Rebuilding Homs: how to resurrect a city after six years of conflict

Homs, December 2016. Image: Getty.

As the conflict in Syria enters its seventh year, the toll it has taken on my home town of Homs continues to grow. Much of the city’s built environment has been damaged or destroyed: as of 2014, 50 per cen of Homs’s neighbourhoods had been heavily damaged, and 22 per cent had been partially damaged. This has affected every aspect of daily life for the Homsians who remain. The Conversation

Prior to the war, Homs had approximately 800,000 residents, the third-largest city in Syria in terms of population. The city is renowned for its rich history, multicultural communities and unique historical architectural style – namely the Ablaq architecture, which involves alternating rows of light and dark brickwork. For this reason, Homs is fondly known as the “city of black and white stones”.

Ablaq-style architecture at the Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque in Homs. Image: Beshr Abdulhadi/Flickr/creative commons.

Over the centuries, Homs has attracted many different civilisations including Greeks, Romans and Ottomans which have all had an impact on the city’s cultural, religious, architectural and political landscapes. Each of these transformations has helped to make Homs a massive museum, full of ancient treasures. For instance, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the heart of Homs was originally a temple of worship for the Syro-Roman sun god El-Gabal. Later, it was converted into the Church of St John the Baptist, then transformed into a mosque.

But over the past six years the eyes of the world have been forced to witness the savage destruction of Homs. Many have fled from the fighting, lives and livelihoods have been lost and some of the city’s most treasured architecture has been reduced to rubble. Observing the destruction from afar, the only way to avoid feeling powerless is to believe that Homs can be resurrected.

Scholars Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella have written about how traumatised and wounded cities can recover after disasters. They point out that for as long as cities have existed they have been destroyed – and in almost every case they have risen again like the mythical phoenix. “Cities such as Baghdad, Moscow, Aleppo, Mexico City, and Budapest lost between 60 per cent and 90 per cent of their populations due to wars, yet they were rebuilt and eventually rebounded,” they say.

Similarly, I believe Homs can regenerate itself. But there are some important lessons to consider when reweaving its damaged urban fabric.

Lesson 1: engage the community

The local communities of Homs should be involved in the rebuilding process to ensure that all members of society are accounted for in the new designs. Regeneration programmes should include a deep and detailed understanding of local priorities and careful consideration for the people affected.

Locals in Homs. Image: Ammar Azzouz/Flickr/creative commons.

This can be achieved by bridging the gaps between local authorities, designers, planners, researchers and – most importantly – the local community. Local people should be consulted through workshops, conferences and research to record their thoughts and understand their needs. This way, regeneration projects will unite Homsians from all walks of life and give them a voice and a sense of belonging.

Lesson 2: respect local traditions

In many post-war reconstructions, the urban memory of cities has been replaced with new, forgetful landscapes. After the civil war in Beirut, Lebanon (1975-90), the city centre was completely reshaped and replaced with a post-modern construction. Scholars reckoned that the original fabric was completely cleared from around 80 per cent of the area. In the end, far more buildings were demolished during the reconstruction than had been destroyed during the civil war.

Post-disaster reconstruction should not bury the scars of the war by creating a completely new face for the city. Instead, a faithful reconstruction should preserve and respect the pre-war memories, values and traditions of Homs. Developers should consider the varied architectural styles of the city, while avoiding previous planning problems such as poor public transportation systems, impractical architectural styles that do not fit the lifestyle in Homs and neglect of the old city of Homs and its legacy.

Lesson 3: remember the war

Though it is difficult, a post-war Homs should not try to revive the pre-war era. Memories of war will no doubt be recounted by families, artists and writers. Likewise, the destruction of the city should be memorialised in its architecture, to serve as a powerful warning to future generations about the cost of conflict.

Fabiano Rebeque/Flickr/creative commons.

Many post-war cities have done this very effectively. In Berlin, the wall that divided the city into East and West still stands, but has been colourfully painted by artists, residents and tourists. In England, Coventry Cathedral was left without a roof after being bombed in World War II, creating a garden of remembrance. And the ruins of an exhibition hall in Hiroshima were transformed into the Genbaku Dome Peace Memorial, to remember the tens of thousands of people who were instantly killed by the first atom bomb ever used in war.


The next generations of Homsians should have sites like this, which they can explore, and hopefully avoid repeating history – and its mistakes.

Most of all, the reconstruction of Homs must not generate new divisions. Instead, more public spaces should be created to bring people together, where formerly architecture has separated them into different spaces for living, working and socialising based on social class, income and religion.

In this way, new sites can address problems such as inequality and segregation, while helping to heal the wounds of the city and create a united civic society. It will take a lot of imagination. But Homs is a resilient city, precisely because of the power, faith and patience of its resilient inhabitants.

Ammar Azzouz is a PhD Candidate at the University of Bath.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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