Tehran turning. Photo: Niloufar Tajeri
How is it possible to create sustainable growth for a city that is heavily dependent on oil revenue and the reinvestment of those profits in the construction industry, while at the same time its planners try to impose a population ceiling due to resources being overstretched? Given Tehran’s international isolation, the current plans to attract multinationals as an economic alternative seem doomed to fail. Looking back on the Debate on Tour that was staged in Tehran in October 2010, Niloufar Tajeri prefers planning alternatives that transcend unsuccessful rigid masterplanning and failed spatial deregulation.
Report by Niloufar Tajeri*
The meetings during the NAI Debates on Tour to Tehran provided a wealth of facts and figures about the Iranian capital. One of the meetings was about 'Tehran Analysis', with experts on the Tehran Masterplan presenting a comprehensive overview of the city's basic economic and social data, as well as a detailed insight into the urban development plans for the city. In the knowledge that Tehran's urban growth has been moving towards a neo-liberal and deregulated logic for almost two decades, and has recently experienced a renewed governmental intervention in the economy, I was very keen to discover how the new masterplan (dating from 2006) would respond to the current challenges and how its strategic guidelines will be enforced within Tehran's complex economic mechanisms and logic of growth. The Tehran metropolitan region has a population of about 13.2 million, Tehran city about 7.7 million. The prognosis for the next 20 years is that the population will grow to 18 million in the metropolitan region and 9.2 million in the city proper.
The main reason for growth hasn't changed in 70 years: the powerhouse of the economy is centralized in Tehran. The city, where 11% of Iran’s population live, generates 26% of the national GDP (excluding oil and gas revenues). At the same time Tehran is suffering from the so-called 'Dutch Disease' - an economic qualifier for entities that are dependent on the export of crude material and subsequently the import of foreign currency - which causes inflation and unemployment. The city’s current annual income is US$15 billion, of which only US$1.5 billion is generated by the export of manufactured products and other goods; the rest is generated by the oil and gas industry. The consequence of this dependency is an apparent decline of manufacturing and production, which has resulted in an alarming unemployment rate: there is an urgent need to create 1.4 million new jobs.
The improvement of Tehran's low social and economic quality of life through decentralization and economic growth was pinpointed as the main vision of the new masterplan. However, as in every other city, whether decentralization and economic growth add up to pushing the urban poor to the outskirts, or whether they imply spatial strategies for social justice and economic fairness, will ultimately depend on the economic model of the masterplan in its core directives.
One of the directives of the new masterplan is the implementation of a population ceiling that limits Tehran’s population to 8.5 million, i.e. preventing further physical expansion with the aim of saving the periphery and optimizing land use. However, with regard to Tehran's historic circumstances this measure is questionable. The land reforms, which were implemented by the Shah regime in three phases between 1962 and 1971, pushed the rural population into poverty and consequently released some 3 million landless peasants to migrate, primarily into Tehran.1 In the same period, the first masterplan for Tehran had imposed a population ceiling and restrictive construction standards,2 which failed to integrate the newcomers and eventually caused the emergence of informal settlements in the outskirts of Tehran. Some argue that these structural mechanisms contributed to the revolution in 1979, and it is crucial to mention that eliminating grievances like poverty and slums was considered to be one of the most important political, social and cultural tasks after the revolution.
This historical tension aside, the newly proposed population ceiling also reveals an economic tension. On the one hand, there is an urgent need to confine growth due to the limitations of infrastructure, land, water and energy. The city exceeded a healthy and manageable size a long time ago, both from an environmental and social perspective. On the other hand there is an active economic interest in further growth, but this remains problematic: there is a lack of alternatives to the current dependency on oil revenues and investment in construction in order to achieve such growth. This is exacerbated by the construction lobby being so closely intertwined with political contributions and governmental rubber-stamping, even though the sector is deregulated and privatized. Maybe we could even speak of a form of 'construction-industrial complex' here. After all, real estate and the construction industry make up 40% of Tehran’s GDP. At this point urbanism seems to be an economic facilitator, while physical growth serves as a powerful economic engine. Against this background, the attempt of the masterplan to tame growth and diminish the domination of the real estate industry in order to protect the environment and empower the population would be a goal worth supporting from an ecological and political perspective, but I doubt whether a population ceiling is the right measure and it seems that there are neither political nor economic grounds to enforce it.
This means that two burning questions remain. Firstly, what is envisaged as an economic strategy to improve the current situation of the metropolis - especially bearing in mind the 'construction-industrial complex' and the decline of manufacturing industries? And secondly, what structural measures are being devised to manage decentralization?
While the second question remained largely untapped during the trip, the first one was briefly addressed during the first meeting. The economic scenario outlined in the masterplan proposes allocating former industrial districts to service industries and multinationals as a means of generating income for the city and jobs for the population. Tehran is envisaged as a knowledge-based global city and a 'Post-Fordist City', to quote from one of the presentations. Since the start of the 'development era' in the early 1990s, Tehran has indeed moved towards becoming a neo-liberal capital with increasingly Post-Fordist tendencies and deregulation policies across all sectors, including urbanism. But isn't the masterplan cancelling itself out by promoting deregulation? Does it need promoting when it is massive deregulation that has actually caused most of the current problems? And isn't the recent Western policy of radically enforcing Iran's economic and social isolation a reason to doubt that the global integration necessary for the attraction of multinationals actually exists? So what, in the end, are the future scenarios for Tehran in terms of the three key conditions of the political economy, namely production, circulation and consumption?3 The masterplan fails to provide an adequate response.
Historically it were socio-economic policies on a national level that led to the displacement and poverty of millions of people who, in turn, could not be absorbed in Tehran due to rigid urban planning; today it is the controlled chaos of government-steered deregulation and ineffective urban strategies that causes social discontent. Tehran must find a way of moving beyond the two common concepts of traditional, rigid urban planning and post-modern, deregulated urban design. In fact, Tehran's troubled, isolated situation holds the key to finding a radically new approach to planning, simply because there is no other option. But before this can happen there is an urgent need to discuss the political economy (large-scale, national) and spatial planning (small-scale, urban) as two deeply interrelated dynamics.
* Niloufar Tajeri is an architect based in Berlin. She has been working with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Afghanistan, with Archis/Volume Magazine and the NAI in the Netherlands, as well as for the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority in the U.A.E. She is currently working with onlab as an exhibition designer, concept developer and project manager.
1 Asef Bayat, 'Tehran: Paradox City', New Left Review, vol. 66 (November/December 2010).
2 The first masterplan for Tehran was developed by Abdol-Aziz Farmanfarmaian and Victor Gruen in 1963-67.
3 David Harvey specifies these three conditions as the main drivers of modern urbanization: 'It is important to keep in mind, therefore, that the modernism that emerged before the First World War was more of a reaction to the new conditions of production (the machine, the factory, urbanization), circulation (the new systems of transport and communications), and consumption (the rise of mass markets, advertising, mass fashion) than it was a pioneer in the production of such changes.' See The Condition of Postmodernity (2010), p. 23.
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