The jewel that is no longer shining:

A new understanding of informal settlements, case of Morabab hill, Iran


 4 Apr. 2019

By Sombol Mokhles

Moradab hill, an informal settlement in Karaj city, Iran has become a hotspot for city branding and redevelopment due to its visibility. First constructions began fifty years ago, through spontaneous and illegal self-constructions around a hill site. This led to the full occupation of the hills. The state and municipality cleared the hills using a series of mass evictions. Despite attempts to evict its inhabitants, around 36,346 people are living in the domains now (Ghasemi, 2014; Sharan, 2015a, 2015b).There are two different stories of Moradab hill (Figure 1): 1. The residents’ unheard narrative and 2. the dominant narrative of the state and planning bodies. On one hand, the residents declare: “The city’s jewel is not shining anymore” (Azizi, n.d.). Moradab hill was once like a jewel, because of the shining lights of houses that covered the hills. Since the destruction of the houses, it is no longer shining at night. On the other hand, in a recent documentary about Moradab hill by Ghasemi and Ghasemi (2018), Karaj governor states: “We hope to change Moradab hill from a dark spot to the jewel of the city”. 

A lack of understanding of place in informal settlements is reflected in dominant narrative discourses, policy and academic fields. Despite some changes in planning discourses in Iran towards participatory approaches in informal settlements, practical approaches are not promising. The planning and design process is entirely expert-led, without acknowledging residents’ needs and efforts in place-making. As a result of this dominant point of view, in the most recent proposal for Moradab hill, planners have allocated the available land (inner hill site area) to city scale land-uses for tourist attractions. Consequently, a widening of streets and provision of necessary services for the residents in the residential area will lead to the eviction of 4,140 persons and displacement of 12,874 persons.


Figure 1

A photo of Moradab hill at night, image from:


Figure 2

Residents’ place naming, image from Mehrnews agency (Sami'ie, 2016)


Figure 3

A common formal plaque of an alley in Iran, image by: Behnam Mafakheri


Figure 4

Bad condition of alleys pointed out by the residents,  image from the weblog “neginkaraj” (Azizi, n.d.)

Place-making sheds light on ordinary, and often neglected aspects of life. This essay relies on recent interviews and observations (March 2019) as well as analysis of secondary data to investigate place-making in Moradab hill.It is vital to acknowledge that certain sites have a sense of sacred or identity (Friedmann, 2010). Through place-making, people appropriate a space and create a mirror of self.It is an attempt to assert claims to a place by changing it in a way to feel more homey. Through being lived in and everyday life, urban spaces become humanized and acquire distinctive characters as seen in names, recurrent rituals, and meeting places (Friedmann, 2007).Place naming expresses an important symbol of individual and collective experience, which is particularly relevant in the context of informal settlements (Lombard, 2014).

The names that residents of Moradab hill, have assigned to their places in different scales are signs of their identities and lifelong efforts. They call their settlement: Zoorabad, which means being built/developed by hardship/effort. It is reminiscent of lifelong efforts and resistance in the process of construction, improvement, and acquiring services. It has led to a memory of hardship among the residents (repeatedly mentioned by the residents). In other words, it is a mirror of the residents and their identity as a whole. In the local scale, names of their religious places are after ethnic origins, reflecting the collective identity of residents with similar ethnic origin, like Taromiha, Kaghazneshaniha, and so forth.

Residents use street naming as a justification to be known as a part of the city. Names of many streets are after martyrs of the Iranian Revolution and subsequent wars, who lived in the settlement. One of the residents says: “People of Islamabad are part of Karaj people, they have donated martyrs for revolution and compulsory war …”.  Additionally, residents of very narrow alleys without formal names, name them by writing on the wall (Figure 2). The signs they create closely resemble to the formal plaques of alleys (Figure 3) as if to legitimize their right to the place and the city. Since the alley in Figure 3 is in the corner of a setback from the street, they have drawn a navigation arrow on the wall in the main street, to ensure visibility.

Through these naming actions, inhabitants show their strong attachment and claim to the place. Moreover, through claiming their right to the place, they blame the municipality for acting unjustly in service provision and resolving their problems. Figure 4 is an example of blaming by the residents in their weblog (neginkaraj), that under the title Edalat (Justice), they question lack of actions from the municipality. Some of the residents pointed out that they cannot get a building permit to reconstruct their houses. “There is no place better than Eslamabad. We would stay here if we had the amenities and were allowed to reconstruct our houses”.

Residents have highlighted the greenery and ordinariness of the settlementin the photos posted on the weblog neginkaraj. They reveal their expectations and important aspects of the place. It is a place with trees that blossom in spring as everywhere else in the city. Additionally, they show that they make rather small changes like planting and greenery. Pointing out highly sloped alleys with stairs shows the significance of these alleys as a part of their everyday lives, and the identity of the place. It is mentioned in one of the comments in the weblog neginkaraj: “… it (Eslamabad) is exactly like Masouleh in regard of texture, I love Eslamabad”. Masouleh is a historical stepped village and a tourist attraction in the Northern part of Iran. It has physical similarities with Moradab hill due to spontaneous texture integrated with a mountainous context.

To conclude, being informed by the meaning of place for the residents, designers could improve people’s lives and integrate the stigmatized settlement with the city. In the case of Moradab hill, designers could have addressed the main causes of problems, like job insecurity. For instance, by creating local jobs for the residents in restructuring the place. They could have focused on small scale interventions in the urban fabric like sewage management, planting, and landscape design. Instead of evicting and displacing more people to provide services for the remaining, they could have used the huge open area in the middle (hill site area), which is accessible to all. The hill site area could provide local services for the residents, as well as city scale amenities, therefore improving the identity of the place not only for the residents but also for the outsiders.

Azizi, S. (n.d.). Tasavir-e Eslamabad (Eslamabad photos).  Retrieved 09/02/2019

Friedmann, J. (2007). Reflections on place and place‐making in the cities of China. International journal of urban and regional research, 31(2), 257-279. 

Friedmann, J. (2010). Place and place-making in cities: A global perspective. Planning Theory & Practice, 11(2), 149-165. 


Ghasemi, P. (2014). Ravabet-e ghomi, tahdid ya forsat baray-e ensejam-e ejtemaE-ye shahrha? barressi-e mekanizmhay-e moghavemat-e mardomi dar barabar-e siasatha-ye shahri dar mahale-ye Eslamabad Karaj [Ethnic Relations, A Threat or Opportunity for Social Cohesion in Cities? Mechanisms for Resistance Against Urban Policy in Islamabad Neighborhood in Karaj]. Iranian Journal of Anthropology (Name Ensan Shenasi), 11, 85- 117. 


Ghasemi, P., & Ghasemi, M. (Writers). (2018). Documentary of: Inja Zoorabad ast (This is Zoorabad). Tehran: Iran's Urban Development and Rehabilitation Organization, Ministry of Roads and Urban Developments.


Lombard, M. (2014). Constructing ordinary places: Place-making in urban informal settlements in Mexico. Progress in Planning, 94, 1-53. 


Sami'ie, H. (Producer). (2016, 27/02/2019). Mantaghe'ye Hesar va Zoorabad Ostan'e Alborz (Hesar and Zoorabad Regions, Alborz Province). [Image] 

Sharan. (2015a). Ghesmat'e aval: Tashkhis'e vazEyat (Part1: Identification of the status) Tarahi Shari'e Hoze Omoomi'e Tapeh Moradab (Urban Design of Moradab Hill Public Space)(pp. 161): Karaj municipality.


Sharan. (2015b). Marhaleye aval, Motaleat Paye Mohdude Motaletati [1st phase, Basic Studies of the Case Study] Tarhe Samandehi Tapeh Moradab Karaj [Development Plan of Moradab Hill, Karaj](3rd ed.): Karaj Municipality.