Conflict Urbanism Aleppo Seminar
Case Study | Informal Settlements

What are 'informal settlements'?
An Attempt to Grapple With Urban Planning at Times of War
Today, Aleppo’s urban landscape is primarily known through images of destruction, ruin and rubble. At a moment in which debris are growing skyward and regime bombs continue to rain on the city, a discussion of urban planning and neoliberal real estate policies seems more out of place than ever. And yet, this is exactly what I will do, conceiving of it as an attempt to go back in time in order to comprehend how a city as beautiful and lively as Aleppo was made to be represented by war-torn buildings and bullet-riddled ruins of former homes.

Introducing the GIZ report

Aleppo, often referred to as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, has always been a site of change, urban transformations and renewals. This case study will focus on one recent planning document, which was commissioned by the Syrian government in 2007 and conducted by the GIZ (formerly GTZ, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit or German Corporation for International Cooperation) in 2009. A brief analysis such as this cannot be comprehensive; instead it merely hopes to poke holes into a thick layer of seemingly neutral planning and mapping activities.

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Upon close reading, the GIZ report on “Informal Settlements in Aleppo” proves to be highly political precisely because it frames its content as strictly a-political and outside of history. The report originates in a larger Aleppo City Development Strategy (madinatuna in Arabic) that joins GIZ, which had been working on a “Rehabilitation of the Old City of Aleppo” project since 1994, with the Aleppo City Council and the Cities Alliance (a partnership of the World Bank and UN-Habitat). ‘Informal settlements’ were included in the project with the goal of “upgrading” their social, economic as well as environmental conditions and in order to “minimize their growth in the future.” The importance of these objectives is supported by the claim that almost half of Aleppo’s 2.4 million residents live in ‘informal settlements.’ Nevertheless, no actual policy recommendations are enunciated in the documents. The final project report of 2010 confirms that no action has materialized on the ground despite the fact that, accordingly, a “legalization” of these areas is vital for the “security of any kind of future investment.”

The 'Informal Settlements' report hence mainly serves as a research document for potential decision-makers who are unfamiliar with the areas.
However, how exactly these settlements are defined – what areas were included in the report, which ones not and according to what characteristics – is nowhere to be found. In the way the term is used by GIZ, ‘informal settlement’ blankets distinctly different areas of the city: some, though not all, are comparatively poor; several are provided with official infrastructure, others are not; two of the neighborhoods are in fact Palestinian camps administrated by UNWRA(United Nations Relief and Works Agency); one area called Dwereneh is a mid-19th century agricultural settlement of a Bedouin community and another one, Khan al Assal, is a village that has only recently been incorporated into the city’s master-plan, probably due to the fact that wealthy Aleppan families began buying property there to build “large weekend villas, many with swimming pools.” The method of inquiry raises further questions: in a so-called ‘rapid profile study’ only three to four hours were spent in each neighborhood, observing indicators such as “standards of construction” as well as the “demeanor of people.”

A Neoliberal Framework

Both madinatuna as well as the subsequent ‘Informal Settlements’ report are neoliberal projects, meaning that political deliberations are pushed aside and decisions are instead based on economics as the dominant rational.
The focus here will be on aspects of migration: the ‘Informal Settlements’ report for instance mentions a “dramatic” growth of Aleppo in the 1970s and ‘80s, “largely through migration from small towns and rural areas mostly in Eastern Syria.” It also speaks about a “densification of existing informal settlements,” briefly touches upon geographic and ethnic origins of residents and alludes to evictions elsewhere that lead to a further influx of people. Movement hence seems to be right under the surface of the planning document and yet is not allowed to come to light: any further considerations of these processes are conspicuously absent. Movement – why? Who are these people? Where do they come from; why did they leave? Why did they settle here?

A closer look at the madinatuna framework provides a possible explanation for this absence: here, people are primarily conceived of as “human resources:” human resources that need to be disciplined, human resources that need to achieve certain preconceived targets.
Understanding people in terms of their ‘economic potential’ not only makes knowing their histories unnecessary but unwanted.


Telling their histories would mean talking about decades old rural-urban relationships. It would require a discussion of Ottoman and French colonial legacies, of class formation and urban elites, the role of the peasantry in Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power, the growth of the state apparatus during the Ba’th party rule and their real estate policies with bureaucratic norms and rigid zoning plans.
One would need to consider state-business networks, the development of the army, security apparatus, and intelligence agencies under Hafez al-Assad and later Bashar al-Assad as well as the role of ‘security,’ coercion, and fear in the Syrian society.
Furthermore, even beginning to comprehend the ongoing migration and the rise of the urban population would necessitate a discussion of (Syria’s involvement in) the Iraq war of 2003 and the subsequent displacement of 500’000 Iraqis in Syria alone, joining Palestinian and Lebanese refugees. It would require grappling with an intense drought that began in 2006 as well as the agricultural policies and levels of corruption that transformed it into a humanitarian catastrophe.
One might also consider Syria’s implication in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister al-Hariri in 2005, which sparked large-scale protests in the neighboring state, forcing the Syrian army to withdraw its troops for the first time since 1976 and creating further increase in the urban population due to returning soldiers and migrant workers.
Generally, in order to fathom growing urban peripheries, Bashar al-Assad’s neoliberal policies – the opening of the national economy, privatizations, and a simultaneous dismantling of economic safety nets for the poor – would need to be debated especially in terms of a liberalization of the real estate market, rises in property prices and laws facilitating the eviction of tenants.

Visualizing Absence?

None of this is even hinted at in any of the GIZ planning documents. The challenge hence is to visualize an absence: how to show what is not there? Reframing the GIZ map shown above, I could attempt to redraw it in order to hint at the larger processes at work. I could include stories of a peasant family who out of despair had to leave its land, of an Iraqi refugee fleeing her hometown, of a Syrian migrant laborer forced to return from Beirut. Yet, that would hardly be comprehensive and it would risk further essentializing people’s experiences. How to simplify without being banal? Absence is not mere nothingness.

Maybe, in the end, the impossibility of representation is precisely what needs to be expressed: the fact that there is no data to draw a map of migration, depicting flows of people and clearly stating where they come from, is political. What makes this information unknowable is precisely the “informality” of said neighborhoods. A term of intense debate in urban planning and architecture discourses, “informality” is loaded with colonial legacies, modernist plans of action and opportunities for private real estate speculations. Yet in the GIZ report one word seems to suffice to define ‘informal settlements’: they are “illegal.”
This assessment is based on questions of land ownership and registration, master-plans and zoning regulations as well as planning and building standards – all of which have little meaning for residents themselves, who have lived in these areas sometimes for decades, have sold and bought property as well as built and reconstructed houses in processes that have become ‘legalized norms’ through the use of quasi-official or officially sanctioned documents and procedures.

The urban planners’ judgment hence oversimplifies, dismisses lived realities and criminalizes more than one million people. With this simple general sweep of declaring their houses “illegal,” the GIZ report makes the histories of half of Aleppo’s residents irrelevant.

Settlements in Ruins

Another way to visualize the ‘Informal Settlements’ document would be to overlay it with current damage data. However, while certainly intriguing, even this map cannot articulate many of the above-mentioned histories of migration.

The GIZ 'informal settlements' overlaid with UNOSAT damage data: red dots point to damage within these settlements, white outside. Zooming into the informal areas displays the levels of damage specified for each point in the dataset. Roughly half of the overall damage recorded by UNOSAT occurred within the 'informal settlements' with the majority of the remainder being registered in the Old City.

If one were to picture the ‘illegal’ houses of Aleppo’s ‘informal settlements’ today one would see bullet-shelled walls, buildings bombed to the ground and neighborhoods beyond recognition. Ruins are haunted spaces. They tell stories of something that was before and is not anymore. It seems like a ruin could be the ideal visualization of the absences produced over time by local and international actors in documents such as the GIZ report. At the same time, however, the presence of ruins secretes the older past – the immediacy of the destroyed building shadows over the absences also present within it. In order to not continue the silencing, Aleppo needs to be conceived of a city with a living history rather than a static map or war photograph. Hence, the moment in which barrel bombs turn houses into ruins is, perhaps paradoxically, the perfect moment to discuss urban planning, land policies and their effects. A more conclusive discussion of Syria’s urban complexities would of course require facing the crucial historical processes that led to protests in 2011, their violent crackdowns and eventually warfare. This short case study attempted to highlight an aspect that might sometimes escape the debate on these issues: the violence committed in silencing the social and political processes underlying terms such as “urban densification,” “human resources” and “illegal.”

Produced by Eva Schreiner, for the Conflict Urbanism: Aleppo seminar at Columbia University during Spring 2016. See all student work here.

1The question of why the German government is supporting the project in the first place, spending millions of Euros on it, is curious. An answer would have to take into account lingering Oriental fascinations, development discourses and research on global heritage industries. It might also encompass speculations on the political nature of the GIZ project and on business strategies of dominant German companies – after all, Aleppo is the industrial capital of the region. A thorough research is difficult at this moment, however, as all information has been taken down from the GIZ website and the relevant ministries are reluctant to provide detailed figures.
2 See: Final Report 2010, page 82.
3 It must be assumed that this report will also serve as the basis for any future decision on (re-)building activities; even critical approaches seem to take the ‘informal settlements’ as given, see Patrick Strickland in Al Jazeera: Rebuilding Syria's Aleppo under fire, 2016.
5 Even in its portrayal of the city’s history the focus rests on its mercantile past. See: madinatuna historic overview.
6 Called like that on page 11 of the madinatuna booklet, but this framework is prevalent throughout.
7 Zouhair Ghazzal, Shared Social and Juridical Meanings as Observed in an Aleppo ‘Marginal’ Neighborhood in "Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East" ed. Baudouin Dupret, Eric Dennis Myriam Ababsa, 169-202 (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012).
8 See for instance: Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, "Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War" (London: Pluto Press, 2016).
9 Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, "Burning Country,"" 32-34. See also: Henry Fountain in The New York Times, Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change, 2015.
10 Regarding the assassination, see: Ronen Bergman in The New York Times, The Hezbollah Connection, 2015.
11 Bassam Haddad, "Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience" (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012).
13 Zouhair Ghazzal, "Shared Social and Juridical Meanings," 171.
The property rights and zoning laws themselves require further research: what constitutes legal/illegal and formal/informal is often rooted in Ottoman or colonial laws, which bear little connection to procedures on the ground. This is particularly important, as the question of land ownership will be decisive for potential reconstruction activities in all parts of Aleppo. Kate Connolly and Werner Bloch point to this issue: “Even the land registry records were destroyed – deliberately say some, in an effort by the Assad regime and its supporters to enable them to claim everything for themselves once the war is over. Already much of the land is said to have been sold.” In: The Guardian, The war is still raging, but the race to rebuild Aleppo has already begun, 2015.
The vital importance of written documentation in general is further emphasized in Ben Taub’s poignant report in The New Yorker: The Assad Files, 2016.
Center for Spatial Research, Columbia University