Place residence

Plan a sense of belonging

Places are spaces to which people have assigned meanings and to which they are attached. Placemaking refers to the interaction of people and place.

Places can also be highly political, as different groups have different power in creating places. But who defines the places of our cities? How does this affect people’s lives, especially the most marginalized groups?

A view of the city of Karaj from the mostly evacuated inner hills of Eslamabad. Photo: Hamed Mokhles

In a multicultural country like Australia, accommodating the needs of different groups, including people from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and gender identities, is key to ensuring inclusive and thriving cities.

However, in most planning and urban design processes, there is rarely consideration for marginalized groups in society.

Bringing to light two different narratives of public spaces in an informal settlement in Iran called Eslamabad – which is in the city of Karaj just outside Tehran – shows how the notion of public space and place is contested .

I explored the political dimension of the place through planning documents, a documentary, online sources, social media and interviews with residents. The key to understanding the different perspectives of a place is to ask who it is and who benefits or who is marginalized.

Informal settlements – known as zoorabad or hashie-neshini in Iran – or slums, squats and favelas in other countries, refer to a range of contested informal occupations that lack formal planning, design and construction .

These settlements are strategic for the people who live there – to improve their livelihoods by building houses close to where they work, as they cannot find affordable housing through formal planning processes.

Thus, these settlements do not comply with town planning rules. Residents are moving to the land and building their homes without having legal title. Then they try to build or put in place infrastructure to get legal tenure.

A view of the settlement after the evictions from the inner hills. Photo: https://irna.ir/xj3JbP

As a result, most lack basic services, support infrastructure and security.

Eslamabad was built more than 50 years ago and has been contested ever since after residents built their homes illegally on land intended for agriculture, despite having bought the land.

It is located on the hills northwest of the city of Karaj. While it was once home to some 120,000 people at the height of its occupation, there has been massive destruction and evictions.

According to recent surveys, it now hosts around 36,000 inhabitants around the hills.

The village has an organic and compact urban form with low-rise buildings for individual or extended families that are built according to the topography. As a result, the street network formed organically – in steeply sloping parts more suitable for pedestrian access.

There are two contrasting visions of Eslamabad, each resulting from a different process of creating or deconstructing a place.

On the one hand, the top-down vision of planning authorities, on the other the rising opinion of the inhabitants.

The unique location of the settlement has made it the target of regeneration and rebranding to create a new landmark by planning authorities. A new vision for the region is one where the inner hill areas have become an open space with entertainment facilities designed to attract tourists.

How residents imagine the future of their facility might look like. Image: Negin Karaj Weblog

But for the inhabitants, they imagine a future settlement similar to the old complete occupation of the hill with stepped housing but improvements in the construction of the buildings.

As a result, planning authorities focus on exaggerating the issues and blaming the physical aspects of the place for justifying mass evictions and top-down restructuring and redevelopment.

For example, urban planning documents emphasize the massive restructuring of the network of steep streets and buildings, highlighting the gutters open to the streets, the difficulties of access by car and the unstable buildings.

Planning policies require the widening of the street by massive setbacks on already small plots as a prerequisite for any reconstruction – this has resulted in further deterioration and resident apathy for reconstruction.

Policies like this have resulted in little new construction, evictions of former residents, and the emergence of vacant buildings and land.

These scars are not only physical, their consequences alienate the inhabitants and lead to the loss of their social ties.

During my stay in Eslamabad, I interviewed several of the residents. They shared how day-to-day placemaking allows social life to flourish on the streets because they are pedestrianized and semi-private.

These same streets provide a safe space for children, especially girls who face additional restrictions, to socialize and play.

The semi-private spaces in the alleys provide a safe space for girls to play. Picture: Mehr News

But authorities dismiss these dynamic place-making processes, the capacity for collaborative construction and the impact of place on their well-being.

In Eslamabad, mosques are the ultimate sign of popular agency, which residents of similar ethnic backgrounds have built up over time. Unlike their houses, which are still in the making, these mosques are fully built and beautifully adorned, a clear indication of the great agency and ability of the residents.

Apart from their religious function, they provide a haven to connect residents when needed.

Although the people of Eslamabad have a great ability to bring places and community together, the official narrative silences their stories through gentrification.

For many, Eslamabad may just be the story of a distant place, but the lessons can be applied to many cities around the world, including here in Australia.

Instead of planning cities for the most powerful, planners and practitioners should relearn how to create places with the community, especially the most marginalized.

This research is part of 2022 Melbourne School of Design Research Seminar Series on Southern Built Environments. You can register for the next seminar in the series, which focuses on African urban built environment, September 14, 2022, online and in person.

Banner: City of Karaj by Ensie & Matthias/Flickr