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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.