Students: Mapping the Destruction of Aleppo



Columbia University (USA) / Instructors: Laura Kurgan (2016)

Did the Syrian war constitute a Trojan horse for the neoliberal urban redevelopment of Syrian cities? The map above seems to make that suggestion: roughly half of the overall recorded destruction in the Syrian city of Aleppo occurred within so-called ‘informal settlements,’ with the majority of the remainder being registered in the Old City. The urban planning report, “Informal Settlements in Aleppo,” commissioned by the Syrian government in 2007 and conducted by the GIZ (German Corporation for International Cooperation) in 2009, delineated these neighborhoods as ‘informal settlements’ in need of an “upgrade” and made the recommendation that the Syrian government “minimize their growth in the future.”

At first glance, the 2009 report substantiates the connection of urban planning to destruction. The apolitical and ahistorical language of the GIZ report is highly political. The larger Aleppo City Development Strategy brought together not just the German Corporation for International Cooperation and the Aleppo City Council, but also global institutions such as the World Bank. Deciphering their technocratic language reveals the authoritarian governance of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its neoliberal reforms: the urban sphere is approached as a business project where people are primarily conceived of as “human resources.” ‘Informality’ is a term of intense debate in urban planning and architecture discourses, loaded with colonial legacies, modernist plans of action, and opportunities for private real estate speculation. Yet, in the GIZ report, a clear definition of an ‘informal settlement’ – what areas were included, how boundaries were drawn, and according to what precise characteristics – is absent. Instead, one word seems to suffice to delimit these ‘informal settlements:’ they are “illegal.” The report’s understanding of ‘illegality’ bases itself on one or several vague characteristics surrounding land ownership and registration, master plan zoning regulations, and building standards. Consequently, the use of the term ‘informal settlement’ confounds markedly distinct areas of Aleppo: some neighborhoods (though not all) are comparatively poor, several are provided with official infrastructure while others are not, and two of the neighborhoods are in fact Palestinian camps administrated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Worse still is that this conception of ‘informal settlements’ in the GIZ report, written three years prior to the fighting in Aleppo, has serious ramifications for the post-war “re-”construction: it will be a challenge for any Aleppo resident, whether displaced or remaining, to prove land or property ownership in areas predetermined as “illegal.”

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Maps of Aleppo by Grga Basic, Center for Spatial Research, Patterns of Damage (video stills, 2017).

However, while it seems probable this report will provide guidance to the reconstruction of Aleppo, it would be overly simplistic to assume a linear, causal relationship of ‘informality’ and wartime destruction. As the map above demonstrates, the areas the report labels as ‘informal’ are overwhelmingly concentrated in rebel areas. How come? The report mentions “dramatic” population growth, especially in eastern Aleppo, but does not once question the cause or origin of such migration nor how it chose its destination. Yet, it is precisely this larger context that gives a hint as to why, when armed revolutionary forces joined protesters in 2012, these armed groups were able to quickly gain control over many of these ‘informal’ neighborhoods. Taking into account Ottoman and French colonial legacies, decades of intricate rural-urban relationships and class formation, the arrival of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Lebanese refugees, the Hariri assassination in Lebanon, agricultural policies in a time of drought, as well as sharp increases in property prices as a result of Bashar al-Assad’s neoliberal reforms show that what characterizes most ‘informal settlements,’ are, in the end, economic and political grievances. The crux of the above maps is hence not a causal relationship of urban planning and destruction, as it initially might seem, but the congruence of ‘informality’ and rebel-held areas, which can only be understood historically.

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Map Legend: Yellow – moderately damaged, Orange – severely damaged, Red – destroyed, the varying opacity of black denotes damaged sites inside the so-called “informal settlements.” Maps of Aleppo by Grga Basic, Center for Spatial Research, Patterns of Damage (video stills, 2017).

The omission of a larger historical context is written into the report itself. The focus on Aleppo residents’ “economic potential” makes knowing their histories not only unnecessary but unwanted. The Syrian government and GIZ urban planners’ judgment hence oversimplifies and dismisses the lived realities of more than one million people while simultaneously criminalizing them. Our interpretation of the report, and of Aleppo’s devastating destruction, should not follow the same pattern.