Guest post by Sepehr Zhand

Iran is a major developing country consisting of more than 75 million people. The country’s urban area, as its population, is highly diverse and is made up of innumerable segments. One of these segments, now shaping 32 percent of the territory, is the informal city. (1)

With this post, I will explain how Iran, a country with a well-established rural lifestyle and relatively good income, began to transition into a rapid-changing urban society that now has about 72 to 75 percent of its population living in urban areas out of which about 30 to 40 percent are living in unproductive fabrics. (2)

Hesar 4

Figure 1:  Hesar is among the first organically grown settlements in the peripheries of Tehran. Image Credit: Sepehr Zhand, 2015


I believe that the current state of informality in Iran is the result of 3 stages of drastic socio-political instability that disrupted the country’s rural/urban demographic balance. However, due to the complexity of the issue, informality in the country –as in most developing countries- cannot be directly attributed to specific points in a linear timeline, but needs to be understood as an on-going process with many dimensions and scales, linking many disciplines. The following is a quick review of the major decisions and policies aiming to address inequality through the modernization of a sovereign state, which in spite of some considerable successes, incited cities to react irregularly.

These policies can be categorized into 3 stages:

-The first stage draws back to the first 20th century modern reform policies announced and implemented by the monarch in 1964.

-The second stage follows the chaotic incidents post 1979 revolution,

-And the third stage is the recent economic and housing crisis of the last one and a half decades.

Through all these stages major shifts in policies regarding the housing process and land tenure are found to be critical among all the contributing factors.

1. White Revolution | A Push towards Modernity

The first era during which informality emerges as a major urban phenomenon dates back to 1964, when the monarch of the time –Mohammad Reza Pahlavi- decided to move the country towards a modern industrial society. At the time, a liberal approach towards land appropriation was adopted, denouncing the feudalism and traditional land ownership structure, as a means of becoming a ‘modern’ country and moving towards privatization. As a part of a major act by the sovereign monarch, which came to be known later as White Revolution, all the land owned by land lords were nationalized and the people who depended on this feudal-like structure, were to be dismissed. At the time, as the country was mainly depending on the dominant oil money, another major move was to invest this money and import industry. The aim was, that during a few decades time, Iran would become the modern anticipated state.

The two major decisions initiated a considerable flux of rural-urban migration that later on shaped urban amoebas and forced the economy to move faster than infrastructure could be planned and developed. The outcome led to huge informal settlements. The latter settlements started to generate a relatively new identity among the Iranian urban dwellers. Since then, the organic growth of human settlements – which morphologically was understood as a non-urban occurrence – could be seen in various industrial cities of Iran.

Halabi-Abad (tinfoil settlement), and Zoor-Abad (illegally encroached settlement) were some of the terms that began to emerge. From the beginning, all these settlements were associated with illegal land encroachment and invalid methods of manufacturing, and in the following decade, they were affiliated with acts of felony, drug issues, prostitution. (3)

As a way to respond to this new phenomenon, and to address both the occurring informal growth and the upcoming issues of migration, the first social housing policies arose. These translated to the production of mass housing projects (e.g. Ekbatan, Apadana) attracting a majority of the middle class affiliated with industry. This pull factor in addition to informality and migration, made urbanization a growing trend in Iran.


Figure 2: Once a place to accommodate construction workers, Bagh-e-Azari (Azari Garden) is now among problematic dilapidated fabrics in the south of Tehran. Image Credit: Moslem Esmaeili 2014


The outcome of under-estimated flow of population to the urban areas and the question of housing and development, led to the rise of social movements that concluded in 1979 revolution. The Revolution, and consequential economic and socio-political instabilities pushed the urbanity to even more precarious conditions of poverty, social segregation, and marginalization. Informality shifted into a wider range of irregular urban issues that are now known as dilapidated fabrics.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and 3-  The Post-revolution + Social Housing…


  1. There may be other figures published by the governing bureaus as different measures might be used to identify a settlement informal. The current measure to identify the informal settlements from other irregular urban forms is the land tenure ship, although the physical condition may be suggesting otherwise.
  2. The current development policies in Iran has priorities for allocating certain renovation budget to urban areas that are categorized as unproductive, which essentially are known for their inertia in not being engaged in the productive economic affairs of a city and lower chance of investment. The informal settlements, dilapidated fabrics and some older neighborhoods are examples of these unproductive fabrics.
  3. The works of Kave Golestan partly addresses the rather unseen life of the informal people and the culture generated within their autonomously built ghettos.


Sepehr Zhand

Sepehr is an Iranian architect and urbanist with a master’s degree from the Architectural Association, School of Architecture in London. He has worked on urban development projects in Iran, India, Netherlands and Taiwan. Currently based in Tehran, his work as a practitioner involves upgrading strategies for the informal settlements and dilapidated urban fabrics in Iran. His research focuses on the relationship between design, planning  and the emergence of irregular urban form. More specifically, Sepehr has been analyzing Iran’s housing process and its effect on the propagation of informal settlements in Tehran.

Previously he has been a design studio instructor at the IAU and a visiting research scholar with Iran’s Ministry of Road and Urban Development.

One thought on “Informality in Iran, a review [part 1.]

  1. Pingback: Informality in Iran, a review [part 2] | {FAVEL issues}

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