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Iraqi City Displays Grassroots Urban Planning

DUHOK, Iraq—A little over an hour’s drive north of Mosul lies the small but growing provincial town of Duhok, nestled in a valley flanked by jagged peaks. The safety of Duhok’s mountain setting has often made it a destination for people fleeing conflicts.

These rapid population influxes have encouraged the creation of informal neighbourhoods that are built without government permission or oversight, as refugees eventually build more permanent dwellings.

Informal housing, which can be found on the outskirts of many Arab cities, is generally seen as a health and safety problem and not a long-term, practical solution to a housing crisis. The houses are usually built by the occupants themselves and not by professional plumbers, electricians or builders. They’re densely packed with cramped rooms, poor sanitation, narrow streets and are frequently a long way from schools or shops.  Some of the neighborhoods have built up so rapidly that they don’t show up yet on Google Maps.

But academics who study the phenomenon say this has begun to change in recent years. The layout of Duhok’s newest informal housing is better than those born of previous conflicts. Their streets are wider, the houses are larger, and there are even plots for basic amenities like shops. “The people, usually farmers, who sell the plots to build informal housing are getting smarter,” says Layla Muhammed Raswol, dean of the College of Engineering at Nawroz University in Duhok.

In the past, local governments have been known to demolish a select number of informal houses to widen the streets, improve access, and counter sanitation and fire risks. That made the buyers more cautious.

“[The farmers] now have to be able to reassure their customers that the government won’t give them problems,” says Raswol.

Others at the university agree about the landowners’ approach. “They have more experience now compared to the 1980s or 1990s, and they’ve changed the ways they build,” says Nashwan Shukri Abdullah, a professor of urban geography at the University of Duhok.

Layla Raswol points to an area on the map that needs updating to represent some of the latest informal housing (Photo: Benjamin Plackett).

Informal housing is a regional problem and one that can be caused by urbanization as well as conflict. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, urban populations in the Arab world are expected to double in size over the next 40 years. (See a related article, “Arab Researchers Suggest Solutions to Slums.”)

As governments struggle to keep up with the pace of their growing cities, informal housing is a natural consequence, says Abdullah. Experts have estimated that as much as two-thirds of the Cairo urban area is made up of informal housing.

To illustrate her point about how informal settlements are changing, Raswol points to two neighbourhoods in Duhok. The first, Baroshki, was built close to the center of Duhok in the 1980s and is very densely populated with narrow streets that present sanitation problems. The second, Besere, is on the outskirts of Duhok where houses started to pop up around 2007 and are still being built today.

Mohamed Hamid, a 27-year-old resident, has lived in the overcrowded Baroshki his whole life. He shares a small house with his brother, parents and various members of his extended family. Hamid’s house is typical of the neighbourhood; his father built it with his own hands on land that used to be agricultural in the 1980s. The homestead also backs up directly onto other houses on three sides and the pavement on the narrow street outside is uneven.

Besere is a 15-minute car ride away and a different story. All that shows up on Google Maps of Besere is a gas station, sitting off the side of a freeway heading out of town, but in fact it’s Duhok’s latest suburb.

Mohamed Hamid (right) with his brother (middle) and father (left) outside their house in Baroshki (Photo: Benjamin Plackett).

Besere is a 15-minute car ride away and a different story. All that shows up on Google Maps of Besere is a gas station, sitting off the side of a freeway heading out of town, but in fact it’s Duhok’s latest suburb.

It’s still a working-class part of town where the plots cost about $5,000, says Raswol, but the roads are wide enough to park and still allow access, and the houses have space between them. Some even have balconies or small gardens.

Besere also has shops, something which the older informal boroughs only got a long time after they were built, if at all.

The experts are unsure whether this social trend is a good thing or not. Abdullah says the new informal housing may be an improvement on what came before, but it still means the government is playing catch-up and the real solution would be to build safe housing built with genuine urban planning and government permission behind it.

Besere is still a working class neighborhood of Duhok, but the layout—including street size—has been thought through (Photo: Benjamin Plackett).
Saman Jelal is a shopkeeper in Besere who built the premises himself three years ago when he moved from Baroshki to take advantage of the bigger plots (Photo: Benjamin Plackett).

“It may be better for the residents but it’s still bad for the governorate because they still have to formalize these settlements and solve their problems,” says Abdullah. “The governorate may still have to spend money to redevelop the area and provide services like schools and health centers.”

But until cheaper, affordable housing can be constructed according to building codes, urban planners say, the informal housing trend in the region is likely to continue.



  1. Well done this journalist for bringing this to our attention. I didn’t know about ‘informal housing’. It just goes to show the courage and industry of the human race to rise above obstacles when all seems lost . Who would have believed peaceful communities could be created with such speed. I wish them well , they deserve all the luck in the world .

  2. Well done this journalist for bringing this to our attention. I certainly didn’t know about informal housing. It is a credit to these decent people , overcoming adversity , making homes for themselves and their families when the State hasn’t the finance or manpower. They may be crude homes but it’s a start. I wish them all the luck in the world.

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