Politics of Urban Reconstruction in Syria and Turkey
Panel II-22, sponsored byMiddle East Research and Information Project, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm
The devastating earthquake of February 6 has brought new urgency to discussions of urban development and redevelopment in in the wake of traumatic events such as civil war and natural disaster. In both Turkey and Syria, the earthquake has compounded the fraught complexities of urban politics already shaped by the Syrian conflict. Within Syria the state navigates the post-conflict environment with few resources and a truncated base of support, yet operates within a discourse of neoliberal urbanism that enables increasing control over the post-conflict future. In Turkey, itself facing political and economic crises prior to the arrival of millions of Syrian refugees, now contends with an estimated 2.2 million Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees in need of housing, and a reconstruction bill of up to 85 billion dollars.
Much of the literature on urban reconstruction in the wake of civil war and natural tends to focus on one of two interrelated themes. The first, often the preserve of urban designers and architects, focuses on conflicts over new urban development in affected neighborhoods and urban districts and preservationist approaches that valorize unique architectural and archeological heritage in terms of communal and national identities. A second literature prioritizes questions of policy in the neoliberal present, and the institutional/legal transformations that anchor emergent economies and the elite networks that dominate them, in the politics of space and place. While each makes important contributions to our understandings of reconstruction, they tend to share, even when critical, a top-down perspective, privileging the paradigms and concerns of states and international organizations. How might we develop perspectives that better attend to the voices, needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens who, despite the compound traumas they face, hope to rebuild their communities, neighborhoods, and indeed, dignified lives for themselves and their families? How might we attend to the knowledges and forms of agency through which they do so?
This panel brings together scholars from a range of disciplines to explore the complexities of urban reconstruction in Syria and Turkey. Taking a broad view of politics, political economy and heritage, we ask how elites, unwilling to allow a good crisis to go to waste, make use of crisis and reconstruction to pursue their own agendas, and seek to understand the knowledges and forms of agency through which ordinary citizens stake their own claim to dignified futures in and through the city.
Alternative Urban Imaginaries and the Reconstruction of Syrian Cities
The post-conflict reconstruction industry, anchored by international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the United Nations, wields incredible power at the intersection of international national and urban politics. Indeed, the knowledges it produces have come to dominate thinking about how to rebuild cities in the wake of war and natural disaster. It’s policy preferences - the adoption of which is often the condition for reconstruction aid from the ‘international community’ – center on the imposition of unpopular “market friendly” economic reforms on traumatized populations. These include the liberalization of the property regime and the privatization of reconstruction, from urban planning and infrastructure provision to the commodification of heritage districts, architecture, and archaeological sites. Taken together, supporters claim, the liberalization of the post conflict environment will anchor and catalyze of post conflict urban renaissance, economic growth and so a peaceful future.
As the civil war in Syria progressed, the regime took up these ideas. It put in place a series of legal reforms that effectively privatize the reconstruction of Syrian cities and set priorities for urban redevelopment (and real estate markets generally), that cater to the local and regional elite and private corporations. The urban middle and lower classes, many of whom lived in the informal settlements that surrounded major cities and towns prior to the war, today find themselves the target of urban projects that will displace them in the name of aesthetic modernization, development, and market rationality. While provisions have been made to rehouse some of those displaced, the majority face a precarious future.
Much has been written how the regime has turned reconstruction to serve own interests, not least of which is the enrichment of a small circle of crony capitalist close to the ruling family. Less has been said, however, about its inevitable failure of neoliberalism to produce either the globally competitive urban environments or the promised economic prosperity, to say nothing of affording the average citizen dignified housing. Drawing upon 4 months of fieldwork with Syrians from Homs and Douma now living in Amman, this paper explores possible alternative approaches to reconstruction that derive from local understandings of state responsibility to citizens, and more importantly, of the place of property, home and community in citizens’ conceptions of dignified life.
The large-scale devastation of the 2012-2016 conflict, which was marked by widespread damage to the major monuments and to large portions of the residential urban fabric, left the core of the city of Aleppo in ruins. This has resulted in a humanitarian crisis with the displacement of huge sections of the population, together with the destruction of a city that now needs extensive reconstruction.
The effects of the earthquake of February 6 have exacerbated this dramatic and still unsolved picture and brought new urgency to discussions of urban recovery in the wake of traumatic events.
Today, to foresee possible future scenarios on how to rebuild the cultural landscape of the Ancient city of Aleppo, is particularly important to consider all the diverse and interconnected layers and stratification of urban layouts that have defined the spatial relationships between buildings and open spaces, monuments and courtyard houses that have been at the basis of the nomination of the Ancient City of Aleppo as a World Heritage Site.
Indeed, within the gaps of the current scenario, unsuitable changes to the building fabric, which could reduce or delete the cultural significance of this fragile built environment, are predictable. Conversely, instead of exacerbating the destructive effects of trauma, reconstruction should represent a way to recover what has been lost, and design strategies should contribute to creating new values.
Focusing on the need of safeguarding what remains of the authenticity of the building fabric, and of recovering the ruins of its architectural heritage, this paper aims at proposing possible design strategies for the recovery of the Ancient City of Aleppo, focused on the need to propose a bottom-up approach to reconstruct the fine-grained urban fabric and the open spaces of the historic residential neighbourhoods, ensuring the inhabitants’ right to resettle in their homes and living their residential neighbourhoods, while keeping the inherited cultural characteristics of the urban landscape.
Post war Syria is undergoing substantial economic, political and cultural transformations. Despite the widespread physical and destruction and trauma, Syrians however, continue to adapt and innovate. The efforts to preserve the urban heritage and identity - specifically as a human right - exemplify such creativity in dark times. Preserving heritage is preserving home and identity which is a human right for all.
This paper takes the post-war / post disaster recovery of the Ancient City of Aleppo, a World Heritage site since 1986, as a case-study through which to explore how heritage discourses have arrived in post-conflict Syria, and their successes and failures in efforts to develop a well-defined national, balanced, creative, expressive, and collective “vision” for such an important site. Drawing upon heritage industry documents, reports, and media pronouncements – primarily from UNESCO and ICOMOS, I argue that their efforts, as well as those of the weak central government, have largely failed in this mission. At the same time, this failure is productive, as it opens space for other actors to re-imagine heritage and heritage preservation. Indeed, the trauma of war has produced new sources of inspiration, derived from new practices and values, and memory of tragic events and resilience.
As a result of the suffering caused by war and the severe Western-imposed international embargo, some Syrians have become culturally radicalized towards the Western culture, since it is conflicting most of their local sociocultural references. At the same time, another part of Syrians is still distinguishing between the Western culture and the Western political regimes. This contradictory situation is affecting the Syrians’ thinking about urban heritage, its importance and how best to preserve it in the face of pressures from newly ascendant real estate interests to redevelop urban spaces in the name of “modernization.” How might this new radicalization temper the drive to rebuild anew? How might it force open new spaces for heritage in the plans of institutions committed to “marketization” of reconstruction?