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Back from the brink

Tehran — Heritage

With all eyes on US sanctions, economic woes and regional expansionism, improvements to city life in Iran can be all too easily overlooked. That’s especially true in Tehran, a city of nearly nine million that is notorious for high pollution levels. But improvements to one of the capital’s main thoroughfares have made life far more pleasant here – and encouraged new businesses to open.

By working with the community, which included 300 hours of meetings, architects commissioned by the wonderfully named Tehran City Beautification Department have rehabilitated Enghelab Street (Revolution Street), a main artery that connects bus stops, metro stations and public squares.

The ongoing project has seen the restoration of 114 building façades along the 1.2km stretch, including a grey-brick building dating from 1920 that houses shops, offices and apartments.

“We worked as an intermediary between city hall and residents,” says Amir Anoushfar, one of the project’s three lead architects. “There was really a social role within this project and the impact has been the opening of public spaces for dialogue and communication.” Buildings from the Qajar era (the early 1900s) needed special attention, particularly as Enghelab’s residents have often been tempted to demolish rather than renovate frailer structures. “The project is about the preservation of heritage buildings – in some cases we prevented people knocking them down,” says Anoushfar.

The project, shortlisted in April for the Aga Khan award for architecture, has also spruced up some of Tehran’s modernist, art deco and Bauhaus buildings. Alex Shams, a Tehran-based Iranian-American researcher, who has witnessed the work first-hand, says, “In my mind these mid-century styles define most of Tehran’s modern city centre and its identity for most of its residents.”

There has also been an economic boost to the area: the rejuvenation has spurred on a cultural space, nine new cafés, six restaurants, a bakery, two theatres and a boutique hotel along the thoroughfare. It’s an eye-opening transformation that’s impossible to ignore and will hopefully encourage a change in other areas of the capital.


On the move

Beirut — Mobility

Beirut mayor Jamal Itani is planning the city’s first permanent bike lanes. Demand has grown thanks to an annual bike commuting day, this year sponsored by the Swiss embassy and organised by NGO Chain Effect. Swiss ambassador Monika Schmutz Kirgöz says their involvement has raised the event’s profile and spurred Itani to make changes. All well and good but Beirut has more pressing urban needs: proper pavements would be more of a step in the right direction.


Lightening the load

Tel Aviv — Public transport

Tunnelling work for Tel Aviv’s light rail, the Red Line, is under way. It will be the city’s first public transit with exclusive right-of-way through downtown, a significant move for the traffic-choked centre, where the population is expected to double in the next 20 years. On track for completion in 2021, the biggest challenge the transit authority now faces is convincing people to leave their cars at home. But with trains running every 90 seconds during peak periods, plus an additional six lines planned, it’s likely that Tel Aviv commuters will embrace the promise of the new line’s speed and efficiency.


Q&A – James Delaney

Artist, Johannesburg

Five years ago Delaney got a dog that needs regular walks. His apartment overlooks a sprawling park called The Wilds but there was a problem: it was overgrown, litter-strewn and notorious for crime. So he set about changing that. Together with volunteers, he’s transformed the park into a safe and welcoming public space. They’ve restored pathways and water features, installed signage, removed invasive plants and painted 80 benches in bright colours.

What was the tipping point in transforming The Wilds?
The park had a reputation for crime. I had to think, as an artist, what I could do that would capture people’s imagination sufficiently to get over their fear. So I installed 67 owl sculptures. They changed everything: 500 people arrived the day they were launched. Since then it’s been busy every weekend.

What has the reaction been?
At first neighbours and the council gave me quite a hard time. But then they started seeing the benefits [of cutting back foliage], opening lines of sight so walkers felt safe and allowing light onto the forest floor so flowering plants could flourish again. People love it now: they have a beautiful park and their property prices have gone up.

Who uses the park?
Regular users are from the surrounding suburbs and the inner city – the park lies between the two. This makes it an interesting meeting point for people from different worlds.

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