Pierre-Arnaud Barthel and Sylvy Jaglin, editors, Quartiers informels d’un monde arabe en transition. Réflexions et perspectives pour l’action urbaine [Informal Settlements in an Arab World in Transition. Reflections and Perspectives for Urban Action]. Paris: Agence Française pour le Développement, Conférences et Séminaires 7, 2013. Available online.
Housing in most of the Arab world cities is an informal affair. After having founded a family, or to remain near employment opportunities, most people trying to find a place to live in end up building their houses themselves, or participating in construction projects managed either by families or by modest real-estate developers. Due to the government’s inability to provide or support affordable housing on a large scale, people have to cope on their own to access shelter and neighborhoods. Despite the importance of the issue, very few studies have been conducted in the domain, and it remains relatively unnoticed. In fact, after the 2000s, the interest in the subject has even begun to dwindle. Urban studies were more focusing on megaprojects, which renew and extend the urban landscape in a much more spectacular manner, such as the making of new towns, luxury housing, malls, historical downtowns, new business districts, and coastal resorts.
This edited volume by Pierre-Arnaud Barthel and Sylvy Jaglin updates knowledge of the common urban landscape of the Arab world, informs about the initiatives to improve popular housing, and to generate more inclusive cities. Most of the authors included in this volume have to their credit key publications on popular housing, and informal settlements in the Arab world. They have been studying the subject over a decade, and are thus capable of offering a thoroughly documented, precise, and pertinent perspective on the changes, and interventions in non-regulated built neighborhoods, viewed through the prism of recent grassroots movements. Can we talk about an “Arab spring of urban policies,” asks Pierre-Arnaud Barthel in his introduction? The shared aim of the contributions is examining the current status of working-class neighborhoods, either by reviewing the interventions, and the mobilization in these neighborhoods since the 1990s, in the light of the 2011 and 2012 events, or by examining the changes brought about by the shockwaves of the revolution, leading to the overthrow of dictatorial regime (Egypt), or to the acceleration of reforms (Morocco after the protests of 20 April 2011). These national movements seem to be often spearheaded by people from those neighborhoods. They may thus indicate the shortcomings of a clientelistic approach, as well as the duality of interventions vis-à-vis the consolidation and expansion of informal settlements, which oscillate between tolerance, minimum redistribution and denial, and containment, relocation, and brutal eviction.
The six chapters in the book do not claim to cover all the issues, and all the urban environments of the region. Three articles explore more deeply the situation of Cairo dwellers. David Sims gives an account of post-revolution dynamics in the housing sector. Agnès Deboulet reflects upon conditions where it would be possible to take into account the competences of the residents in construction projects, in order to make housing for the working classes, and the masses more secure. Jimmy Markoum and Eric Verdeil look into Cairo’s gas distribution network, highlighting its segregation effects when it penetrates informal neighborhoods.
Two chapters are complementary in their analysis of the Moroccan situation: Lamia Zaki points out to the links between reforms at the national level, contributing to the stability of the regime in the shaky environment of the Arab Spring, and the intensification of slums’ mobilization. Oliver Toutain re-examines the mega-project, "Villes sans Bidonvilles" (PSVB), or Slum-Free City launched in eighty-five Moroccan towns in 2005. He concludes that the integration of the inhabitants is limited. Many households are excluded from the process of rehabilitation, or enter into a spiral of poverty when they are relocated in distant peripheries.
Valérie Clerc writes about the changes in urban policies concerning informal settlements in Syria during the 2000s. There was an attempt to implement an approach to integrate illegal settlements, and to re-launch the production of social housing, in order to counter balance the effects of liberalization. However, the “social market economy” collapsed after the uprisings of 2011, which began in informal neighborhoods. They have since then been reduced into heaps of rubble by recurrent bombings.
The evolution of urban policies can be explored further in three recently edited volumes coordinated by Lamia Zaki: L’action urbaine au Maghreb [Urban Policies in North Africa] (2011), Expérimenter la ville durable au sud de la Méditerranée [Experiments of Sustainable City in the Southern Mediterranean] (2011)—the latter has been co-edited with Pierre-Arnaud Barthel. They deal with the Tunisian and Algerian contexts not represented in this reviewed volume. Morched Chabbi’s article “Tunisia: Revolution in Spite of the Rehabilitation of Working Class Neighborhoods,” throws light on the Tunisian revolution, and the limitations of urban policies, even when in-situ rehabilitations were done using a very inclusive approach. One can also refer to the edited volume by Myriam Ababsa, Baudouin Dupret, and Eric Denis, Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East (2012), and its review by Mona Fawaz.
Sylvy Jaglin points out, early on in the preface, that it would be naive to think there is any kind of synchronicity between political transitions during the period following a revolution, and the implementation of new urban interventions in informal neighborhoods, or even more generally in the city at large. Comparing this to other ruptures of the democratic or governance process, she observes that the teachings in countries south of the Sahara also advocate caution, and tend to demonstrate that the periods following political turmoil are not opportune for innovations, and the gestation of new ideas in urban planning. The inertia of the old policy framework is a serious hindrance. It seems impossible to sidestep, or waive away urban planning professionals whose ideas, and tools remain unchallenged. Replacing them would necessitate the emergence of new schools, or a complete restructuring of the existing engineering curricula, which continue to regard citizens’ capabilities to build their houses and settlements, as backward. Thus, the institutional incapacity to take into account latent demands, and the inhabitants’ competences revealed through self-emancipatory collective actions to organize and take control of the future of their neighborhood, is reinforced. And, no possibility of reform appears. The institutions which are supposedly proficient in this domain, are still concerned with containing, limiting, and controlling or even servicing the existing settlements, but never with foreseeing, anticipating, and accompanying an expansion, which is nevertheless unavoidable.
“For a new approach to see the light of day, informal settlements should be viewed from a different perspective,” confirms Pierre-Arnaud Barthel in the introduction. Instead of regarding them as a threat, it would be in the interest of the new policy makers to reflect upon their potential and advantages in order to rethink tomorrow’s city: compactness of the urban network (i.e. real estate economy), multi-functionality, strong social links, emphasis on pedestrian mobility between work and home, cross-neighborhood transportation system (motorized tricycles—tuk tuk, microbus), etc. David Sims points out that, in an informal neighborhood in the periphery of the town center in Cairo, half of the active population work on site.
Diversity of Implemented Policies and Political Instability
The authors have examined in detail the modalities of prior interventions. Their study reveals that it is possible to compare them, and to identify solutions which converge, or which are specific to a country, as of the 1990s. Everywhere, the transition to liberal economies during the 1990s and 2000s has modified policies vis-à-vis illegal neighborhoods. The collapse of public and subsidized housing did not provide alternatives to citizens who had to secure the building of their own houses. Temporalities as well as scales of intervention may vary a great deal. Lots of changes can take place between the scope, and the type of initiatives envisaged, and their implementation. Very few projects achieved their initial aim. In Syria, after the 2005 shift, and the announcement of the “social market economy,” the national scale projects shifted into innumerable local ones, with conflicting intentions, swinging between dwellers’ interests and investors’ interests in developing deregulated real estate (Clerc). International cooperation and development agencies seem to play here a major role by multiplying isolated experiments, which can even compete with each other. In Syria, Japanese, French, and German agencies as well as the European Union, the World Bank, and the Cities Alliance (UN-Habitat, Cities without Slums) intervened altogether. Each one was trying to latch onto, or influence, national or local projects.
Cairo has been subjected to the same experiments and intervention recipes that are never coordinated. Such projects insist on public-private partnerships promoting in-situ rehabilitation with densification, land titling or infrastructure development. They juxtapose to each other and are openly in competition. They have been unable to transform urban policies, nor even to launch new large-scale programs (on this issue, see the excellent work Villes et ‘best practices’).
Alongside these isolated experiments, other more routine modes of government action are implemented, and adapted to realities on the ground. In an Arab world where decentralization, and local governments are so to say absent, it is astonishing to observe that, according to a national survey on illegal areas to be “addressed” (Morocco, Syria, Egypt), the projects are implemented at the local level using negotiated mechanisms. In certain cities and neighborhoods, they will never be launched, or will be partially transformed into eviction. In many cases, significant delays have been observed (cf. Zaki on Morocco, and Cities Without Slums). The in-depth report of Cities Without Slums project in Morocco (Toutain)—the only national level program, which was implemented on a very large scale—shows how much the results vary according to cities, neighborhoods, and inhabitants. While some cities have indeed been declared to be without slums, the social outcomes are mitigated. One cannot but compare this with the eradication of slums project implemented in France in the 1960s. There too, large housing projects grouping one hundred thousand inhabitants sprung out of nowhere, especially in Agadir. With the implementation of The Cities Without Slums Action Plan, the poor who used to live in makeshift houses were relocated in modern residences. There was certainly an improvement in their living conditions, but their social and professional links were weakened, and the access to resources was made harder, leading to a loss of income. Zaki and Toutain both agree however that Cities Without Slums was one of the flagship programs, which curbed the rising revolts in Morocco, in relation to the Arab Spring. But, the Moroccan solution obviously cannot be exported on such a scale. In Egypt for example, ninety percent of informal neighborhoods consist of multiple-storey apartment buildings with concrete pillars, beams, and brick walls. Their destruction is inconceivable. In-situ rehabilitation with the residents, by the residents, as says Agnès Deboulet, remains the best approach.
The attempt to handle this issue, and it does not seem to have evolved much, generates contradictory effects: some neighborhoods, or some inhabitants are given legal recognition, or allotted lodging in the context of rehousing programs, while others are left out, or struck-off from the list of people entitled to housing, because they showed-up after the cut-off-date, as in Syria after 2008 (Clerc). In Egypt, there was an unsuccessful attempt to implement a similar approach in keeping with a military decree (no.1-1996). Confinement is considered to be a solution in Cairo (Sims), especially with the idea in 2006 of developing residential areas all around informal neighborhoods, and thus avoid further expansion. Previously, it was the ring road that was supposed to do the job. Built towards the end of the 1990s, it did indeed cut off and isolate informal neighborhoods, but it did not slow down their growth. Authors obliquely stress upon the fact that urban planning, zoning, and master plans do not serve to foresee, or control population dynamics. Popular settlements are built from below, on the fringes of plannings, by subverting the plan. By hiding behind the power of the plan, authorities in charge exclude themselves from the urban fabric which is obviously negotiated locally.
Risks and Liberalization
One of the main justifications in the treatment of sub-standard, and irregular neighborhoods is the danger of unrest or terrorism. New policies have come into being, especially in Egypt, since the 1990s with the growing awareness of the threat of potential terrorists, and extremists in neighborhoods where government authorities were absent, and social work was left in the hands of organizations with Islamic leanings (Denis 1994). Efforts were made to upgrade the infrastructure, and strengthen the presence of the State as well the police surveillance capacity. Toutain points out that in Morocco, following the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, strict government regulations were reinforced, and hitherto unprecedented measures implemented. The Cities Without Slums program launched in 2005 was one of the main tools. During the 2000s, the danger became prevalent, and besides the security risk that the squatter settlements represented, the environmental conditions of these zones also became a source of worry. Agnès Deboulet emphasizes the fact that, since 2010, as in Cairo with the creation of the Informal Settlements Development Facility (ISDF), districts are revisited, classified, and mapped in terms of vulnerability. Public authorities thus use the argument of natural risk to justify interventions, which, until then, were difficult to envisage, except in the context of major infrastructure projects (Deboulet). Thus, thirty-five zones qualified as “life threatening areas” were targeted, and sixteen amongst them were in Cairo (presentation of the ISDF in Global Risk Forum in Davos in June, 2010).
However, because of the revolution, and the fear of mass mobilization, the temptation to transfer people by force seems to be currently averted. But, the ISDF has neither disappeared, nor significantly changed its orientation. In 2013, irregular settlements remain on top of the government’s agenda. In March 2013, an agreement of cooperation was signed with the governors of Giza and Cairo, and with the German aid, the European Union and the UN Habitat, for setting up the Participatory Development Programme in Urban Areas, under the aegis of ISDF. In spite of participatory label, there is every reason to believe that the currently implemented formula is the same as before. Thus, in January 2014 the armed forces made a formal commitment to the ISDF to sustain the redevelopment of popular neighborhoods in Giza and Cairo for a year, by setting up themselves projects, as these “require a high degree of expertise,” as per the press release! In Morocco, on the other hand, the Cities Without Slums’ action plan has changed considerably, especially in relation to the funding of constructions using “third party” (Zaki).
The natural disasters approach is not exclusively reserved to precarious housing in Egypt. Karen Coelho and Nithya Rama (2013) have shown that in Chennai, India, the reasons given for forced evictions were fire, floods, and the need to reclaim humid zones for beautification. In many respects, the Indian method of treating illegal neighborhoods and slums shows that democracy, and strong government guidelines do not suffice to ensure good local governance, and to countermand the interests of real estate firms. Decentralization pits local governments against each other, and severe budgetary constraints impose priorities concerning local development, which are not in favor of participatory planning, and integration of illegal neighborhoods. In India, evictions, and relocation to the periphery is the norm. The rapid development of real estate has become the priority. In situ upgrading is rare and marginal (Banda and Sheikh, 2014). In Morocco, Toutain and Zaki point out that the Cities Without Slums Action Plan’s initial aims were rapidly abandoned.
The case of networked urban services sharply reveals how the removal of subsidies continues to deepen socio-spatial inequalities. Higher rates, and other attempts to improve the cost recovery mechanism are often unsuccessful, as in the case of drinking water, or garbage collection in Cairo. Jimmy Markoum and Eric Verdeil examine the extension of the natural gas distribution network launched in 2008 with the support of the World Bank. This program had a social purpose, even a universal aim, and was supposed to rectify the lack of connections in informal neighborhoods. It ended up with major contradictions. During the 1990s-2000s, the connection was set up at no cost to residents, though the irregular settlements in the periphery were left out. Today, however, individual connections have to be paid for, and are thus inaccessible to people with modest means. Moreover, the most densely populated, and illegal neighborhoods could not be connected to the network because the security-price ratio was extremely unfavorable. The socio-spatial injustice has therefore steadily increased. For many families, getting gas bottles remain a difficult daily chore. And, since the revolution, the shortage in gas bottles has worsened, just like the prices. The network thus reinforces the marginalization of urban areas, which become subjected to dual discrimination—socioeconomic and physical. Indeed, these spaces become penalized socially, economically but also in terms of living conditions (Markoum and Verdeil). The authors do not see any alternative to subsidized connections, which would then include disadvantaged populations.
Prospects for Urban Planning from Below
In their thorough review of urban policies before and after the Arab Spring, the book’s authors demonstrate that the issue of supporting people’s capacities is at the heart of the need for a strategic upheaval. The approach relying on projects has shown its limits, given the magnitude of the task, and it is the totality of the urban model that policy makers in different countries, in consultation with citizens, have to redesign. However, hardly any thinking has gone into redefining spaces and their values, remarks Barthel. These neighborhoods that have remarkable urban characteristics are the product of people`s skills. Therefore it is from below, with the participation of residents seeking recognition, and according to the logic of an urbanisme de réparation [urbanism of repair], as coined by Agnès Deboulet, that a concerted, flexible and dense urban development could be positively integrated, assisted, and accompanied.
Will the strong demand for recognition that emanates from popular neighborhoods be placated by technical “recipes,” imported models, rudimentary categorization, and the perpetuation of offsite relocation policies, which have proven their ability to increase poverty? Is the current desire for democracy in the Middle East not an opportunity to test a full-fledged urbanism of repair? (Deboulet)
The authors point to this in all the examined contexts: all have a high percentage of irregular settlements. They house forty percent of the population of Damascus, and some sixty-six percent of those in Cairo. It is also noteworthy that these areas absorb eighty percent of the urban demographic growth. They are thus constantly expanding, and getting more crowded. The Arab world is still characterized by a rapidly growing urbanization, which contributes to the creation of those popular neighborhoods. Let us not forget that the urban growth rate in Egypt was 3.4 percent in 2010, while the growth rate of the total population was less than two percent. In Morocco, it was two percent for 1.2 percent. It is a question of millions of poorly integrated city dwellers.
With the disappearance of local authorities, and the de-legitimization of public authorities during the Arab Spring, illegal neighbourhoods have spread out, and have gotten denser everywhere. Sims says that, in Cairo, "the pace of construction is frenzied," while Toutain and Clerc highlight the acceleration of illegal construction in Morocco and Syria between 2011 and 2012. There is no other alternative to integrating these neighbourhoods, because of the density of the urban population they house at present, and will shelter in the future. They are impossible to contain, move, or even reconfigure according to the standard schemes of property, and city planning laws. And, is it even necessary? Upgrading their infrastructure is not a major problem even at the scale of an entire city, as the costs do not even compare to the expenditures involved in any social housing program (Sims).
Without any doubt, the revolutionary movements also gave birth to many organizations across neighborhoods: lijan sha‘biyya [popular committees], but also larger federative structures, such as the Federation of Informal Settlements’ People`s Committees, founded in Cairo in February 2011 (Sims), or the National Coordination of Slums, established in 2010 in Morocco (Zaki). The strength and the achievements of people’s movements in the Arab world shed light on collective action skills, and self-emancipation of people, at all scales, in the street and the country, the neighborhood and the city. It is clear that academic expertise had not anticipated the Arab Spring, as it had previously ignored the skills of the residents that went into building cities—to the exception of some noteworthy authors such as the one gathered in this volume.
Therefore, a revolution in urban policies and urban action seems necessary, in order to give voice to these competent residents. It would place residents, and the collective spaces they create in the place and position of the city planner. This edited volume is a solidly anchored appeal for urban interventions that support, and sustain actions initiated by residents in neighborhoods.
[This book review appeared earlier on Jadaliyya in French. Arunima Choudhury and the author translated it into English.]
Myriam Ababsa, Baudouin Dupret and Eric Denis (eds.), Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East, (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2012).
Pierre-Arnaud Barthel and Lamia Zaki (dir.), Expérimenter la ville durable au Sud de la Méditerranée, (La Tour d’Aigues: éditions de l’Aube, 2011).
Karen Coelho and Nithya Raman, “From the Frying Pan to the Floodplain: Negotiating Land, Water and Fire in Chennai’s Development” in Ecologies of Urbanism in India: Metropolitan Civility and Sustainability, edited by A. Rademacher and K. Sivaramakrishnan (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013): 145-168.
David Sims, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control (Cairo, New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2010).
Lamia Zaki (ed.) L’action urbaine au Maghreb. Enjeux professionnels et politiques (Paris: Karthala, 2010).