Who is Syria’s reconstruction for?

The Ancient City of Palmyra, before it was taken under the control of Islamic State in 2015. Image: Getty.

The reconstruction of Syria has become a new landscape of contestation. Many appear interested or keen to contribute, seeing in the reconstruction an investment opportunity for foreign capital and a chance to experiment with new architectural forms in a country devastated by conflict.

“Everything I have in Syria is destroyed; my house, and my family”, Samia, a Syrian woman told me in February 2019 in Moria Camp in Greece where she shares a small space in an ISO container with other people. “My house was destroyed. We left when the East Aleppo was under siege.”

Hani, an architect in Homs city in Syria, says he has been displaced from his home on nine occasions since 2011. He hopes the tenth move will return him back home. His family are separated across different cities, living wherever relatives can offer them a room. Hani’s home is partially destroyed; he spends hours each day removing the debris.

After years of destruction in Syrian towns and cities, people are beginning to look towards the country’s reconstruction. But conversations about rebuilding Syria do not always engage with the suffering of ordinary people like Samia and Hani, or address the reconstruction of ordinary homes. Rather, the conversation around Syria’s reconstruction has so far focussed on monumental sites of historic architecture and mdoern high-rise development projects. Neither responds to the needs or desires of ordinary Syrian citizens. 

Those interested in reconstructing historic architectural sites stress the need to think about Syria’s ancient history as a foundation for rebuilding the country. They explain that these landscapes reflect the achievements of ancient civilisations and the collective memories of communities that once lived in the region.

This has led to significant interest in sites including Dura-Europos, Palmyra and the Great Mosque and the Citadel in Aleppo. Yet focussing on history invokes a one-sided view of Syria that neglects the lives of many of its citizens, romanticising the past while remaining blind to present everyday realities.

At the same time, building high-rise tower blocks in post-conflict Syrian cities risks supplanting the country’s social and cultural fabric with standardised skyscrapers. Such projects might benefit investors and developers, but can end up displacing locals. To see these risks in practice we can look to central Beirut, where people have criticised redevelopments for bringing war-like levels of destruction.

Both these trajectories fail to reflect the desires and needs of people that have been internally and externally displaced. Rather than engaging with local communities and representing their voices, many of the emerging debates and research funding aimed at Syria’s reconstruction do not include ordinary Syrians. It’s worth asking: who has the power in reconstructing Syria? Whose voice is heard?

Syrian architects and engineers want to shape the future of their cities, imagining new spaces that can reunite devastated communities and heal war wounds. Local Syrian architects inside and outside the country are spreading awareness about urban life in their cities, about property ownership issues, about the right to the city and about the city as a space of collective memory.

But it is not enough for Syrian architects with good intentions to create meaningful and inclusive reconstruction projects. It’s essential that Syrian architects work with local communities to better understand what they need. Prior to the Syrian war, developers proposed a project in Homs called the Homs Dream. They suggested demolishing areas of the city and replacing them with towers, erasing the collective identities and meanings created in the heart of the city. The project sparked outrage among Homs locals.

To avoid similar situations in the future, it is vital to create dialogues between architects, urban planners and local communities. Approaches like co-design and co-creation can offer people opportunities to shape the future of their built environment. These approaches can take different forms, including live debates, broadcast conversations and workshops.

We need public engagement to include all of society. Without addressing the six million refugees outside Syria, the internally displaced Syrians like Hani, and the voices of Syrian architects, engineers and urban planners, we may ask: who is Syria’s reconstruction for? And what ends does it serve?

Ammar Azzouz is an architect and an analyst for Arup. He grew up in Homs and now lives in London. 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.