The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Planning in Baghdad: how years of conflict have shaped the design of the city

After spending over six years conducting research on urban planning in Iraq, Sebastian Schulz and Niran Banna explore how war and terrorism turned a once-cosmopolitan city into a divided metropolis.

Sebastian Schulz and Niran Banna

Sebastian Schulz and Niran Banna

Cities: Baghdad

Topics: Integrated planning, Urban economics, Labour and livelihoods, Divided cities, War and terrorism

Navigating Baghdad is a painful adventure. After edging through endless traffic jams and changing taxis at time-consuming security checkpoints, it can easily take several hours to travel just 20 kilometres. Onerous protective measures, such as security points at the entrances of major streets, are daily features of life in the Iraqi capital of seven million. Little by little, they have dramatically transformed Baghdad from a bustling cosmopolitan city into a chequered landscape of walled neighbourhoods and military checks.

“We are in need of a lot in this city, but mainly we need a lot of patience!” commented one of many commuters on a mild spring day in 2014, waiting for his connecting cab at Abbas Bin Firnas, the checkpoint at the city’s main entrance about 2 kilometres east of Baghdad Airport. Thousands of commuters from the western suburbs and dozens of new arrivals coming from the airport pass through this checkpoint everyday on their way to the city centre.

With the latest threats posed by emerging Isis, no easing of Baghdad’s security measures—or the traffic jams they create—is in sight. Meanwhile, even as security-led urban planning guarantees a minimum level of safety, it is dividing neighbourhoods and heightening inequalities. Worse still, security measures may be stoking religious and political conflicts, rather than pacifying them.

As urban planners involved in numerous planning projects conducted around Iraq since 2007, we got in touch with authorities, experts, colleagues as well as common residents who gave us insight into how the last two decades of conflict have shaped the social fabric of the city.

History of a cosmopolitan city

Founded in 762 CE as a new Abbasid capital on the Tigris River, Baghdad began attracting prestigious modernist projects at the turn of the 20th century. These included the Baghdad Railway, which was built between 1903 and 1940 to connect the city to Berlin, and Al-Rasheed Street, which was, one of the first roads designed for cars in the Middle East when it opened in 1916.

From the 1950s until the early 1980s, Western planners developed several city-wide masterplans to further enhance and globalise Iraq’s capital. Star architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright (“Plan for Greater Baghdad”), Le Corbusier (Baghdad Gymnasium), Walter Gropius (Baghdad University Campus), and Alvar Aalto (Baghdad Art Museum) all participated in designing the landscape of a cosmopolitan city in the Middle East, where people of diverse ethnicities and faiths lived side-by-side.

While the socialist Ba’ath Party had promoted the cosmopolitan development of the capital since the 1960s, such plans were uprooted by the nationalist politics of the country’s late Ba’ath dictator Saddam Hussein. Several wars and civil unrest under Hussein’s rule severely restricted Baghdad’s urban development and, more significantly, destroyed any sense of social stability. Huge and prestigious construction projects in the early eighties, such as the modernist “Haifa Street Housing Project”, a high-rise compound of a monstrosity unseen in traditional oriental Iraqi cities, were initiated to push Baghdad’s image as a modern Arabian capital. Through those policies, the city witnessed rising disparity accompanied by the erection of new districts exclusively built for well-off social groups on the one side, and systematically politically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, mostly inhabited by poor immigrants from southern Iraq, on the other side. The Gulf War of the early 1990s solidified the transformation of Baghdad into a city of restrictions and inequality.

After three gulf wars and the American occupation from 2003 to 2010, inequalities in the city have intensified with religious differences gradually deteriorating into open religious conflicts. Today, an unstable security situation, terrorist attacks and recent threats by Isis force urban residents to avoid public spaces, scenic spots and landmarks. 

The American occupation builds a city of walls

During sectarian unrest between 2004 and 2007, American and Iraqi Armed Forces tried to hold off violence and attacks from insurgents by surrounding unstable districts with T-walls – two to six metre high concrete walls. Military strategists hoped the barriers would decrease tension between religious groups, curb riots and create controllable neighbourhood units. In the process, Baghdad’s residential neighbourhoods, about 75 percent of which were made up of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, were transformed into homogenous, segregated areas. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced from their original neighbourhoods to other parts of the city.

Now entire districts are hidden behind concrete. A complicated network of walls separates several residential neighbourhoods from the city centre and from each other. Only major roads can be openly used by cars, while road blocks completely cut off certain areas from the transport network. Formerly connected and integrated neighbourhoods are dislocated from the city.

Dozens of checkpoints on main streets and at the entrances of residential districts hinder free mobility and cause traffic jams. Time consuming security checks spark regular quarrels between commuters and security personnel, who have the authority to prevent any person or vehicle from entering certain areas of the city. Baghdadis struggle to reach markets and to get to work. They also have less time to spend with their families. Meanwhile, businesses are inching by as checkpoints make it difficult to operate. The blockages have triggered high prices by limiting transfers of certain foods, gasoline and other goods from one part of the city to the other. To top it off, residents complain about arbitrary decisions made at checkpoints by security guards and their reputation for taking bribes.

The segregation of the city has also disconnected Baghdadis from already poor public infrastructure. Locals have substituted their connections to the irregularly functioning city-wide power networks with dirty and noisy diesel power-generators, which produce electricity for small neighbourhoods or single houses most times of the day. On the suburban outskirts of the city, only wells provide residents with fresh water – a result of systematic neglect of infrastructure by the authorities since 2003. Many neighbourhoods are also isolated from education and health facilities. Students cannot attend classes at certain times, while others have died because ambulances couldn’t make it past the security checks quickly enough to get them to the hospital. In the face of these dire circumstances, people have turned to informal local militias that work with government security guards to circumvent the system and provide people with electricity or restricted goods.

“Often, I just want to stay at home, because all the commuting is too complicated,” said a university student in his 20s. He is one of several Baghdadis who told us about the negative consequences of security measures in his day-to-day life. He said he is often late to classes or misses them altogether because he has to pass through at least three security checkpoints on his way to the university.

“It’s a painful feeling like [I live] in a prison. I cannot go wherever I want anymore”, complained a 53-year-old housewife. “It is depressing and sad what happened to this city. I lost my old job through all this and now we have to live behind walls,” added her husband, 56, although he acknowledged that the security measures kept his neighbourhood safe.

People have lost jobs, shops have lost their customers and families have been driven out of their original homes. Since city-wide services don’t exist, a self-sufficient, local economy is emerging in the walled environment. Businesses, such as light industries, and repair shops, which were formerly located in separate industrial zones, have moved to the edges of residential areas in search of accessible employees and customers. New forms of subsistence urban farming are one the rise with people growing their own crops on roofs or road edges, sometimes accompanied by a handful of free-running chicken, goats or cows. New neighbourhood markets have popped up to fill the daily needs of local residents. Baghdad has become an agglomeration of separated, autonomous urban villages.

The temporary becomes permanent

In a few peaceful areas of Baghdad, walls have recently been demolished giving space for new uses, immediately claimed by the public for small parks and recreation areas or informal market places. In far more cases, the new borders within the city have been integrated into the urban environment. Walls decorated with art and concrete blocks used as information boards dot the city. In some places where walls have been torn down by the government, residents have replaced them with trees, bushes, or fences. Such modifications improve the urban scenery, but indicate a hesitance on the part of some Baghdadis to reintegrate.

While security planning has permanently altered the fabric of Baghdad, local decision-makers and planners typically view it as a temporary condition. Blueprints for the reconnection of the city are stocked away in their offices for a time when the conflict has come to an end. But, after years of sectarian conflicts, neighbourhood isolation, general mistrust and segregation seems irreversible in many parts of the city. Optimistic plans for the city’s reconnection might never be implemented.

Manifested separation and resulting socio-economic gaps make a reconnection almost impossible, even if public safety were to be restored. City leaders who have come to power in the midst of the urban isolation won’t willingly give up their gained influence. Meanwhile, local and foreign planners report back from challenging negotiations with the government involved in the city’s development. Master plans and planning concepts, which, they say, could play an important role in uniting the urban environment, are thwarted by weak laws and in-fighting among the powers that be. The face of once-cosmopolitan Baghdad, where diverse ethnicities and nationalities resided side-by-side, is changing rapidly.