shaped the face of contemporary Kurdish territory.
What sort of Urbanization do you see in the Kurdistan Region? Is it controlled and directed, or uncontrolled and random, and how do you assess the KRG’s role in this regard?
It seems that the process of urbanisation in Kurdistan Region follows two opposite, yet intertwining trends. On the one hand, there is a growing awareness of the importance and necessity of planning while on the other there is still a great deal of spontaneous development. City councils are implementing their local master-plans, but on the fringes of it people still utilise informal networks in adapting and managing urban spaces. The KRG is putting a lot of effort in the development of infrastructures – the city centres of both Hawler and Slemani have had major improvements in terms of roads, flyovers, parks, footpaths and so on. There are many new residential neighbourhoods and the speed of construction is quite striking. What would definitely need time and a more general community effort is the promotion of a culture of planning and public participation that would make the implementation of policies more efficient and thoroughly successful.
Can it be said that in the Kurdistan Region Urbanization and Development, are two overlapping processes?
Urban growth is definitely walking side by side economic development in the Kurdistan Region. The expansion of Kurdish cities creates wealth as well as increasing social complexity. The intertwining dynamic of urbanisation and development calls for an urgent reflection on questions of sustainability. Urban wellbeing and long-lasting development can only be produced if ecological values, environmental respect, thoughtful energy consumption and vernacular models of social interaction and lifestyle are taken into account. An urban expansion that is too aggressive might risk disrupting both existing social solidarity and local ecosystems. The cult of concrete and modular structures might threat the extinction of vernacular building models and craft. I would say that urbanisation can contribute to durable development if it modulates an ideal of modernity on local culture and tradition producing socially and environmentally sustainable models of growth and expansion.
What kind of effect and impact can private sectors and foreign companies have in the phenomenon of Urbanization?
I do not think that the private sector and foreign companies have an impact on urbanisation as such, but they are definitely having a big say in the shape that Kurdish cities are taking. I can see their influence in the models of urban design that are being adopted. The number of towers that are being built and the mushrooming of gated communities, for example, speak an urban language that it is very different from historical and traditional Kurdish models of inhabitation and social interaction. It will be interesting to see in ten year time what are the consequences and effects that the import of new form of living spaces has produced on Kurdish society.
In the context of the Kurdistan Region, how has urbanization affected agriculture and what would be its impact in the rural areas?
As I mentioned before, the process of urbanisation in the Kurdistan Region has been significantly determined by the historical-political events of the 1980s. The destruction of the villages during the Iran – Iraq war and the later wave of demolitions during Anfal had among its consequences the expansion and multiplication of Kurdish cities. This planned strategy of erasure of the built environment determined the disruption of rural economy. Land expropriations and relocation of Kurdish refugees in the mujamma’at severed the link between the people and the land, created a system of state-dependence and had a detrimental effect on agriculture. In this sense, I would say that rather than urbanisation as such what had a major effect on Kurdish rural areas are the geopolitical conditions that determined the expansion of urban centres.
What type of opportunities or threats would Urbanization invite into the Kurdistan Region, in terms of economic development and social welfare?
Urbanisation has brought to the Kurdistan Region an increased social, economic and cultural complexity. The urban environment offers a broader variety of professional activities, a greater array of choices and possibilities, of lifestyles and social behaviours. Kurdish cities have become lively hubs that gather economic ventures, local and international investment, a wide range of new educational opportunities and entertainment centres. At the same time, the rapid accumulation of wealth and the indiscriminate real estate speculation may create social fragmentation and a deeper level of inequality pushing economically disadvantaged groups towards the margin of society. It also poses serious threats to the environment through pollution, mismanagement of waste and excessive consumption of natural resources.
Taking Urbanization as overpopulation in the bigger cities, namely, Erbil, Dohuk and Slemani, what can be its possible downsides?
Urban growth in Iraqi Kurdistan has not reached levels of overpopulation yet. Compared to extreme cases both in the Middle East and elsewhere (Cairo could be one of the many possible examples) Kurdish cities are far from reaching levels of overcrowding. The physical availability of land and the potential to develop towards open spaces and wastelands in the outskirts of Erbil, Dohuk and Slemani could grant these cities the possibility to expand smoothly without excessive demographic pressure.
Generally, it can be said that Urbanization is welcomed and there is a saying; ‘Kurdistan will be the next Dubai of the Middle East’ how do you appraise that?
I find this quite an interesting statement that triggers thoughts and reflections at many different levels. Dubai is often taken as a model in terms of glamour, extraordinary wealth, modernity and style. It is a place that has been created by the combination of oil money and urban speculation constructing an image of affluence and fashionable lifestyle that can only be appealing. However, if we look more closely at the recent evolution of the small Emirate, we clearly see that urban expansion has been the product of the combination of financial investments, real estate speculation and the individual will of a ruler to “bet” on urban development as the trigger for further economic growth. Dubai has been rapidly over-built (with the exploitation of indentured labour from South East Asia) supplying a real estate offer that was way beyond the actual market demand. This simply means that huge investments were made in the construction of luxury apartments, towers and villas believing that the revenues of sales would cover the actual costs. The 2008 financial crisis and a production that would exceed the demand determined the collapse of the real estate market in the Emirate thus contradicting the initial business assumption. A recent USB estimate shows that property vacancy will reach 30% by the end of 2010. If we look at Dubai from this perspective, I would imagine that this is really not an auspicious model to follow.
How and in which ways should the KRG drive and direct Urbanization to enhance development?
In a country that is experiencing the exciting phase of transition to democracy, the best way to further development through urbanisation is to enhance public participation in the decision-making process about the city. Recognising and promoting what planners call the right to the city would trigger virtuous circles of care and wellbeing that inevitably generate wealth. Community consultation on questions of land use, service and infrastructure development could help in assessing the real needs and desires of people making cities more “user-friendly” and thus more just and accessible.