The NYT has an interesting article on urban planning developments in Aleppo, Syria (the largest city in the Levant – bigger than Beirut, Tel Aviv, Damascus, and Amman!), which includes this section about the history of planning in the Middle East, with a development-as-preservation lesson at the end:
The role of postwar urban planning in the rise of fundamentalism is well documented. In the 1950s and ’60s nationalist governments in countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq typically viewed the congested alleys and cramped interiors of historic centers not as exotic destinations for tourists but as evidence of a backward culture to be erased. Planners carved broad avenues through dense cities, much as Haussmann had before them in Paris. Families that had lived a compartmentalized existence — with men often segregated from women in two- or three-story courtyard houses — were forced into high-rises with little privacy, while the wealthy fled for villas in newly created suburbs.
But while preservationists may have scorned Modernist housing blocks, they were often just as insensitive to the plight of local residents who got in their way. Even as they worked to restore architectural monuments in the Muslim world, they could be disdainful of the dense urban fabric that surrounded these sites. Neighborhoods were sometimes bulldozed to clear space around landmarks so they would be more accessible to tourists.
Agencies like Unesco often steered governments toward a Western-style approach to preservation. Traditionally a family might have built onto a house to accommodate a newly married son, for instance, adding a floor or a shop out front. But those kinds of changes were often prohibited under preservation rules.
I’m also pleased to see that Aleppo won’t be razing its slums:
And the city’s mayor, Maan Chibli, said that he recently asked GTZ to help plan for the redevelopment of the informal ramshackle settlements that have sprouted on Aleppo’s outskirts.
“These settlements date from the 1970s,” Mr. Chibli said. “They are part of a social pattern that leads back to the old villages. Someone arrives, then his brother follows. So the idea, as before, is not to destroy these areas. It is to begin by providing them with infrastructure and services, then work programs.”
But how to make the final link between historic preservation and the creation of a contemporary city remains blurry. Many preservationists working here, including some at GTZ, see the last 70 years as unworthy of their interest. And most contemporary architects, whose clients are almost uniformly drawn from the global elite, are out of touch with the complex political realities of the poor in the region.
And finally, Mohamed Atta on urban planning:
What many militant extremists are fixated on is a utopia of the past: a vision of Islam in the era of the Prophet. Not only Western influence, but also three centuries of Ottoman rule — the period when the fabric of most Arab cities was created — is seen as a form of corruption.
“What is interesting about this whole argument between the modernizers on the one hand and fundamentalists on the other is that it all happens on the level of ideology,” Malise Ruthven, a historian who has written books on Islamic fundamentalism, said in a recent interview. Mohamed Atta, the central planner of the 9/11 attacks, once wrote an urban planning thesis on the Old City of Aleppo in which he said he wanted to tear out centuries’ worth of buildings, Mr. Ruthven said. He dreamed of “an Islamic city that was pure and unchanged — frozen in aspic.”