Living in an Oasis: Informal Settlements in Syria

Sarah Bridges of Architects for Peace discusses the housing situation that is developing on the outskirts of Damascus.

October 1, 2007

This article discusses the housing situation that is developing on the outskirts of Damascus. The photos and comments are based on a study trip undertaken in September 2003 and coordinated by Dr. Sonja Nebel from the Technical University of Berlin. The trip was made possible through collaboration with the University of Damascus and the works of Dr.Ghassan El Badwan. Tasks carried out were: a basic drawing survey of an informal settlement (Jeremana), interviews with the inhabitants, liaison with the local authorities, and further theoretical strategizing for urban planning upgrades to initiate a change for the future. Whilst the situation described is relatively current, it is important to note that it has no doubt changed due to the recent influx of refugees from Iraq and Lebanon since the study was undertaken. This influx has made such a huge impact that, due to the expanding Iraqi refugee population on the area, Jeremana is now dubbed “Karrada”, after the Baghdad district.

Social housing, in its simplest form, is a government managed system that provides affordable living environments. Yet imagine a state where the bureaucratic principle of social housing never emerges – instead it embraces a community-regulated system. This exists in many communities around the world, from developing nations to some of the world’s oldest cities. This phenomenon is recognized in the less diplomatic term: “Informal Settlements”; a system that breaches the “formal” conventions of urban development and is often supported by the existence of “Informal Economies”. Unfortunately, it also means that those so served – while gifted with a dwelling that a bureaucracy would be unable to deliver – live in sub-standard housing.

An incomplete high-rise in Jeremana

This article attempts to prompt a more lateral approach towards social housing. Research shows that most countries have an over demand for social housing, suggesting operational flaws in the top-down system employed. The result is either an unrealistic waiting period, (as in Australia), or the manifestation of a non-regulated ‘informal’ or ‘illegal’ system. Through a field trip conducted in Damascus, Syria in 2003, it became apparent that there is a possibility for dialogue between the formal and informal sectors – a possibility that both systems could learn from each other and expand on the current approaches to social housing around the world.

We travelled to Jeremana, originally a green area in the oasis (Ghuta) located on the eastern fringe of Damascus. Today formal and informal dwellings dot the desert floor, slowly devouring what remains of the precious oasis. Jeremana attracts a range of people; from less privileged Damascenes and national and international migrants, to, in recent times, refugees; all looking to build a future for their families. Harbouring a hearty mix of culture, religion, language, innovative building and entrepreneurial spirit, Jeremana is truly alive, and functions like any other developed suburb. It is however, classed as an “Informal Settlement”, and as such, doesn’t receive the equivalent governmental support afforded to suburbs classified as lying within the formal sector. Thus, a process has emerged that involves inhabitants taking this responsibility into their own hands. Today, a sophisticated informal system exists, where locally operated businesses from both sectors collaborate to drive both financial and urban development.

So how did this come to pass? How is it that buildings are built and economies are developing on land which does not belong to the occupiers, in an arrangement that exists entirely outside of the normal systems of regulation? In Syria, the law once stated that, if the government evicts anyone from a home and demolishes it, alternative shelter must be provided. Correspondingly, for the past 50 years in Syria, a house is officially deemed inhabitable when four walls, a roof, and working plumbing all exist. One can only imagine with housing in such high demand that building inspectors would often find dwellings erected literally overnight by groups of families and friends. Needless to say, this has led to a series of sub-standard developments and slums, putting many occupants at risk.

A rooftop awash with satellite dishes and water tanks.

The exploding population in Damascus needed an answer, and the government’s normal bureaucratic channels had proven ineffective. The Syrian government was forced to stand back and re-evaluate the situation, and in doing so, implemented an unwritten 30 day grace period for houses to be built in lieu of the previously recognized 24 hours. This, in turn raised the standard of some houses, but, paradoxically promoted the development of multi-story informal developments. Consequently the government is faced by a situation where almost 1 million “informal” dwellers live on the outskirts of Damascus in predominantly sub-standard housing. This situation has continued to escalate over the years while the government slowly struggles to arrive at a solution.

Jeremana’s long history of housing informality has given rise to a mixture of housing types. There are the low rise tenements – the original, quickly built “informal houses” – and the multi storey apartment blocks built by locally run developers working in the community with local estate agents. The key building material is concrete block, which is also made locally. Many of the roofs have their reinforcement exposed and protruding, giving the distinct impression of the possibility of future vertical expansion. There is a lack of basic amenities, as well as daylight and ventilation, a disregard for earthquake proofing, and very often shortcuts have been taken in construction methods and materials. However, for many, there remains no alternative.

Damascus, ablaze with light, creeps toward the taciturn bulk of the Jeremana settlement.

Whilst on the field trip to Jeremana, we conducted interviews with the inhabitants— seeking an idea of how they came to reside in the area, and what they thought of the lifestyle. Many families had stories of how they were part of a community financial pooling system, wherein a number of groups had combined finances to purchase apartments systematically for each other. This was a sophisticated system, building strong community spirit and the potential for sustainable future development. It was also interesting to note that those families who had input into the way their houses were built, had developed a certain “pride of place”. They had then gone on to continually upgrade their own houses, adding to the character of the area, changing an atmosphere fraught by the temporary and transient, to one characterised by a sense of permanence.

Jeremana – neither slum nor suburb, but a melange of local, migrant and refugee populations inhabiting a realm entirely outside of government or bureaucratic control.

We were able to see a number of positives in the way development had occurred. The informal settlements are important because they:

  • Compensate for the formal sector’s failure to provide basic shelter, goods and services;
  • Use labour intensive methods of construction providing employment within the local neighbourhood;
  • Use local materials, and minimal imported goods;
  • Contribute to the national economy quite significantly; and
  • Have a certain growth pattern that encourages pride of place, developing a particular identity and street culture which is not seen in the ‘formal’ developments

Although these aspects are good for the social nurturing of the area, the environmental consequences are less advantageous. Major environmental concerns are:

  • The overrunning of the oasis in the area;
  • Deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, water pollution;
  • Increased scarcity of potable water due to pollution, an exploding population and high demand

This discussion has highlighted the increasing severity of the situation in Damascus due to the shortcomings of an exhausted social housing system. It is no doubt a system which has unfortunately followed the trajectories of urbanisation and development, characteristic of the contemporary Third World. However, even here, there are lessons of both flexibility and tolerance which can be applied in the developed world.

  1. “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003”, United Nations Human Settlements Program
  2. Rania Abouzei, 2007, “The swelling numbers of Iraqi Refugees is putting Syria under enormous strain: A crisis the world has only just woken up to”, Syria Today Magazine, April 2007.
  3. Alejandro Portes and William Haller (2005). “The Informal Economy”. N. Smelser and R. Swedberg (eds.) Handbook of Economic Sociology, 2nd edition, Russell Sage Foundation.
  4. Annanya Roy, Nezar Alsayyaq, (eds) 2004, “Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia”, Lanham et al.

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