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Baghdad’s housing crisis sparked by the 2003 US invasion has significantly affected the state’s land, urban fabric, and quality of life.
Dina M. Abdulrazzaq
Iraq’s urban regions have changed substantially following the US’s invasion in 2003. The post-war climate has brought about a variety of urban challenges.
As part of Fanack’s focus on urbanism changes across the MENA region, this article presents an overview of Baghdad’s housing crisis and its impact on agricultural land, the city’s urban fabric, and the quality of life.
Iraqi cities, and the capital in particular, are struggling as a result of the country’s rapid transformation into an unstable state that endangers the lives of its citizens. The failure of the city to integrate its master plans, an unstable planning process, and the realities of rapid population growth are the primary causes of this crisis.
Urban sprawl in particular is an issue that needs special consideration. It poses a severe threat to Baghdad, eroding the city’s character and giving rise to new structures that are incompatible with Iraqi urban norms. Furthermore it puts a strain on the city’s infrastructure and negatively impacts the quality of life for the city’s residents, as well as the city’s environment and living conditions.
Throughout this article, the elements that contribute to urban sprawl and residential land fragmentation will be analyzed. It will also identify how these challenges have impacted Baghdad city.
Baghdad’s population has grown rapidly since 2003, increasing by over 40% to reach around 8 million today. Due to its relative stability and better economic opportunities when compared to other regions of Iraq, it has become a destination for internally displaced people, returnees from neighboring countries, and rural migrants.
This led to an influx of housing demands — which could only be met by informal urban expansion. Much of that need was filled by illegally constructed housing units, either on agricultural, governmental or private land.
The government entities in charge after 2003 were unable to keep up with the city’s rapid population growth, leading to a failure in providing affordable housing alternatives and effectively managing the urban sprawl. The rise of informal urbanization was caused by administrative weaknesses, mismanagement, outdated urban planning, and corruption. Despite this, Iraq still has an abundance of financial resources for reconstruction
Administrative corruption in the country regularly hinders the introduction of effective reforms. In the past, development projects have been directly assigned by the government to contractors linked to government officials or those allied to armed organizations and groups that provide them with protection from the law. As a result, many projects turned out to be fraudulent and never amounted to anything of significance.
As a result, the prices of real estate, residential land, and building materials in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities have experienced a substantial increase. Currently, The average price per square meter for houses in Baghdad today is US$ 4,000, while the average price per square meter for apartments is US$ 1,000 – ten times more than in 2002. The same applies to rents, which have risen dramatically in Baghdad. In central Baghdad neighborhoods, the rent for a 100 m2 house surpassed US$ 600 per month.
This ultimately gave rise to two main housing challenges in Baghdad. On the one hand, agents are illegally building units on agricultural land, benefiting from the cheaper price of agricultural land compared to residential land. On the other, some real estate owners have started dividing their residential units into smaller ones to benefit from the high prices of housing in the city, causing residential land fragmentation.
Both practices have destroyed the city’s unique architectural character, eroding its distinctive features and charm.
Land Cover Changes
The majority of houses constructed after 2003 are illegal. Informal housing can be found on agricultural land and government property. This issue requires rapid intervention; it has become a major problem in big Iraqi cities, especially Baghdad. These violations are centered in the green area surrounding Baghdad where more than half of agricultural lands were built over between 2010 and 2015.
The situation has had a significant impact on the city’s ecosystem, which was further exacerbated when many land developers began to construct residential settlements on agricultural lands without permits or following building and planning laws. As a result, large residential districts began to develop where agricultural land once stood, devoid of the most basic services.
Land developers and real estate agents attempt to produce a high number of housing units with minimal investment from these illegal activities to maximize their profits. This means that the houses that are built often do not meet the required safety regulations or the residents’ need for appropriate living conditions. The lack of proper infrastructure also leaves these settlements with insufficient services and poor living conditions.
These informal settlements pose a severe threat to agricultural life and the green belt that surrounds Baghdad. Eroding this green area has led to desertification and more frequent and severe sandstorms.
Therefore, the unregulated use of agricultural lands creates many challenges, including urban concerns such as environmental and health crises, economic risks, social and security dangers, as well as damage to the urban fabric
Informality and Fragmentation
The housing shortage has not only resulted in the degradation of agricultural land but has also had a significant impact on Baghdad’s residential areas. The combination of escalating demand and limited housing supply has drastically altered the urban character of the city.
Inside Baghdad city, informal houses can also be found as a result of people subdividing residential lands to reduce the size of housing units. Until recently, the concept of dividing a large house into smaller units was unfamiliar to Iraqi society.
Before 2003, Baghdad villas were constructed in the center of a plot of land and surrounded by gardens. These private gardens held significant value for Baghdadi families. The greenery protected the environment and provided residents of the capital with a higher quality of life.
However, in the lack of oversight and weak legal enforcement, individuals began to subdivide their houses for a variety of reasons as previously mentioned. The satellite image illustrates the changes that took place in a random residential plot in Baghdad city between 2002 and 2021. These changes not only damaged the city’s urban fabric but also had an impact on its residents’ living conditions.
The fragmentation of residential plots in the city has led to overcrowding, causing adverse effects on the urban environment, basic services, and the overall quality of life. This has resulted in problems with natural lighting and ventilation, as well as increased demand for sewage networks and other services such as drinking water, electricity, and waste disposal because these systems were not designed for such a high population density.
The United Nations Human Settlements Programme estimates that more than 70% of Iraq’s population resides in rapidly expanding cities. Therefore, the majority of the population in Iraq currently lives in poor housing conditions. According to the UNHCR, after years of extensive turbulence and conflict, around 1.2 million Iraqis are still displaced within their own country.
Over 90 percent of the displaced population have been unable to return home for more than 3 years, and around 70 percent have been displaced for more than 5 years. Additionally, Iraq is host to around 280,000 refugees from various countries. This creates a struggle in finding suitable housing for both the host communities and internally displaced persons.
The core problem causing this chaos is that the government is creating a disproportionate amount of housing — roughly 25,000 units annually — when compared to the needs of a population requiring more than three million units, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Construction. This has led to congestion and substandard living conditions, with negative effects on the physical and mental health of residents.
Furthermore, the non-compliance of citizens with rules and regulations poses significant security and social risks, endangering public safety and causing divisions within society. There are also economic risks represented by the future costs that the responsible authorities will bear to reconstruct the citizen’s life and welfare, in addition to preserving the city’s urban and architectural standing.
Municipal departments and the municipality of Baghdad hold a crucial role in minimizing urban sprawl and urban violations. This can be achieved by prohibiting construction without building licenses and educating residents about the dangers that these illegal activities cause. These regulatory laws have a significant role in decreasing infractions because they serve as a solid deterrent to violators.
Furthermore, it is essential to explore new solutions to the housing crisis, including adopting vertical construction methods instead of horizontal expansion to minimize the land required for development. Productive and precious agricultural areas should also be protected, and housing construction should be relegated to areas that are unsuitable for farming.
In an effort to improve the situation, it is important to note that the current Iraqi administration has begun a number of residential projects. According to Suha al-Najjar, president of the National Investment Authority, 130 licenses for housing investment projects were given in 2021, and several blocked projects are now moving forward. These efforts signify a step towards addressing the housing challenges in Baghdad and improving the living conditions for its residents.
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