mardi 2 octobre 2012

Habitat, Housing & Territorial and Urban Planning in Tunisia: impressions and thoughts of an ordinary citizen.Text for the World Habitat Day in Oslo

First allow me to point out that I'm not a specialist when it comes to habitat, housing or spatial planning. That's actually the reason why I hesitated when I was invited to this event. But I couldn't help but answer yes when the kind organisers insisted on having me and also because your country had been appealing  to me ever since I came here for the first time.

Ladies and Gentlemen

As I'm not an expert, I've decided to go for an impressionist approach, as a tunisian citizen determined to accept and carry out the obligations and duties of her citizenship despite all headwinds.

Therefore you won't hear me declaim numbers, statistics or references to legislations or procedures.

However I wish I could have shown you photos and images to show you what the reality is like. But my other commitments, in particular my position at the University of Tunis, didn't give any break and I've been unable to update an appropriate picture library.

My father, who's always been helping me a lot in my observations and studies on the topic we're talking about, worked in urban upgrading and renewal and told me two anecdotes which speak for themselves and that I would like to use as an introduction.

Here's the first anecdote:
A friend of my father, half way through his studies, was unemployed and had a hard time finding a place to live. He was too modest to ask for help and, whenever he didn't have a place to stay, he would sit on the stairs of the municipal theater.

The stairs of the municipal theater have become a symbol of the Revolution as they were the meeting point for many manifestations and protests taking place in the city center. This is also where  many artists and intellectuals were attacked on World Theater Day (March 2012)

So this friend sat on the stairs of the municipal theater, exposing what he called "my home": a bag where he kept all of his belongings: clothes, underwear's. He had his tooth brush in his shirt's pocket and he held a book, making sure all passers-by could easily read the title. It was Friedrich  Engels's book: The Housing Question (1873)

And our friend would sit there, as patient as a fisherman…

Here's the second anecdote:

My father was conducting a survey in the countryside about housing and living conditions. The survey was compulsory in preparation for an aid program. My father was very surprised by an older man who refused to answer the survey and asked him, instead, to pass on his demands to the authorities and if possible to the Supreme Fighter, the president Bourguiba himself. This man also asked for money, saying he was only claiming his due or rather his share of the national wealth and that he would never ask for anything else ever again.

The reason why I told you these two anecdotes is to give you an idea of my state of mind and the state of mind in my country. It's made of the supremacy of the State, of a power which pretends to be able to answer all needs and take care of the destiny of the people - even though it can't afford it. This led to the creation of what we call a mentality of assisted people.

When France finally put an end to the protectorate it had imposed in Tunisia, most Tunisians lived in misery and insalubrity, in slums (houses made of cob, clay and branches), spread through the countryside or gathered in slums outside big cities.

The departure of the colonists and the first social programs after Tunisia became independent improved living conditions manifestly.

But in the seventies, despite voluntarist politics, Tunisia saw a housing crisis emerging. This crisis showed in spontaneous and anarchist housing which had no infrastructures, no facilities.

When came the eighties, the government got involved in upgrading these neighborhoods but also on a smaller scale, in renovating the old city centers which had been damaged through time.

Through official programs, part of the national budget, and through semi-public or solidarity programs, with the support of the World Bank and the UNCHS 'United Nations Centre for Human Settlements' aka Habitat, it was announced that our country would have any insanitary housing or impoverished neighborhood by the start of the new millennium. From then on, our main focus would be improving and embellishing our living.

I think we all believed in these announcements. Most of us, for sure, believed in them.

Statistics were there: meticulous, confident and crystal clear.

You take the statistics of a certain group, number of households and number of people per household, and compare it with the existing real estate and find out that there is more housing than households.

Then you take housing conditions: facilities available, number of rooms, construction materials - and you realize that we enjoy a good density of population, that almost everyone has electricity at home, that most of the urban population and half of the rural population has running water - and you find out that Tunisia is a world champion when it comes to property rate.

You can read official documents - both from the government, attached organizations and international organizations, and you feel proud, relaxed and all smiles because you realize you're living in a country of permanent joy, a country investing in his people and their happiness and that everything is just fine.

We even saw a neighbor country, withdrawing from Tunisia, ceasing all aid programs, because all goals had been accomplished and there were no needs left.

In 2005/ 2006, the publication of a new national census kept on being postponed and the results when it came to insanitary or undeveloped housing, kept on being re-evaluated as they didn't match the rate the president had decided, a rate close to zero.

It looks like, we had forgotten then that life is constantly on the move and that while we got rid of undeveloped housing, new ones kept appearing. But there were a few other explanations.

Let me give you a few examples.

All social needs were said to be taken care of by the authorities and the State took delight in getting rid of institutions and public organizations, opening this sector to private companies which didn't have neither the qualifications nor the skills but only the will to make money.  In less than five years, the number of private property developers went from a handful to nearly 1500.

And we found out later that it actually was only a few individuals, each of them using several companies simultaneously for misappropriation of funds, tax fraud and illicit and unjustified access to public financings.
The State pulled out from land control. Previously, plots of land were regulated through granting state-owned plots to social housing, through exchanges or expropriation, through taxation or involvement on different stages such a financing, construction…
But of course, real estate prices went up, first twice as expensive and then ten times more expensive and then hundred times more expensive… The quality, however, didn't improve much and is questionable. It became prohibitively priced for most families, especially in the middle class.

The anarchy that was typical of working-class neighborhoods, built outside the legal frame, outside the city plan, outside urban regulations, slowly spread over the entire urban environment.

Nepotism, corruption, restrictions of freedom of speech and influence networks quickly overcame urban planning. As long as you could pay, as long as you were introduced by the right person, you could  build as you liked.

With a magic pen, the use purpose could go from unconstructible to residential; regulations relating to occupation surfaces and building lands was increased. Well-located buildings were demolished even though they belonged to a historical heritage, with for the sole purpose of quickly making money. Many of our neighborhoods, many of our lovely villages, became mutilated and slashed forever.

And then the revolution came.

First, some areas inland started to rumble and then the outlying neighborhoods around Tunis and Sfax and a few other cities let their anger show and people of all ages and all background joined the protest. The King immediately rushed to his plane and left and without him, the reality of our country appeared to us: naked, ashamed and difficult to manage.

When it comes to the topic we're discussing today, it can be described as follow :

- Working-class districts, villages, cities and even entire districts were, contrary to what we were made to think, abandoned to their fate. There were hardly any urban program, social supervision or fundings. An unfair planning scheme promoted developed areas and kept  disadvantaged ones as suppliers of raw materials and unqualified labour.

- National resources, public properties and funds were misappropriated, stolen and exploited while we were constantly told about environmental conservation and sustainable development.

- Families without means of support were packed in badly-served districts and endemic unemployment affected hundreds of thousands of young people. A third of them could complete their university degree only after their families sacrificied much as an investment for the future.

- Some programs were nothing but empty shells or screens with nothing behind. Some other institutions or organisations were meant to watch and control districts and to serve shady interests.

The revolution broke out and the reality appeared before us. And we, Tunisians, we realized that we didn't know each other. And another wall collapsed.
Now we know each other better than before, we are more interested in each other, each of us can be proud of his fellow countrymen and discovers, as a child, other people, other districts, and realized how deceived we were.

Now we don't recognize any longer the State infrastructures and organizations we were fooled by. We unseated the municipal councils that weren't represented us at all and we're ignoring the temporary councils which replaced them without our consent. Now we dare to check, control, cross-check data, investigate, ask, create our own associations, devote ourselves for the general interest and refuse any diktat or oligarchy. Now we're courageous enough to  question ourselves and to call out government into  question.

The revolution broke out or rather, the revolution was set in motion and still is in motion despite ups and downs and despite the fighting spirit of those who took the power from us.

On a spatial level, this can be seen by winning back public spaces: squares, avenues, city centers,
by taking over places which are ours but which had been taken away from us,
by seizing walls and giving them to painters, graffiti artists and young people looking for a way to express themselves. And this is promising for the future.
On one condition: resisting against those who want to take us back to dark times of obscurantism and to deny us human intelligence.

On an urban level, everyone is taking advantage of the situation. It's both outrageous and beyond repair but everyone's building, in breach of the law, without any respect for urban and building regulations.

But these people have to have a place to live and they're creating it from scratch, in total chaos, without taking into consideration the environment,  the nature of the grounds or the possible risks of building in an area liable to flooding for instance. These constructions are set up in a rush, they're ugly and shabby.

These people are trying to deal with the most urgent matters first. They're helpless and they're reacting against decades of deprivations. I can't help but find them excuses. And I hope that in the future we'll be have the intelligence and the possibility to improve everything that needs to be improved.

However, these people are not the only ones taking advantage of the decline of the State, of the incompetence of the governments and of the loosening of the structures that usually control us.

Quite the contrary.
Others take advantage of the situation, to allot where it's not allowed, to create an extension, at the expense of gardens, at the expense of architectural features, at the expense of visual or thermal comfort of the neighbors, at the expense of public spaces such as parks, sidewalks…

Some fanatics came out of nowhere and advocated for a return to basics that weren't  interpreted the same way by everyone. They stretched to taking over religious places and settled there with their wives and children in order to turn them into new places of recruitment, training and propaganda. Some of them even demolished, mistreated and mutilated historic monuments, claiming they were non standards. Obviously not their own standards.

This is a quick outline of the situation, based on my observations through my constant travels across my country, my readings, my discussions with my father who's always encouraged me to be interested in everything that comes my way.

I hope that each of you found something of interest in this presentation, depending on your curiosity or interests. To conclude, allow me to get back to the two anecdotes I started with. The housing question is still crucial and the 30.000 housing units the temporary government plans on building won't be enough of an answer.

The outcry of our architects, study offices and engineers denounces procedures that still lack transparency and criticize both the materials and the methods chosen for these new constructions.

As the man of the second anecdote asked, wouldn't it be better to distribute the content of the envelope of this program directly to the recipients and let them build their houses themselves?

Thank you for your attention.

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