Essay: Urban Informal Settlements in Modern Iran

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Urban informal settlements are associated with informal land transactions, uncertain housing tenure, and insufficient access to urban and socioeconomic services, nonstandard shelter, and various aspects of poverty. This article discussed discusses the development of informal settlements in Iran and the evolution of government policies and programs dealing with them.

Prior to the 1979 Revolution. The appearance and expansion of urban informal settlements in Iran is generally traced back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, coinciding with the onset of rapid urbanization. With rising oil revenues in the post-1953 period, public sector investment in urban infrastructure services significantly increased and service and manufacturingindustrial activities were facilitated in or near major cities. These changes in the economies of urban areas together with rural underdevelopment and subsequent land reforms created a combination of push and pull factors that gave a strong impetus to rural-urban migration after the late 1950s (‘??j-Yusofi). Migrants arriving at major cities from rural areas usually were unskilled, could only find low-paying or informal-sector jobs, and did not afford standard shelter within the core metropolitan areas. Many of them were thus attracted to the ”?ias (fringes or outskirts) where they often lived in ‘?dors/kapars (tents/tent-like shelters) or ??lunaks/z’??as (makeshift/dugout shelters)’hence use of the older terms ”?iya-ne??ini, ??lunak-ne??ini, z’??a-ne??ini, or kapar-ne??ini to denote informal settlements.

Municipal and central government authorities were alarmed by these spontaneous urban developments in Tehran and elsewhere. Their responses in the mid-1960s included denial as well as attempts at their eradication or resettlement of their residents. For example, the newly-formed Ministry of Housing and Development attempted to resettle Tehran’s informal settlement residents of Behjat??b??d, R??h-??han, South Mehr??b??d, and North Rudaki through the construction of the 3,600-unit Kuy-e Nohom-e ??b??n. Having only taken the housing aspect of these informal communities into account (‘??j-Yusofi), this and similar projects in other cities turned out to be relatively unsuccessful. Thus, to better analyze and tackle the issue of spontaneous and poverty-stricken peri-urban developments in major metropolitan areas, a special commission was formed by the Social Affairs Department of the Plan and Budget Organization. This commission was instrumental in formulating a set of activities for the informal settlements as part of the (pre-revolutionary) Fifth Five-Year Development Plan (PBO, 1971, 1972). The Plan and Budget Organization also commissioned the Institute for Social Studies and Research of the University of Tehran to carry out case studies of informal settlements in large cites (UTSSR [please insert page numbers]). Other studies were conducted under the Ministry of Interior’s auspices (Ministry of Interior). By taking an integrated and participatory approach, the (pre-revolutionary) Fifth Plan was supposed to usher in a new era for addressing the challenge of informal settlements. Yet, in contrast to the relatively sophisticated approaches of the above studies and plans, the reality on the ground often translated into struggles between the informal settlement residents fighting to keep their shelters and the municipal authorities attempting to eradicate them. Furthermore, the overall economic environment of the 1970s (including the rapidly-rising housing costs in the cities) was in fact highly conducive to the expansion of informal settlements in major Iranian cities. By some estimates, at the time of the 1979 Revolution, one-third of Tehran’s population lived in informal settlements or other sorts of slum (Bayat, p. 29). It is then no surprise that the plight of informal settlement residents and their struggles with municipal authorities came to the fore of the 1979 Revolution and influenced events that culminated in the establishment of Islamic Republic.

Post-Revolutionary Developments. The early slogans of the Revolution in favor of the poor resulted in limited takeovers of abandoned hotels and other buildings, presumably by some residents of informal settlements. More importantly, as various post-revolutionary obstacles including budget shortfalls precluded adequate attention to urban development, the proliferation of spontaneous settlements in the outskirts of large cities through both squatting and informal transactions was ignored. At the same time, the prevailing regulatory environment limited legal ownership of urban land (MHUD, 1989 [page numbers?]). Annual supply of new (formal/legal) housing in this period dropped by two thirds (idem, 2006). The situation was exacerbated by a stalled population transition (Aghajanian) and a significant volume of migration to the cities (partially as a result of the war). All these gave impetus to the expansion of urban informal settlements.

After the Iran-Iraq war, as part of the reconstruction efforts, a set of initiatives toward privatization and deregulation were taken in the housing sector together with measures to prevent informal construction and to control rural-urban migration. More importantly, in the so-called reconstruction period after the war, a large volume of housing and land subsidies and transfers, mostly untargeted and nontransparent, were allocated by the government. Only three fourths of the 2 million planned housing units for the period ending in 1994 were actually built (MHUD, 2006 [page numbers?]) while at the same time population growth reached its peak. Government policies did not prevent the gradual rise of land, housing, and urban services prices, nor did they stop the proliferation of informal settlements.

Policy Shifts. The expansion of spontaneous settlements and migration to peri-urban areas became a major issue during the (post-revolutionary) Second Five-Year Development Plan (1996-2000). Most importantly, the Urban Development and Revitalization Organization was established in this period to eventually deal with informal settlements. The main public policy tools remained housing/land projects and physical rehabilitation through the Second and much of the Third Plans. The housing sector initiative was called [please insert the full Persian title] ‘saving, mass production, and small units,’ forming the acronym P??K ‘clean.’ These were to be achieved through reduced government intervention. Construction of social housing (50 m2 units), protected housing (74 and 100 m2 units respectively in metropolitan cities and smaller towns) and free housing (without floor area constraints) were facilitated by the government by freeing the land market and decreasing subsidized land transfers as well as by involving private financial institutions, floating banking interest rates, and increasing the ceiling of housing loans. More than 90 percent of the planned housing units were built mainly due to the success of the free housing subsector whereas only 60 percent of the planned social housing units were actually constructed (MHUD, 2006 [page numbers?]). As suggested in a number of studies carried out in the early 2000s (Piran; Ath??ri; Sarr??fi; Jav??heripur), a new approach was necessary to address informal settlements and housing for the poor. The Urban Upgrading and Housing Reform Project (UUHRP [page numbers?]; World Bank, 2004a [page numbers?]), formulated and implemented with the assistance of the World Bank (mid-2004 through the end of 2009), was an important outcome of the government’s recognition of this need. In conjunction with this project, a national document on Strategies for Regularizing Informal Settlements (UDRO, 2004 [page numbers?]) was adopted, defining informal settlements in these terms: ‘Hastily constructed housing often built by their eventual occupants, mostly without permit to construct’ outside existing formal planning’; Concentration of lower income groups’with functional linkages to the main city’; [and]’ low quality of life and desperately low urban services’and high population density.’ [Could you please paraphrase; direct quotations are not desirable in a reference article] The document recognizes the rights of informal settlement residents and highlights the need for an enabling approach for their upgrading in line with World Bank policies.

The aim of the UUHRP was to pilot-test and refine an integrated approach to upgrading underserviced neighborhoods and to initiate reforms in the public management of the housing sector toward a market-led structure. The project eventually delivered a set of hardware and software upgrading subprojects [not clear; please rephrase] in the informal settlements of Kermanshah, Zahedan, Bandar Abbas, Sanandaj, and Tabriz based on community priorities. Perhaps more importantly, it succeeded in bringing about a new government direction in dealing with informal settlements in Iran. The National Enabling Taskforce for Informal Settlements was formed separately but in connection with the project to coordinate upgrading activities in the informal settlements through the establishment of provincial taskforces across the country. The Fourth Five-Year Development Plan (MPO [please insert page numbers]) called for regularization of informal settlements through an enabling approach. It further required the government to carry out the Comprehensive Housing Plan (MHUD, 2005[page numbers?]), which was prepared separately but in connection with the World Bank project and contained a multipronged and relatively comprehensive approach to addressing the housing problems.

Due to various reasons including the impact of international sanctions on Iran, the UUHRP was able to pay only around half of its loan amount and did not enter its second phase with the assistance of the World Bank (World Bank, 2009 [page numbers?]). Furthermore, the research outputs of the project concerning the housing sector reform failed to influence the Fifth Plan (2010-14) prepared during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the Comprehensive Housing Plan prepared for the Fourth Plan, certain strategies were formulated, among a number of other things, to manage the cost of land in the price of housing. These strategies were turned into a program called the Mehr Housing in the Fifth Plan, which was given full support of the government as the main low-income housing initiative. The Mehr initiative has entailed constructing medium-height buildings on publicly owned land and exempting them from construction taxes and fees. In this way only the price of construction is reflected in each housing unit, which then becomes affordable for low-income households when provided with a subsidized bank loan. Around 2.18 million units were planned for 2010 through 2012, 56 percent of which were ready for delivery by the end of the period (Fardanesh, p. 28). Furthermore, calling informal settlements by the outdated term ”?iya-ne??ini, Article 172 of the Fifth Plan states that such areas when inside the city boundaries and designated by the Supreme Council of Urban Planning and Architecture should be regularized with the participation of residents through the formulation and realization of legal, financial, cultural, and enabling mechanisms. It then calls for provisions to prevent formation of settlements outside city boundaries by controlling the expansion of peripheral villages and destroying illegal construction with the assistance of the Judiciary (VPSPS).

Despite the policy shifts, by the end of 2011, the Urban Development and Revitalization Organization (UDRO [page numbers?]) had identified 710 informal settlements across 46,000 hectares of sixty cities with a population of more than five million persons and had targeted 250 of them for upgrading feasibility studies. By early 2012, other than the informal settlements in five cities covered under the UUHRP mentioned earlier, upgrading activities had been initiated in target informal settlements of thirteen cities. The activities comprise physical upgrading, social and economic enabling, and municipal capacity building. Physical upgrading includes provision of urban services and infrastructure, including schools, vocational training centers, health and medical centers, piped water, electricity, sewerage, street pavement, sidewalks, surface water drainage, parks, play grounds, libraries, and sports centers. Enabling activities include microfinance programs, entrepreneurship development, vocational training, health training, and leisure time programs. Training, information dissemination, and institutionalization are the main capacity-building activities (Alaedini et al., 2012, p. 25).

Extent of Informal Settlements. According to the figures provided by the National Task Force on twenty major Iranian cities (Alaedini et al., 2012, p. 25), informal settlements on average cover around 8 percent of the country’s urban areas; 93 percent of informal settlements are within the official municipal boundaries. Yet, there are significant differences from one city to the next. For example, the informal settlement share is 31 percent in Bandar Abbas and one percent in Zanjan. Furthermore, at 195 persons per hectare the average net density [net density needs to be defined here] in the informal settlements of the 20 cities is 2.7 times the corresponding citywide figure. Based on the same figures, 22.8 percent of the population of 20 major Iranian cities lives in informal settlements (Table 1). Extrapolating based on a figure of 48.2 million persons for the entire urban population in Iran gives a figure of 9.6 million persons for the total informal settlement population in the country.

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