Self-build City: How Aleppo is growing and why security of tenure is needed

Addition of storeys in informal housing in Aleppo: Photo courtesy of Patrick Wakely

Aleppo has made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List. A historic crossroads location on trade routes that criss-crossed the Middle East and connected it to Asia and Europe generated the wealth to invest in the built environment. The result is some grand set-pieces, perhaps most noticeably the 12th century Great Mosque and the monumental 13th century Citadel. However, much of the character of the city comes from the intricate network of streets and suqs within the walled city.

However, Aleppo is now a city of 2.5 million, and growing at 2.9% a year, or put another way, 160 new dwellings each week. So when I went to hear Patrick Wakely give a seminar about Aleppo at Heriot-Watt last week, I wasn’t expecting to hear about architectural conservation.  Patrick is now Professor Emeritus at the Development Planning Unit of University College London. His long career has seen him using his skills to steer the development of some of the world’s fastest growing cities. He arrived in Aleppo in 2008 as a consultant on a project funded by GTZ, the German Agency for Development Co-operation, and the Cities Alliance. The report that he produced, with his colleague Elizabeth Riley, can be accessed at the Cities Alliance. The report makes the case for “incremental housing” as the only way that the poor of this rapidly growing city can get the houses they need.

Patrick began his presentation in a small room that was so crowded that it gave a passable impression of living conditions for many in Aleppo. He made the fundamental point – one that planners can sometimes find hard to hear – “Almost all urban housing is procured incrementally”. In Aleppo, as is the case across the rapidly urbanising countries, those taking out loans or mortgages to get a house are the minority. The construction of houses is an incremental process, and so is the funding. This works because it is flexible and gives the poor households a measure of control over their circumstances.

Rewinding the formal development process

The formal development process will be familiar to readers. Secure a legal right to develop a site; put in roads and other infrastructure; build the houses; then dispose of them to occupants. The self-build process rewinds this sequence. First, you move onto the land, pitching a tent there perhaps so that you literally can get your feet onto the ground. Then build our house – or as much of it as you can afford at the time. Things looking up? Maybe time to think of getting some water and electricity in. Then, when you are nicely settled, hopefully you can get a legal right to occupy the plot.

The basic facts define the logic of this approach. Eighty per cent of the annual increment of new households are poor. Many are rural migrants who want to live in ethnic groups. The informal settlements, home to almost half of the city’s people, are growing at a rate of 4% a year, and now occupy 35% of the developed land. Importantly, if you look at informal settlements as real estate assets, they are worth a cool £4billion, echoes of the “muck is brass” days in Britain.

Patrick described some of the players in the development process. There are landowners such as small farmers weary of working their scrubby infertile fields near the city’s edge, and happy to sell. Agents, often with a background as community leaders, operate as brokers. Land developers do subdivision and retail plots. They may squat land then sell it on, but more commercial developers may also be involved.

Planning and Enforcement

Of course, this surging development drives a horse and cart through the outdated masterplan, and violates all the planning standards and every building code. Ownership of the land is likely to be disputed or not formally registered. The traditional response of officialdom, and not least of planners, has been literally to sweep away such development.  There are some upper income residents living in unauthorised housing too, though for them, payment of a fee to the local authority is usually sufficient to hold the bulldozers at bay.

Where it gets scary is when householders begin to prosper and add extra storeys to occupy or rent out (see the photo). Amateur high-rise always frightens me. Overall, though the unplanned provision of new housing has provided houses that are affordable by all but the poorest and in quantities and in locations where it is needed. It is a market that works. The Achilles heel is the issue of security of tenure and the risk of forced eviction. “Security of tenure underpins everything”, Prof. Wakely concluded. “That is what everyone is looking for. Seventy per cent of the informal settlements in Aleppo could be legalised, by relatively minor legal changes. It is easier to change the law than to change the settlements.”

I agree. Do you?

  • Sacha Hasan

    I agree as well. I am with the opinion of legalising what meets safety measurements and upgrade it with services and social utilities rather than sweeping it away, as it does represent a successful housing market. However, it is important to take into consideration the mindset of the planning authorities and carefully consider what they are ready to do in order to turn any recommendations into actions.

    • Hi Sacha, Thanks for your comment and for subscribing to the blog. Yes the midset of the planning authorities is indeed an issue. Getting a team set up in the Aleppo municiapl council to address the issues of informal settlements was itself a success, but demolitions still seem to continue. I have had also some interesting feedback from a young Bangladeshi planner too about the problems with the outlook of planners in that country. He’s getting some photos for me then we’ll turn it into a piece for the blog. I am also in touch with planners in Queensland to try to create a blog about the recent floods there. Best wishes, Cliff.

  • Balsam Ahmad

    Intertesting article. I completely agree with your solution. I have just returned from Aleppo myself having done research on health of women in informal settlements. Informal housing have expanded exponentially since the start of the uprising in Syria. Does this fact changes the solution you proposed? or possibly it makes the solution less straightforward.

    • It is interesting to hear of the growth in informal housing that has taken place since the start of the uprising. My guess is that if political reform does come the rate of growth will increase still further, and a new government will benefit if it can grasp the function that such housing provides, and so steer and facilitate these growth processes.