Conference Report

Attended by 122 delegates, the conference was officially opened by Prof. Alan Penn, Dean of the Bartlett on the morning of the 8th November 2012. In his speech, he highlighted the facts that made UCL the appropriate place to host such a conference. Professor Yves Cabannes, chair of Development Planning Unit and scientific chair of the conference welcomed all delegates on behalf of the patron and host of the conference; The Bartlett Development Planning Unit.

The conference organisers were honoured to receive a message from Ms. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO. Within the message, the Director General emphasized  the importance of preserving urban heritage and praised UCL on taking this initiative. The Director General appreciated Iran’s contribution to the world in the field of urbanism and acknowledged the vast potential in social and cultural values that lies in many Iranian cities; potentials which can inspire future sustainable urban development and urban change in Iran.

Representatives of two of the supporting institutions present, UCL IRDR and Encyclopaedia Iranica, also welcomed the attendees.

The final introductory speaker was Farnaz Arefian. Farnaz was the driving force behind the idea of the conference and its implementation from when it started two years ago. In her speech, she linked the celebration of the World Town Planning Day to the conference and thanked the group of volunteers and supporting institutions  from all around the world who made it happen. She highlighted the number of 625 abstracts that were submitted to the conference and the attention it received from international scholars and professionals, particularly from the younger generation. Launching the independent forum for knowledge sharing, she invited attendees for contributing to the continuity of such an initiative by filling out the ‘What’s Next?’ questionnaire.

Day 1: Thursday 8th November

In the opening assembly, the academic debates started with a session on ‘setting the scene’. Dr Parviz Piran, representative of Centre of Excellence in Urban Design at Shahid Beheshty University, highlighted the importance of context-based urbanism by a brief comparison of traditional Iranian cities and contemporary practice of urban development. Dr James Jackson of the University of Cambridge raised the problems that Iran faces in regard to earthquakes and the fact that it stands fourth among countries that are the most prone to natural disasters. The opening session was followed by four academic sessions consisting of paper presentations and one panel discussion with experts.

The topics covered in the first day of the academic sessions consisted of historical urbanism, socio-cultural drivers of change and urban continuity and identity, as well as shaping Iranian cities. Specifically, topics such as safeguarding our fragile historic urban landscapes, a Quranic reading of change in the Islamic Iranian city, typo - morphological analysis of housing layouts and density in Tehran were among the presentations. An intriguing topic was raised for discussion where speakers illustrated the way urban settlements manage and conserve water through the use of wadis, a network of tunnels. With the help of this ancient technology that has been used for over 2000 years, water is channeled from springs and distributed through a complex grid of channels and madis to fields and cities of distances as far as 50 km. The surface channels used to distribute water from rivers,  now form the basis of a lush green pedestrian network that interconnects neighbourhoods. A massive “hydrobrake” was built 400 years ago across a gorge to hold back extreme floods from the mountains to the north of central Iran. The presentations demonstrate that Water Sensitive Urban Design has been practiced for many millennia in Iran.  It is high time the western development tradition adopted this approach.

The lively panel discussion and question round, moderated by Prof. Ali Modarres, focused on the global dimensions of urban change, allowing delegates to consider the transformative forces that have (re)shaped our cities over the last century. While paying particular attention to recent events and changes, the presenters strived to articulate the social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions of change from various areas of the globe. After talks on new trends in urban development (accessibility and attractiveness), thoughts on Iranian cities in economic globalisation, and thinking with the difference of cities: the new and the ‘now’; the session continued with an in-depth conversation that illustrated the degree to which urban changes have converged or diverged based on urban localities within the larger network of cities and nations. This workshop tended to provide the necessary context in which urban changes in Iran can be situated and understood.

During breaks, participants also visited a mixed parallel exhibition of the DPU mapping exhibition, the oldest maps of Persia and examples of contemporary urban design projects in Iran.

Later that day, participants attended the Bartlett exhibition space at Royal Ear Hospital, where 69 posters were presented and the DPU reception was held. The attendees were then asked to vote for the best posters to be awarded by Mirmiran Architecture Foundation.

Day 2: Friday 9th November

Academic debates: Continuing the buzz from day one; the second day consisted of two academic sessions and three panel discussions, as well as the closing and customary Iranian farewell.  

Day two was more focused on current issues of development and urban design.

The Technical University Berlin’s Young Cities Project ran a special panel discussion on urban development and energy efficiency in Iran. Moderated by Prof. Rudolf Schäfer, the workshop explored potentials and challenges of the Iranian planning system in the context of Iran’s thriving New Towns development program and under the looming threat of climate change. It discussed the institutional setup, planning instruments and regulations, as well as the core competencies of the building sector on the basis of research results generated through the application oriented German-Iranian research project “Young Cities – Creating Energy-Efficient Urban Fabric in the Tehran-Karaj Region”, a part of the German Megacities Research Program. Speakers included research fellows from both German and Iranian sides of the project.

Another Panel Discussion focused on cities in the region and placed Iranian cities in their regional context. Moderated by Mr. Farrokh Derakhshani this panel discussion session opened the opportunity to put in perspective Iranian urban transformations with those taking place in other metropolises within the region, such as Istanbul and Cairo. It also addressed some cross border growth collaborations practiced by Iranian cities as one of the key drivers of regional integration and economic development.

One academic session focused on the projects related to shaping cities. For example, the evaluation of state-led regeneration in large-scale property-led regeneration projects in Iran and the impacts of urban design interventions on the nightlife of urban areas were discussed. In another presentation, speakers examined the link between the urban and natural environment in contemporary urban development practices in the country.

The final panel led an intriguing discussion on Urbanisation and Resilience to Natural Hazards in Iranian cities. Moderated by Dr Cassidy Johnson, the discussion created a link to the geographical aspects discussed in day one; risks to natural hazards are created through the process of urbanisation, through the quality of physical construction of cities and through social vulnerability of its people. Many urban areas in Iran are exposed natural hazards, especially earthquakes.  Consequently, the decay of urban buildings and infrastructure, as well as poverty, is increasing urban risks in cities.  This session looked at the complexity of factors manifesting disaster risk in Iranian cities, and the governance approaches that are being used to address these urban risks and to build resilience to natural hazards.

Closing session: The closing ceremony started with awarding the prizes to the winners of IRDR Young Researchers Bursaries by the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. It was continued by a brief of the outcomes of the conference, and a wrap up of the issues discussed. ‘What’s Next?’ was the last part of the closing session. The outcomes of delegates’ ideas and opinions were themed and discussed. Among the most repeated was the necessity of the continuity of such initiative in one way or another in order to repeat such high profile independent platforms for exchanging research outcomes at a global level and connecting established names and newcomers in this field.

After the closing session, delegates attended the Bartlett exhibition space at Royal Ear Hospital, where they were greeted with Iranian sweets and pastries as vibrant discussions continued!. In the meantime, the votes for the poster competition were counted and the winning posters were announced. Feedback during the aftermath of the event indicated the international conference on URBAN CHANGE IN IRAN was a complete success!