Planning histories in the Arab World

J’ai le grand plaisir d’annoncer la parution du chapitre que j’ai écrit avec Joe Nasr pour la Routledge  Handbook of Planning History, sous la direction de Carola Hein. C’est un très bel effort collectif, qui propose une vision élargie et critique de l’histoire de l’urbanisme. Une vision vraiment mondiale intégrant en particulier les espaces colonisés et les pratiques spécifiques d’urbanisation qui ont façonnés leurs villes. Une vision critique au sens où elle s’ouvre à des thématiques nouvelles (environnement, community planning, etc.) et prend en compte les échecs et les subversions, non pas seulement les actions des grands hommes et leurs grands gestes mais aussi le vécu quotidien et les finalités politiques souvent cachées des politiques urbaines.

Notre chapitre « Planning Histories in the Arab World » propose une vision synthétique et je pense assez inédite des tentatives et des réalisations urbanistiques sur plus d’un siècle d’histoire. Je serai heureux de fournir le texte aux personnes qui m’en feront la demande (les épreuves ont subi de nombreuses retouches et je n’ai pas de version auteur à jour à mettre en ligne) et en attendant, voici le résumé. Le volume est assez onéreux mais il sera vraiment utile dans de nombreuses bibliothèques.

Résumé

Over the past century and a half, most accounts of cities of the Arab world have viewed them through the lens of an organically built urban fabric, understood as an Islamic heritage, an expression of a collective and religious ethos (Bianca 2000). Planning, as a professionally conceived endeavor aiming at structuring changes in cities, was perceived as almost nonexistent in this world region. When scholars have attempted to circumvent the narrative of chaos that imbued urban history here as in much of the developing world, they have usually highlighted external political and economic determinations, and pointed out the divergent pathways of Arab cities between (neo)colonialism, socialism, aid-dependency, or the oil economy rather than specific urban management styles (Abu-Lughod 1984). However, recent scholarship (primarily in French and English, as relevant work in Arabic is relatively sparse), based on case-studies dealing mostly with the principal cities in the region, has shown that extensive planning over many decades has marked cities across the Arab world, from cutting arteries through existing built fabric to laying out infrastructure and neighborhoods at the urban edge. This scholarship has identified some unifying trends, including the model of spectacular urbanism that emerged from the Gulf region thanks to the circuits of oil money and the rise of a new political order, spreading to the rest of the region and beyond (Elsheshtawy 2008). Drawing on this historiography, this chapter proposes five threads that posit planning as a central, but contested, practice in the making of Arab cities, without oversimplifying the Arab world as a monolithic geographical entity.

1) Planning, state building, and elite affirmation. Planning has long been recognized as a tool of power, helping to build new states—from colonial entities to post-independence countries (Sanyal 2005). In the Arab world as elsewhere, ancient and new elites, both local and national, have used it as a way to secure or reinforce their grip on institutions and assets.

2) Tension between modernization and preservation. Planning has always struggled to maintain features of the existing urban environment. In the Arab region, it has long been challenged by how it can strengthen continuities in urban settlements and help these settlements to “move beyond the narrative of loss” (Elsheshtawy 2004: 1) towards becoming “modern.”

3) A connected and networked history. New scholarly accounts have recently challenged a global history often focused on north/south, east/west divides and the bounded circulations they created. A more networked approach is now providing a wider understanding of cities in the Arab region, where planning is not simply a predefined Western project imposed on or replicated in foreign spaces, but rather a set of circulating ideas and practices, constantly negotiated by local agents. Such connections and networks reflect shifting financial and political power along with shifting paradigms and directions of circulations—thus also challenging assumptions of center/periphery (Nasr and Volait 2003).

4) Planning cultures and roles of “planners.” In the Arab world as in other regions, native professionals too often remain under-recognized as local actors engaging in planning. Although most of these practitioners are not trained as planners, they act as such on the ground in ways that deserve to be part of planning history.

5) Planning and ordinary citizens. At the same time, the Arab world can challenge or even deconstruct the traditional idea of planning as a state-controlled effort to organize space. This effort is caught between, on one side, the varying strengths of private actors influencing public affairs in order to advance their claims and interests, and, on the other side, inhabitants’ and communities’ initiatives resisting, bypassing, or otherwise negotiating planning regulations and policies, questioning how standardized approaches (most coming from the West or the Gulf) are adapted to their needs and specific circumstances.

These threads are interwoven across a history that can be divided into three periods, separated by two transitions, although these shifts defy any simple temporal boundaries, reflecting the diverse political settings and histories of the 22 countries currently recognized by the Arab League. The transition from colonization to independence is a first turning moment, beginning in 1922 in Egypt and finishing in 1971 in the United Arab Emirates. Second, the rise of neoliberal policies and practices, from the mid-1970s to the 1990s, opened an era that is continuing today.


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