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TOPIC: cities


How Modern Warfare Warps A City's Future — Reflections Of An Architect From Homs, Syria

It has been almost 12 years since the author left his hometown, which was at the center of the Syrian uprising. He's made an academic career studying the impact of war on architecture and cities and researching acts of deliberate destruction.

OXFORD — It has been almost 12 years since I left my city. And I have never been able to return. Homs, the place I was born and grew up, has been destroyed and I, like many others, have been left in exile: left to remember how beautiful it once was. What can a person do when their home – that place within them that carries so much meaning – has effectively been murdered?

I have spent my academic career studying the impact of war on architecture and cities and researching acts of deliberate destruction of home, termed by scholars as domicide. Domus is the Latin word for home and domicide refers to the deliberate destruction of home – the killing of it. I have investigated how architecture, both at the time of war and peace, has been weaponized; wilfully targeted, bombed, burnt and contested. It has led me to publishing my first book, Domicide: Architecture, War, and the Destruction of Home in Syria.

From the burning of housing, land and property ownership documents, to the destruction of homes and cultural heritage sites, the brutal destruction in Homs, and other cities in Syria, has not only erased our material culture but also forcibly displaced millions.

Today, over 12 million people have been displaced from their homes within Syria, and beyond in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Germany and Egypt. This destruction has been “justified” by the Syrian government and its allies, who claim these ordinary neighbourhoods are in fact “battlefields” in what they call a “war on terror and on terrorists”.

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How Germany's Office Building Market Went From Bubble To Bust

Higher, faster, more expensive – in German cities, renting out office space was a booming business. Then came remote working and higher interest rates.

FRANKFURT — The four towers still look like huge stone skeletons. But in some places, there are already windows appearing in the façade. The “Four” building project in Frankfurt is due to be completed in two years’ time. It will have more than 200,000 square meters of floor space, housed in tower blocks that soar to heights of 233 meters. Plenty of space for apartments, shops and, above all, offices.

A few hundred meters away, José Martínez sits at his desk in a much less spectacular building. On the wall behind him hang sketches of other planned tower blocks. Martínez is CEO of Groß & Partner, which has overseen the construction of the towering “Four” over the past 10 years.

He has no doubt that the effort has been worth it. “A mixed-use building in a prime location is an easy sell,” he says, adding that more than 80% of the office space has already been reserved.

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Saving Urban Typography In A Digital World

Typography is a familiar sight on the streets, but it has also succumbed to fashions and the passage of time. Rescuing urban signage helps to preserve this part of our collective heritage.

MADRID — The strokes, drawn to the millimeter, scratch the thin sheet of paper. One slip, just the slightest mistake, and all the work will be ruined. In silence, a teacher observes his pupils. The future of their education depends on having studied every detail of each character. Only excellence is acceptable in the imperial school.

On the other side of the world, a few hundred monks all over Europe strive to copy the books they keep in monastery and palace libraries. They devote hours to train their attention span, straining in the half-light, to maintain fidelity to the original book. Some slip a few complaints into the manuscript margins.

Then came Gutenberg, with the Bible printed in textured type, and then the thousands of typefaces now found in data banks and on computers.

Typography has accompanied humanity since the origin of printing techniques, an extension of the ancient art of calligraphy. Tens of thousands of styles, aiming to unite beauty and intelligibility — but in the age of the Internet we seem to limit typography to just a uniform few. Is this the end of typography, or are we in a new stage of its reinvention?

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Measuring What Is Gained With Car-Free Cities — Including Cash Profits

Copenhagen is a great example of the positive impacts of pedestrianization: it provides €400,000 in profit for every kilometer of bike lane, and helps to decrease the deadly effects of air pollution.

MADRID — Pedestrianization is the end of retail, an attack on individual freedoms, an obstacle to accessibility, a gateway to public insecurity, a design that destroys the essence of cities, a new socioeconomic neighborhood structure that drives out the long-time residents.’ The arguments against pedestrianization and reducing road traffic in cities are many (and not all equally solid).

But the data in favor of pedestrianization are increasingly conclusive and transparent.

Two recent articles support this. Research carried out in 14 Spanish cities concluded that pedestrianization increased the income of businesses and that, once changes were implemented, most residents preferred a friendly, walkable environment to a car-oriented one.

A study in Copenhagen also found that for every kilometer of bike lane built in the Danish capital, 400,000 in benefits were generated per year through a reduction in transport, healthcare and accident costs.

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Alice Facchini

The Fastest Path To Sustainable Cities: A Very Low Speed Limit

Bologna is the first major Italian city to join the city30 initiative, taking on a model that limits the speed of cars in cities to 30 kilometers-per-hour (18.6 mph) and aims to return road space to pedestrians and cyclists.

BOLOGNACity30, a program that lowers the speed limit of major cities to 30 kilometers an hour (18.6 mph), has several goals: it aims to increase road safety, promote sustainable mobility through the reduction of pollution and emissions and to advance the local economy. The new model has already taken hold in various cities around the world, and has now arrived in Italy as well.

Starting in June, Bologna became the first major Italian city to set its speed limit to 30 kilometers per hour. The first Italian city to do so was Cesena, which led the way in 1998, and was followed in 2021 by Olbia.

To become a city30, however, more has to be done than just lowering the speed limit. Rather, it is a broader and more complex intervention, that is both infrastructural and cultural. The urban environment must be redeveloped with the aim of returning public road space to pedestrians and cyclists.

“In Italy, we still consider the road to be solely the realm of the car," says urban planner Matteo Dondè, who specializes in cycling planning, traffic calming and the redevelopment of public spaces. “It is above all a cultural problem: we are the only country where the pedestrian thanks the motorist for stopping at the pedestrian crossing... and if you respect the speed limit you are seen as a loser.”

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Francesco Erbani

La Periferi​a​, Changing Faces On The Forgotten Outskirts Of Italian Cities

Italian politicians often talk about the communities on the peripheries of cities as if they are filled with crime and decay, but the reality is changing before our eyes

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Dariya Badyor and Kseniya Bilash

Beyond Post-Soviet: Ukraine's Architectural Opportunity From The Rubble Of War

The war rages on, but some in Ukraine are already looking to how society can be rebuilt. Two Ukrainian architects share their vision for what a future Ukrainian urbanism — and society — might look like.

KHARKIV — Russian bombings have already destroyed thousands of Ukrainian houses, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The war is still far from over, so we know the losses will only increase. And yet, we must use the time before victory arrives to plan for the rebuilding of our cities.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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This viewpoint is shared by Iryna Matsevko and Oleg Drozdov, heads of the Kharkiv School of Architecture, one of the few Ukrainian universities recognized internationally as meeting the highest standards in the field. The architects share their opinion that not just Ukrainian houses should be restored — so too should Ukrainian society.

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Alidad Vassigh and Irene Caselli

Free WiFi For All? Cities (And Nations) Making Universal Digital Access A Right

Whether it's to bridge the socioeconomic digital divide or to attract tourists, foreign businesses and digital nomads, the time may be ripe to offer free internet access across society. Here are some of those leading the push.

For years, certain big cities have been wooing tourists and remote workers by offering free WiFi hotspots to help find the best restaurants or connect for meetings from a park bench. This month, Mexico City won the Guinness World Record for most free WiFi hotspots in the world, with 21,500.

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In The News
Jane Herbelin and Jeff Israely

Clashes On Polish-Belarus Border, South Africa’s de Klerk Dies, 600 In Space

👋 سلام*

Welcome to Thursday, where overnight clashes are reported at Poland's border with Belarus, South Africa's last white president died and history links Yuri Gagarin and Elon Musk. We also look at how COVID may be the tipping point to push cities into a bicycle-centric future.

[*Salam - Arabic]

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Tarik Oualalou

Facing Climate Emergency, Africa Must Reinvent Its Cities

Due to climate change and pollution, entire neighborhoods and cities on the continent are destined to vanish. A new vision of African urbanism is needed to replace the illusion of the "city without limits."


Sebha is bound to disappear. The capital of Libya's hydrocarbon-rich Fezzan region has become the largest city in the Sahara. For years, it has seen the convergence of public and private capital, and a steady flow of migrants. Subjected to major demographic pressure, the city of the sands is now doomed. Sooner or later, the lack of water will empty it of its inhabitants — and return its territory to nature.

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Beatriz Miranda Cortes

The Pandemic Has Changed The Meaning Of Work And Free Time

Bill Gates is among those predicting that the shift toward remote work will last beyond the COVID-19 crisis. But what if, to compensate, people start making more of an effort to mix and mingle?


In a marvelous reflection on the post-modern world and the individual, human condition, the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman cites the example of a young man who aspired to having 500 friends on Facebook.

Bauman observes that at 86, he still hasn't found that many friends, but suggests that the word friend likely means different things to him and to the young Facebook user. Bauman wants authentic human bonds, in a living community. The online community, he says, depends for its existence on two gestures: connecting and disconnecting. And both are just a matter of clicking the right button. Add friend? Click. Remove friend? Click.

The philosopher's reflections focused on the blessings and curses of human ties in the real world versus the virtual, online realm. But now there's an entirely new factor to consider: a painful pandemic that will reshape the world, and our relations.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates recently tackled the topic of COVID-19, and the lasting impact it may have on the world, in a conference organized by the New York Times. And one of his predictions is that 50% of business trips and 30% of office days will be eliminated.

Offices will never go back to how they were.

That's a very different scenario from the one that people envisioned just last year, when things were still "normal." In a piece published Jan. 24, 2019, Spain's El País called business travel a "rising asset" and cited Bogotá, along with London, New York, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, as one of the world's best cities for corporate events.

But then COVID-19 came along, and many executives made their homes an office. Remote work means it won't be easy to justify a business trip now, which will surely reduce the number of flights crossing the skies every day. Bad news for the airlines, but as far as climate change is concerned, it's actually a rather favorable development. Airports, long trips, jet lag, hotels and constant separation from loved ones will no longer be part of the routine of corporate directors.

Also during the pandemic, many people moved to places far removed from city centers. They were looking for quiet places, surrounded by nature and often cheaper. Moving forward, everything indicates that more people will return to the countryside and picturesque villages where the norm is to appreciate the small things in life. This will likely reduce the population density of big cities and in the long term, redistribute the population in many countries.

Sunday morning on Wall Street — Photo: Billie Grace Ward

Gates believes that the shift to remote working will be a lasting one, and that offices will never go back to how they were. He expects that as a result, people will feel more of a need to socialize. In the meantime, though, we're still having to deal with the virus. Vaccines will take time to distribute and apply, meaning that the disruptions to normal life will continue. We can also expect that most people will continue being cautious with elderly parents and relatives.

In 2020, most countries imposed social distancing. Borders were closed. People moved apart. And our houses, in addition to being homes, doubled as offices, classrooms and everything else. The silver lining was that the concept of home recovered its beauty, sense and essence. And yet, it's also clear people want to reach out and touch each other again. After staring at a screen for hours on end, people want to look each other in the eyes, the way they used to.

Gates said he hadn't anticipated facemasks would be so controversial, or that the Trump administration would take such an extremist attitude to the pandemic. He acknowledged that there is strong antipathy in the United States to using facemasks, but said he isn't sure if it's because of the government's political posturing, or due to a vigorous attachment, among American people, to personal freedoms.

Those kinds of unpredictable behaviors — in the name of freedom or under other pretexts — could occur elsewhere in the world too. Only time will tell. Either way, let's hope that whatever happens, whether in relation to Bauman's ideas about human bonds or Gates's post-pandemic predictions, we'll be ready to see and experience the changes — in person.

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Flavia Lopes*

Urban Village Life: How Delhi's Lal Dora Villages Survived

Demarkated by the British for tax purposes, these villages have since been swallowed by India's massive capital city, but continue to stand apart in terms of zoning and design.

DELHI — Ajit Kumar Chauhan, 77, stares at a park from the front yard of his house in South Delhi's Khirki village. Nowadays, the green space mostly caters to wedding celebrations now, but it once housed refugee families from the Partition of India.

Chauhan was about four years old at the time, and his family-owned large tracts of agricultural land, including the patch where the park stands in Khirki, which was an erstwhile lal dora village — places where the British who ruled India used red ink to demarcate collectively-held residential land from agricultural land in village maps for the purposes of tax collection.

In the years following India's freedom from the British in 1947, the Delhi government acquired agricultural land of many lal dora villages, including Khirki's, and absorbed them into the expanding city. The government declared some as "urban villages' and exempted them from various development norms in part to keep their rural identity and community land ownership intact.

But over time, these exemptions from building regulations led people in these villages to construct houses and buildings so haphazardly that many are simply unsafe. People from dominant castes encroached on most of the land. Today, Khirki has lanes so narrow that a fire brigade truck cannot enter in case of a fire. Electrical wires overhang, and sewage is often stagnant. Water supply is irregular, and garbage is collected by the government only twice a week.

Since the late 1980s, successive governments in Delhi have attempted to regularize or create development plans for these villages, which have become places so complex that none of these plans could be implemented. In the meantime, residents of such villages find themselves trapped between the blurred boundaries of urban and rural, traditional and modern, the individual and communitarian ethics. They are also divided over whether or not they want any change in the way the things are, because many of them benefit from the chaos.

As Delhi expands further, another set of lal dora villages on the city's periphery are being swallowed. In November 2019, the lieutenant governor of Delhi declared 79 more lal dora villages as urban villages, taking the total tally of such urban villages to 214. And this past September, the governor handed over these villages to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). As such, Delhi now has 362 lal dora villages.

In the following month, DDA issued a notification saying that the residents of the urban and rural villages will be involved in making layouts for the Delhi Masterplan of 2041. But given the failure of various such government attempts in the past, residents of these villages have little hope.

These notifications are "paper tigers," says Paras Tyagi of Budhela, a lal dora-turned-urban village in southwest Delhi. Tyagi is a co-founder of the Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment or CYCLE, a non-profit based in Delhi.

The truth, though, is that nobody really knows whether urban villages will have a fate similar to Khirki or different.

What led to chaos?

As a lal dora village, Khirki lay on the periphery of urban Delhi, which is today's old Delhi. Chauhan thinks of his childhood in Khirki as one of blissful isolation and unhindered autonomy. His family owned about 40 acres of agricultural land on which they grew long-grain rice, wheat, chickpeas and sugarcane. Chauhan remembers cattle milling through the farmlands, and grazing on forage crops. His primary education took place under a tree on the farm.

"When it rained, we would shift to the Khirki mosque," in the village, he recalls.

Sushmita Pati, a political science professor at Azim Premji University who has extensively researched Delhi's urban villages, says "most villages were dominated by the pastoral Jaat and Gujjar communities who collectively owned parts of residential land, shamlat deh (common land) and agricultural land."

Chauhan, who belongs to an upper caste, asserts the interdependence that existed in the village. "Harijans a community that is considered of lower caste would help in our fields and milk our cattle, while the Pandits a community that is considered of higher caste would conduct marriage rituals. Through a barter system, we would give Harijans grains in return for their efforts," he says.

While Khirki itself was on the periphery of Delhi, the Harijan community lay on the periphery of Khirki.

According to Gyanendra Pandey, an independent historian, the post-Partition refugee crisis led to increase in Delhi's population by over a million in the next four years. So, to rehabilitate the refugees, Delhi government began acquiring large tracts of agricultural land to build temporary settlements. Chauhan's family gave up half of their 40 acres. Subsequently, the rest of the Khirki's agricultural land was acquired by DDA between 1962 and 1964 for the planned development of the city. "DDA paid us around Rs 4,600 ($62) per acre," recalls Chauhan.

People began constructing houses and buildings the way they wanted, and where they wanted.

Soon after acquiring agricultural land of some lal dora villages, DDA created Delhi's first Master Plan in 1962 to develop the city. But it decided to leave the residential areas of these villages largely untouched. Even today, lal dora areas are marked on Delhi's revenue maps with a single plot or khasra number — a mark of older collective ownership. This means that residents of such villages do not have individual property rights over their plots, and so cannot access bank loans or buy and sell their properties transparently.

The following year, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) declared 20 lal dora villages including Khirki as "urban villages' whose agricultural land was acquired by DDA. That meant that people of these villages had to follow the Building Bye-Laws. But a few months later, that same year, MCD issued a second notification exempting these villages from certain sections of building regulations of the Delhi Metropolitan Council Act. This was largely done to accommodate Delhi's growing post-Partition refugee population.

The exemption allowed residents of the villages to construct or repair buildings, or even change the use of a building from residential to commercial without taking any permission from the civic authorities. As a result, people began constructing houses and buildings the way they wanted, and where they wanted. Further government notifications granted urban villages access to up to 1kW of free power supply for industrial purposes and exemptions from property taxes.

Behind Chauhan's house is a dense maze of residential buildings that extend over the street and take up asymmetrical forms to maximize the horizontal and vertical space. Construction debris lie next to the new construction that is coming up in the vacant space or atop buildings. Narrow alleyways between these buildings end abruptly at buildings having single-room floors, allowing only a sheet of sunlight to seep through the lane.

In 2006, the government formed an Expert Committee on lal dora to integrate the former lal dora villages into the planned development of the city. The committee recommended creating village development plans for each village along with land use maps. By that time, 135 of the 362 lal dora villages of Delhi had been declared as urban villages. But the recommendations remained on paper.

Three years later, in 2009, MCD passed another notification clarifying that the exemptions of 1963 were no longer applicable to those that had been declared as urban villages, and that the exemptions were meant only for the existing lal dora villages which numbered 227 at that time. But between 1963 and 2009, over four decades had passed and many residents of the urban villages had encroached on common land to construct buildings haphazardly and had taken to flourishing real-estate business there.

"Residents were doing away with every habit, material and anything that would resemble a rural lifestyle. Open courtyards were replaced with vertical constructions that could fetch easy rental incomes," says Tyagi of Budhela. He blames the unclear land ownership of the erstwhile lal dora system for this unplanned construction and has been asking the governments to survey the villages for better planning and to issue individual land titles.

After Partition, Chauhan's family rebuilt their kuccha bamboo house into a single floor permanent structure. Then, in the 1980s, he added four more storeys to the house with multiple rooms, as well as a basement dwelling space. Chauhan wanted to add more floors to his own house but the Archaeological Survey of India denied him permission because his house sits within a 100-meter radius of the Khirki mosque — an archaeological site — the same place where he would shift for rain cover when he was a child.

The Khirki Mosque — Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur/Flickr

Another Khirki resident, Dharam Saini, not only built his own house but also encroached nearby vacant plot to construct buildings which he now rents out. Many of these buildings in the village now violate existing Building Bye-Laws as they exceed floor area ratio norms and are built far taller than the prescribed height limits. Although the Building Bye-Laws became applicable to urban villages in 2009, residents of these villages hardly follow them.

"There are so many rules applicable within the village," says Dharam Saini's son Lalit Saini, who also became a real-estate developer like his father. "If we start asking for permissions, none of Khirki village would exist."

At the same time, these places also provide affordable housing to thousands of people who come to Delhi in search of livelihood and cannot afford higher rents or the prejudices in other parts of the city. Pati of Azim Premji University believes that the "ambition and megalomania" of Delhi's first Master Plan was so huge that the fate of the lal dora villages and their residents were ignored.

"It was only in the mid-1980s and 1990s that the state took cognizance of these villages when the illegal developments in the village started to become a significant concern," she says.

In 2017, the Delhi High Court described Hauz Khas village — an erstwhile lal dora village — as a "ticking time bomb" because 90% of commercial establishments there did not have fire safety clearances. The same year, 89 more lal dora villages were declared as urban villages. But these declarations did not mean much because the Delhi government authorities did not take care of even the basic facilities like regular water supply or garbage collection there.

K.C. Rana, the 87-year-old president of the only Residents' Welfare Association in Khirki village, had been trying to get the MCD to give the permit to build a school in the village. The MCD directed him to the Archeological Survey of India, which then sent him back to MCD citing that the location of the proposed school was within a 100-meter radius of the 14th century Khirki fort built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq. No alternate land for the school was discussed.

Rana and Dharam Saini are from the same family but do not speak to each other because of a dispute over a piece of land that neither own. "More than 100 brothers show up to fight for small patches of land," says Saini's son Lalit.

Bharat Bhushan, the chief town planner of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, says that the corporation cannot implement any of its tasks unless DDA prepares area development plans. He says that DDA has so far created such plans only for 83 urban villages. But A.K. Jain, former commissioner of planning for the DDA, says that MCD is equally for the current state of urban villages.

Jain says that the Master Plan of Delhi 2021 introduced the concept of local area plans that MCD could make to plug in civic infrastructure gaps, like buildings dispensaries or schools in urban villages. "But the MCD refused to make these plans because it was not a part of MCD Act and because it did not have the capability to do this," he says.

This blame game and the lack of timely interventions by the government have resulted in the chaotic state of affairs in these villages today, says Tyagi.

Is there a way forward?

Any kind of planning in the lal dora-turned-urban villages "will take place only when these areas are surveyed," says Ramesh Verma, additional commissioner of MCD.

"Urban villages bear a sense of "in-between-ness'

"There is a lack of co-ordination in our planning and the on-ground situation. Every officer who goes on the ground becomes disillusioned," says P.P. Shrivastava, a former bureaucrat who led an expert committee on lal dora areas in 2006.

The Delhi government has been regularizing unauthorized neighborhoods in the city, but these urban villages are complicated entities, which is why the government bodies have largely stayed away from them. With the lack of coordination among various wings of the Delhi government, the proposals to regularize constructions in lal dora villages have remained unattended to.

"The issue of urban villages goes way back with complex and fragmented landholdings, and varied interests. So, it is a complicated exercise to regulate them," says Manish, a research associate who studies urban planning, among other things, at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Khirki was named after the 12th century Khirki Mosque of the village. The name Khirki translates into Urdu as "window." The windows that once opened wider today remain almost always closed in every house of the village.

Loss of the farmland has restricted people of erstwhile lal dora villages to much narrower spaces. This change also reflects in an individual ethic — suddenly, doors came up in the village and defined the threshold between public and private space, says Both Prakash, professor of literature at the Ambedkar University in New Delhi. Prakash studies the post-Partition literature on lal dora villages.

Once thriving with an agrarian economy, Khriki has been reduced to a mere adjunct to a neighboring pocket, torn between a placid village life and highly competitive urban life. Right where Chauhan's house ends, a neighborhood called Saket begins, which is home to high-rise apartments, European-style outdoor cafes, restaurants, and shopping arcades.

"Urban villages bear a sense of "in-between-ness,"" says Pati. "They neither resemble the village nor a city, as much as they aspire to live an urban life." Dharam Saini still refers to himself as a "dehati" or villager.

Delhi continues to spread further. Its southern periphery has approached the next set of lal dora villages like Dhansa and Mitraon. Whether or not they would resemble Khirki in the future depends on what the Delhi government and people in lal dora have in mind and what they actually do on the ground.

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