Wild urbanisation should be stopped

Sunday 14/05/2017
Booming beyond recognition. A general view shows part of the capital Tunis. (Reuters)

The Greater Tunis District has been acclaimed as the top metropolitan area where tourists and visitors can explore architectural legacies, whether ancient or modern. In this area, as in others in Tunisia, residents take pride in a unique historical heritage, valuable monuments, old medinas and ancient souks.

“Carthage was the capital of one the greatest empires that domi­nated the Mediterranean Basin,” some locals would trumpet. They would speak about the Roman remains on the Byrsa Hill, the renowned Saint Louis Cathedral and the fascinating Punic ports.

The pride-filled representations can hardly conceal the serious problem of crawling urbanisation that can consume the distinctive aesthetics of any city.

UNESCO said unrestrained urban sprawl that took place during the first half of the 20th century altered the integrity of Carthage. In recent years, the Punic ports have been entrusted to boat owners, triggering condemnation and sparking fear that such a permis­sive posture could cause irremedi­able damage to the ancient city.

The urban sprawl that affected Carthage has not spared other parts of the Tunis district. In the capital, the old medina, which is home to some 700 monuments dating to the Almohad and the Hafsid periods, is nearly surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

In Ariana, which borders the governorate of Tunis, ancient buildings, which have deterio­rated, may be pulled down. The “City of Roses,” as locals love to call it, has frenziedly evolved into an industrial and commercial hub, witnessing a chaotic urbanisation that the authorities have been struggling to restrain.

In effect, most Tunisian cities have boomed beyond recognition over the past few decades. Despite the goodwill and motivation of some citizens, state institutions and associations, the cities, as we used to know them, have started to lose their lustre and fade in the midst of new buildings and concrete structures.

Now more than ever before, it appears that urban planning has turned into a mere commercial operation of real estate develop­ment. In their design and planning, new districts do not allow for a distinctive architectural character.

Whose fault is it? Should we blame the lack of concern on the part of citizens or the inefficiency of archaically structured local governments?

The responsibility for the erosion of the unique character of some Arab cities is one that we all share, without exception: citizens, legislators, urban planners, architects and all those who are playing the card of uncontrolled urbanisation for the sake of profit. Even in places where wars are not to blame, human greed and lawlessness have ravaged the landescape.

The situation of the Tunis district, which is on the verge of becoming irreversible, is in outright contrast to the urban thinking that prevailed about a century ago. In 1920, Victor Valensi, a grand figure of neo- Moorish architecture, developed a plan for the city.

In this plan, Valensi defined the old medina as an “indivisible whole” and dealt with major questions about the significance of art and heritage in the process of urban planning. Valensi’s contribution was an excellent example of an attempt to develop modern cities while reconciling rapid expansion and the preservation of ancestral heritage.

Now, almost a century after the Valensi plan, we are told that politi­cal and social upheavals of recent years are supposed to create a favourable environment for reconciling urban expansion with the protection of heritage. Yet, it seems that the Tunisian uprising of 2011 and the new social and political contexts that came in its wake have failed to initiate such a new dynamic.

Haphazard construction has increased dramatically, with people building without permits and turning a blind eye to the effects of unregulated urbanisa­tion. The brazen violation of the law has triggered a recent reaction by local authorities of the Tunis and Ariana provinces but it is too early to tell if that reaction will become the rule.

Is it too late to save our cities and preserve their distinctive features?

The first step is awareness and the move can become a giant leap if each of us starts to believe that the cities are mirrors of their dwellers. The citizens, legislators, urban planners and architects should all get involved in a process of regulated and wise urbanisation.

We must be aware that every city should play an important role in the valorisation of its heritage and architectural character. Accord­ingly, each city should begin with identifying its heritage resources, which will certainly help in the designation of its future actions.

Certainly, this cannot be a one-man or one-city mission. Such a noble responsibility falls upon each individual, concerned authorities and society as a whole.