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Monday, February 19, 2007

Urban Nightmares

I think of Tartous in the past tense. On the surface, I might sound like a staid man who doesn’t appreciate modernization, or at a more basic level, the change of times.
Frankly, as I mentally cover the decades since I was a blithe boy growing up till the present, I fail to see any tangible upgrading to my hometown. We had electricity, water, telephone and excellent roads back then and I daresay that these utilities were more reliable than they are today. The population of Tartous was 10,000 inhabitants in the late 1960’s, give or take a few hundreds, and has skyrocketed to 100,000 presently, give or take a few thousands, mostly due to internal migration from the province and the rest of Syria rather than natural increase.

The extremely high fertility rate of the Syrian population worries me considerably but I’m distressed for completely different reasons. Syria ranks among the top countries in the world as far as its population growth rate is concerned. This certainly needs to be addressed seriously as the present trend is very taxing on any economy, society and culture. However, the absence of intelligent family planning should not necessarily mean a lack of reasonable city and regional planning. While the number of Syrians is increasing rapidly, the collective brain of decision makers and urban planners is shrinking at an even faster rate. The smartest plan they usually come up with is amazingly the most idiotic.

In addition to the established burden of appointing unqualified people for key positions in local governments, we have gone through a substantial period of time when a vast number of professionals, academicians and, we were even led to believe, intellectuals came from foreign academies and institutions of doubtful merit or from local corrupt universities . Many of our peripatetic scholars managed somehow to graduate with doctoral degrees and took over reason, common sense and the public sector. In medicine they’ve probably done more harm than good. At the academic level, they’ve become professors and incubated similar clones and replicas. In architecture and engineering, they plagued the country with a horrendous collection of horrific monuments and nightmarish monstrosities often to the nodding approval of their superiors. Most Syrian cities fell victim to their pale imagination and grotesque creativity. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tartous. The public structures they’ve designed and erected are probably among the ugliest in the world. The building codes they co-authored are moronic to say the least and they often fail to address any future need or trend. The regulations they drafted were advanced as excuses to cover past mistakes and legalize existing violations. It wouldn’t be fair to place all the blame on them, but along with the unapprised decision makers, they are greatly responsible for at least the urban mishaps that have plagued the Syrian city. It’s beyond belief that the present and the future of these cities is a result of narrow minded, yet misguided, social politics with a total absence of a visionary architectural landscape and an urban master plan.

The sense of helplessness and of a deep loss is most overpowering when I visit other Mediterranean cities. I often get the chance to see some old photos of these places and learn that they have indeed improved and have become more livable in every sense. Anyone with a sane mind knows that it’s almost futile to stop growth but it can be regulated in such a way that it becomes more economically feasible to start with a new urban development than to expand on an existing one. Syria is ideal for this type of urban enlargement. Most of the interior is an empty desert. We have already seen in the Arab Gulf countries that this type of environment doesn’t in any way hinder urbanization. The fragile Syrian coast should have been heavily regulated despite the short term nuisances manifested by the sociopolitical inconveniences. Each falling olive tree is endlessly more vital than a new dwelling. Each bygone orange grove is far more valuable than the concrete apartment towers that have replaced it. Polluting industry was brought to the most diverse and delicate ecosystem in the country in order to create new jobs. These factories would have been more productive and less obtrusive had they been constructed in the vast arid region of the interior, away from all existing urban centers. New industrial cities and regions would have emerged and the unemployed Syrian youth could have had the chance to start their professional careers there instead of leaving to the Gulf. Lattakia, Jableh, Banias and Tartous could have remained charming cities by the sea for all to enjoy. They could have managed and survived as traditional fishing towns and tourist attractions. A large commercial port could have been built outside both of Tartous and Lattakia and would have been adequate enough to handle Syria’s economic and commercial needs. Many past surveys have indicated that the ideal location is between Tartous and Arida on the northern border of Lebanon. Both Lattakia and Tartous should have been spared from these environmental atrocities and designated as attractive centers for recreational marinas, no more, no less.

These photos from the 1960’s were taken or preserved by the late Zanco, an Armenian photographer who lived most of his life in Tartous. They are testimony to the beauty and simplicity of bygone days, when all a Tartoussi had to do to enjoy his afternoon was to step out of his house and walk the few meters to the beach. Despite all, this is the only Tartous I have in my heart, that’s the one I miss and long to return to one day. Can it be done? Only in my dreams perhaps. But then again, who am I but an unrealistic dreamer.

18 comments:

Arima said...

Don't be so pessimistic ya abu fares! I thought Tartous was an incredibley beautiful city. When I was in Syria...we used to go there every weekend- it's so different to the chaos and noise of Damascus and Aleppo, I thought it was laid back, obviously it will seem different if you live there all the time, but I'd happily exchange places with you now.

GraY FoX said...

I just wanted to thank you for entertaining me with this post
quite a breath-taking style and nice photos :D
actually i love tartous though i've been to it only twice
it's balad el ma7boub :P

The Syrian Brit said...

I think this urban chaos is epidemic throughout our Cities and Towns.. add to it the lack of any demographic or population planning, and you have the inevitable result that we are suffering now, with the almost certain potential of things getting much worse..
Ignorance and corruption are the main causes at the root of the problem..
The following is a rather trivial story.. some might even find it funny.. To me, it signifies our attitudes towards these issuee..
Back in the eighties, the President of the Syrian Family Planning Society, who was an aquaintance of my Dad's, had NINE children!!.. Can you, knowing that, really take him or his position seriously ??...
Regrettably, arima, I am at least as pessimistic and despondant as Abu Fares.. and as you rightly point out, the problem in my beloved Damaascus is several times worse...

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Hi Abu Fares, I will try my best to keep my nose clean here...
Although your post covered Tartous and its vicinity of the coastal cities, but I am sure your observations and conclusions can also be drawn from the status quo of other Syrian cities…
My old peaceful neighborhood where I used to play marbles, football and hide & seek is now a vital logistical passageway for pick-ups supplying vegetable to the central market… I don’t know by which eastern European ghetto this model was inspired, but then it could have been the mere haphazard evolution of a virulent mistakes…put aside the stinking smell of the open public sewerage smack-bang in the middle of my city, (the one we still dare call a river) … let alone the negligence and the continuous persecution of the old town and the public parks ..
As you said, we are all partners in this crime of urban nightmares, it amazes me that while our resources are dwindling, our determination to breed and propagate is getting stronger and stronger…
(off my soap box, and sorry for the rant)

abufares said...

Hi Arima
I try to keep myself cheerful all the time. I succeed most of the time. However, in short naked instances, I see it all and can't keep pretending. We have serious problems in need of serious solutions.

Hi GraY FoX
The first of the photos, that of Al-Mina St. shows the neighborhood I grew up in. I used to literally get of my house and walk a few meters to the beach. This is how heavenly it was. I feel sorry for my kids and for all the generations that came after mine. We were the last witnesses to a great way of life, that which only a small Mediterranean city can offer.

Hi Syrian Brit
We are on the same wave length my friend and we have both, among countless others, lost our beloved cities just about the same time and for the same reasons.
This guy with 9 children is the embodiment of the wrong man for the wrong job.

Hi Dubai Jazz
I wrote about Tartous knowing full well that it applies to all Syrian cities and many third world countries. It' our lot in life to suffer from a multitude of fuckups (I couldn't find a more appropriate word really).
I hope, for the sake of the coming generations, to be able to get out of this seemingly hopeless cul de sac. I'd be very happy if my children get to experience some of the thrills of my childhood.

Lujayn said...

I have a friend from a village near Marmarita, an area that has seen little incoming migration, where growth is almost exclusively the result of natural increase. Despite a love for their land, growing populations need to live, marry, have kids, etc. And therefore, acres of olive trees have been cut down to make way for buildings, homes, stores and the modern, changing way of life, with very little interference from the powers that be. People no longer want to live three families to a home, and the elderly live longer and the kids go to the city and want what city-dwellers have, so they open restaurants, shops, etc, back in their villages.

I don’t know what intelligent urban planning would have done to change any of that. I think the same applies to the cities of the coast. The socio-economic structure of families is changing, and that in itself forces change. You just can’t preserve a notion of what the city means to you, if it doesn’t mean the same to others. And you cant create cities in the desert to prevent the migration of people to the cities of old, if that is their choice. I definitely believe that the entirety of Syria needs to be rehabilitated, economically, socially and whatnot, to create choices for all and to relieve the burden on certain urban areas, but in the end you cant stop neither time nor change. I'm with you on hideous buildings and structures, though! We definitely have our fair share of those in Syria.

I love Munich said...

Dear friend,
I guess this is everywhere the same story - it doesn't apply only to Tartous, Munich sufferes from the same disease, lack of planning, demography - lack of sensitivity to strive to design new buildings so that they do not "fight" with the old and fit in the picture!
Thanks so much for for sharing!! :-)

abufares said...

Hi Lujayn
All the points you brought up are certainly valid and make for an excellent argument. Syrians, as a population, embraced the new nuclear family style of living while still propagating like rabbits. The demographic explosion deserves full attention and treatment. The argument in my post, despite certainly being one-sided needs further elaboration. In a country like Syria where the coastline should and is considered a prime resource, we should have done more to preserve it. Bringing heavy industry (i.e. a cement factory) to the area to create jobs was a huge mistake. This same factory, in my argument, could have been built in the middle of the desert and the area nearby (upwind of course) could have been foreseen and zoned as an urban settlement. The same factory would have employed exactly the same number of people and supported the same number of families. It would have been the destiny of these pioneers to shape their new city. To create jobs on the coast the government should have emphasized recreational and cultural tourism. Cleaning up the beach, allowing the construction of environmentally friendly hotels and restaurants, restoring the national treasures and adding adequate services and infrastructure, imposing strict building codes in terms of the external appearance of buildings would eventually turn the whole coastal area into embracing specialized activities. Imposing restrictions on the expansion of cities and respecting these limits by actually bulldozing violations might look and sound cruel. But it only needs to be done once. It will certainly become very unattractive to have a large family then as is the case for example in Europe. Madinet Al-Thawra near the Euphrates dam is a city that came about because of the jobs created by the dam project. If a conscious effort was implemented in keeping all heavy industry in areas that are not environmentally sensitive, we could have preserved the fragile ones. The Syrian coast and countryside should have never been infiltrated by industry. Imagine Monte Carlo building a steel factory to create jobs. Or Sharm Al-Sheikh boasting a new phosphate production plant. Or the people of Al Hammamat, Tunisia being happy with a new automobile factory. Tourism would have brought a much higher income to the entire population. The property value in these cities is so incredibly high and is so wisely rationed. But we are building apartment complexes for people to move into Tartous then we start thinking what new factory can employ these people. We want to bake the cake and eat it too. Now, after we are waist deep in environmental problems the government is encouraging tourist investments. What would a tourist find in Tartous and attract him if he will be breathing phosphate and cement, swimming in the sewage of the ever expanding city and not finding a place to park his car. What is a beach without trees, without a serene backdrop? I am arguing that if the province of Tartous were designated as a recreational area 30 years ago and good city planning worked to insure the adherence to this master plan, it would have remained a relatively small specialized city where all Syrians and tourists would flock to visit and have a good time. The population would have remained small and instinctively embraced a smaller family model while the level of income would have certainly been much higher than today. Each area in Syria should have taken unique advantage of its natural resources as befitting and should have specialized as so. To keep it all in the hand of God and plow forward without a vision would lead us to exactly where we are today. I am more worried about tomorrow as it looks very bleak.

abufares said...

Hi Karin
The problem is indeed universal but believe me comparing Munich's shortcomings to those of Tartous is a gross overstatement.
Hopefully you can come someday and see it all before it's too late to see anything.

Arima said...

ofcourse these problems are serious and need to be resolved but on the other hand, the thing I so loved about Syria was that it was comparitvely untouched compared to say...the UK or Egypt. But as they say one man's paradise is another's hell.
Keep your spirits up Abu Fares :)

abufares said...

You are right this time Arima. The untouched places are beautiful and we're lucky we still have them. However, our cities have not merely been touched, they've been raped.

Layla said...

al-fa3il yu3alij!

abufares said...

Hi Layla
Did you mean:
"Falej wala T3alej" or did you mean that Who Made the Mistake Should Find a Solution, or did you mean that I am the one who caused the problem and am trying now to solve it.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Lujayen;
I enjoyed your smartly put comment…and I am sure that Abu Fares has ‘kaffa wa waffa’…but let me elaborate a bit more…
As you said the social trends have a major impact on how cities develop, but let’s not underestimate the role of proper planning ..the ‘land use law’ that is, which is a result of a grand scheme, where lots of factors are put together (environmental, economical, social…) to create the bigger picture.. your average layman is not aware of those factors, he’s not concerned about them, and he’s not supposed to, that’s why there are experts put to play here…
Working as an architect in Dubai I am in touch with these things on a daily basis, when a land usage is private, then it’s surely private. When it’s commercial, then it’s downright commercial … no power in the world can circumvent this law, even when we are dealing with the most influential clients, they respect these laws, and they bow their heads to it. Well maybe not all of them do so, but to say the least; they understand that their interest on the micro scale are in some cases different than those of the broad interests of the nation.
I know it’s harder when you have to grapple with 20 million citizen, but let’s just hope that our compatriots will one day come to this level of awareness and law abidance…
(now Abu Fares you are the expert on urban planning not me, so what do you think?)

Yazan said...

Abu fares,
I can feel my own bitterness in there,
the fact that i have not seen the days when Latakia was a beautiful, organized peaceful mediterranean city, with actual alleys.. and an actual sea front... only makes me feel worse, to see the huge collection of pics from parents' old friends, and to hear the stories, mainly about "3assafeery"...
Latakia, Jableh, tartous have been put under tremendous unfairness... it's a shame to see how they "couldve" become..

abufares said...

Dubai Jazz
I could've not said it any better. Zoning laws, if drafted properly and if executed fully can insure a more regulated growth of an urban area. A green belt zone has been designated around Tartous for instance. It was supposed to be agreicultural land (olive, orange) with a 100 m single-story building allowance per hectare. This green zone has practically been swallowed by building violations. So now they are engaged in changing the designation of this buffer zone into residential to create a new one further out. It'll face the same fate unless something serious is done.

Yazan
You're absolutely right my friend. You've missed a lot. As a child I would visit Lattakia once or twice a year. It was indeed a beautiful city. Now when I go there, and despite the fact that I worked there for almost 4 years, I get lost. It has been plagued by a canceric expansion of unimaginable proportions and has completely lost all of its charm. Tartous is following.

layla said...

Ummm Im not too sure what I mean exactly but I doubt it is TOTALLY your fault..

abufares said...

Thank You Layla
I feel so much better:)