Freed From ISIS, Cities Design Different Dreams for the Future

Freed From ISIS, Cities Design Different Dreams for the Future

By Justin Higginbottom


ISIS destroyed much of their past. How these cities rebuild could determine their future. 

By Justin Higginbottom

Filipino architect Felino “Jun” Palafox studied design at Harvard University in the years just after 9/11, when disaster planning was on everyone’s mind. Now, Jun wants to bring those lessons from the aftermath of terrorism in Manhattan to Marawi, the city in his native Philippines that suffered a months-long conflict between Islamic State–aligned fighters and Filipino armed forces that ended in late 2017. He doesn’t just want to rebuild what was destroyed. “Smarter, more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, more walkable, more bikeable,” Jun says, rattling off the possibilities he dreams of for a future Marawi.

Jun’s not alone. Nor is Marawi. Months — and, in some cases, years — of sieges and conflict with ISIS have left large urban centers from the Middle East to Southeast Asia in ruin. What’s left of Marawi, for instance, is street after street of perforated concrete, delicate as the latticed patterns of Islamic architecture. Now retaken from ISIS, many of these cities are witnessing the first sparks of reconstruction. And in city after city, residents, observers, international agencies and designers are trying to battle shortsighted planning and create new urban spaces that not only address humanitarian concerns but also protect landmarks, help battle future radicalism and facilitate economic development.


Residents walk through the streets of Marawi after the war on May 10, 2018.

Source Jes Aznar/Getty

Urban planner Anna Otlik won 2017’s Rifat Chadirji Prize — a premier Iraqi architecture competition — for her “Re-Settlement” project, devised by her to encourage flexible design for Mosul, the northern Iraq city that ISIS occupied for three years before they were driven out in 2017 after a year-long war. Otlik’s plan lets residents design the shape and size of their housing themselves, using a modular plan and rubble and mud (the only things not in short supply) as materials. Another architect who participated in the competition submitted a plan that shows large bridges providing urban farms and housing that reach across the Tigris River. They resemble the hanging gardens of Babylon.  


Alia Otlik’s resettlement project for Mosul.


In Marawi, Jun wants to rebuild neighborhoods with a more open architecture than the multifamily homes with compounds, surrounded by thick, high walls, that have traditionally dominated the landscape of the city, founded nearly 400 years ago by the Spanish. This proposal is part of a master plan he has presented to the Philippine government for the city that sits on the shores of Lake Lanao. Among the other ideas in his plan: wider and more well-lit sidewalks instead of dark, labyrinthine alleys, better-designed utilities to prevent unrest, economic development near the lake to bring investors and jobs and a ground zero left as a memorial for the fighting.

Step by step, we are trying to bring new ideas and projects to develop our city.

Berivan Isaa, Humanitarian Affairs Office, Kobani

And in Kobani in northwest Syria, the local government is building infrastructure that may appear basic but never existed in the city even before ISIS took control for six months between September 2014 and March 2015. Before the war, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad neglected development in the mostly Kurdish area, says Berivan Isaa, co-head of HAO of the Humanitarian Affairs Office in Kobani, responsible for coordinating aid in the area. Now, the city’s government — led by the Democratic Union Party, whose militia defended the city with help from Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrillas — is trying to catch up, building schools and constructing sanitation and water projects in neighborhoods that have never had them. A women’s center to provide opportunities for work and study has been built.


“Step by step, we are trying to bring new ideas and projects to develop our city,” Isaa says.

There are many challenges, from a lack of funding to governments ignoring bottom-up proposals from designers and residents. In Marawi, the rebuilding has been bid out to different private developers and contractors, seemingly without such a master plan to consult, says Jun. Developers and contractors, without strict regulation, will be simply following profit rather than social harmony, he warns. “Most of us in the planning profession … are really concerned,” he says.

(A news report on architect Jun Palafox and his strategy to rebuild Marawi in the Philippines.)

In Mosul, the design solutions Otlik and others have proposed are meaningless to most residents, who are now struggling for basic shelter, says Dilshad Ali of the humanitarian organization Islamic Relief. “They will be lucky if they bring it back like the previous days,” says Ali. And reconstruction is slow. While Ali and his organization work to restore basic utilities to the area, residents are waiting for reimbursements for damage. Though the money is unlikely to ever arrive, the government isn’t expressly saying so, unfairly keeping people’s hopes up, he says. “The politicians are almost playing with [the residents],” he says. “In reality, there is no money.”

Indeed, a conference earlier this year in Kuwait to raise money from donors for reconstruction won commitments worth only $30 billion, well short of the $86 billion the Iraqi government had asked for. The one silver lining: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has announced plans to spearhead restoration of the city’s landmarks. With few employment opportunities and basic services lacking, time is a factor, warns Ali. Residents are living in their damaged homes so they don’t have to return to a refugee camp. If they don’t get money to rebuild, they’ll resent the government. It’s a tense environment as Mosul is predominantly Sunni and the Iraqi federal government is staffed by Shia officers. Such tensions are perfect fuel for those seeking to stoke sectarian conflicts. 

Funding is also a challenge in Kobani, effectively a zone of self-rule outside the grip of both Syrian leader al-Assad and Islamists rebels, says Isaa. They receive a little help from NGOs and the Kurdish diaspora. But it’s mostly left to local companies and the new government to decide how and what to build.  

But these designers, nonprofits, residents and, in some cases, like Kobani, the local government are fighting the odds to the best of their abilities. There’s simply no choice but to re-create from scratch. A visit to Mosul in October shocked Ali — the war is over, but the destruction remains. “It still is terrible,” he says. In the Old City, where fighting was most intense, he says some streets have 90 percent of their homes destroyed.


The Kobani Martyrs’ Memorial under construction in 2016.



The Kobani Martyrs’ Memorial and cemetery in 2018.

For his part, Jun has been contracted to build several residential homes in Marawi, which sits more than 2,000 feet above sea level. His designs retain aspects of Marawi’s traditional Islamic architecture but use innovations in incremental housing that create flexibility as a family grows. If the family needs more space, or earns more money, another floor can easily be added, borrowing from a traditional Filipino homestead approach.

In Kobani, the government-led reconstruction melds public infrastructure with memorials to the city’s sacrifices. Just outside the city, there’s a martyr’s graveyard constructed for those killed in the fighting. In the city center, a statue of a female Kurdish guerrilla fighter with angel wings stands beside a disabled ISIS tank. Scarred and wounded, these cities are preparing to take flight again.