Instant Cities: How the Oil Boom Transformed Urban Planning in Libya

With approx. 84% of the population living in cities, Libya is the most urbanized country in Africa. While half the population lives in the country’s two largest cities, the rest of its citizens are scattered between over 100 cities, towns and villages.* What makes Libyan cities so fascinating is that they are intertwined with tribalism and local identities. In a country who’s national identity has always been absent, the key to understanding Libya is to understand its cities, and in particular how they were formed.

By the end of Italian colonization in 1942, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. The brutality of the colonial project has been (meagerly) documented with studies on the Libyan resistance and the Italianization of population and land. But one of the most significant impacts was the de-urbanization of Libya.

Whether a genuine belief or another case of disinformation, Libyans were depicted as wandering desert nomads who were not civilized enough to build or live in cities. Aside from the fallacy of equating civilization with urbanization (something even Ibn Khaldun is guilty of), it was also untrue. Libyans were not nomadic by nature but rather adopted different lifestyles depending on the economic need of the moment. Urbanization and bedouinization were two ends of an economic spectrum, rather than polar opposite modes of existence.

Evidence of city-building has been documented in Libya as far back as the 4th century BC with the urban settlements of the Garamantes (الجرمان) and Ghadames in the South-West. Towns like Awjila were key stops on the caravan route between East and West, and contain architecture that is uniquely Libyan, the most prominent example being the Atik Mosque (جامع العتيق). Cities such as Derna were formed through agreements between Eastern and Western tribes, the history of which is reflected in folk tales like tajreedat habib (تجريدة حبيب). During times of hardship, such as drought or conflict, those who lived in settled areas would go on the move and adopt nomadic lifestyles in order to sustain themselves.

When Italians invaded in 1911, the Libyans they found were semi-nomadic. Economic trade routes sustained by the Ottoman empire led to the growth of existing settlements, and the agriculture and livestock trade connected cities with the countryside. In order to weaken the bonds of solidarity between Libyans, the Italians engaged in a multi-staged strategy, one aspect of which included driving Libyans out of their towns and settlements and into fixed camps on the outskirts of the main cities (Abu Salim was one such camp, which has today become one of Tripoli’s municipalities, although the legacy of the area is reflected in the underprivileged status of its population).

Framed as a project to urbanize and settle the ‘savage’ Bedouin population of Libya, what was actually taking place was a process of forced de-urbanization. The camps that Libyans were forced to live in were not planned neighbourhoods but rather temporary tools of control aimed to weaken and kill off the population, keeping them in a state of permanent transience. It also allowed Italian farmers to take over the agricultural lands that Libyans were driven from. Meanwhile, in other Libyan cities, Italians redesigned them to suit the new population, while Libyans were driven to the periphery.

At this point you’re probably wondering; what does de-urbanization have to do with new cities in Libya after the discovery of oil? Well, after Libyan independence in 1954, the population had largely become nomadic. The forced relocation of Libyans coupled with the complete obliteration of their economic and political system meant that the majority of the population had to rely once again on a nomadic way of life to survive. The cities and infrastructure left behind by the Italians were not designed for Libyans, and in some cases were destroyed either by WWII bombing or had become uninhabitable because Italian forces had poured concrete into the wells and poisoned the agricultural land**.

After the birth of Libya, the UN concentrated their efforts on pulling the population out of poverty. There are still older women across Libya who remember being trained by UN staff on things such as hygiene, maternal health and education. One of these projects, conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) was focused on the development of tribal lands for settlements in East and South Libya.

Alhaniyah

Al Haniyah, in the Green Mountains, developed as part of an FAO settlement project (You can see the original town limits ‘square’ and the subsequent expansion marked by the road)

According to the documents, these projects aimed to “modernize the traditional tribal sector of agriculture by establishing the tribesmen on individual holdings and put an end to poverty and lessen the uncertainties of the physical environment” (FAO, 1969, p. 69). In other words, FAO was helping the government combat tribal land collectives and settle the population. Among the pilot settlements for this project was Al-Haniyah (الحنية) in the Green Mountain, and one of the neighbourhoods in Traghen in Fezzan. By their own admission, the UN faced a lot of challenges in executing these plans, primarily because they failed to address the core issue of land ownership.

But it was the discovery of oil which changed the game for Libyan urbanism. With the ability to hire teams of international consultants from places such as the US, Greece and Japan, there was a flurry of masterplanning for new cities and satellite neighbourhoods. One of the most prominent is New Brega, planned and designed by American companies for the expat and Libyan employees of the nearby oil field. Ras Lanuf was similarly designed, with culs-de-sac to boot.

Brega

New Brega, an American suburbia on the Mediterranean (also what looks like plans for expansion south of the city?)

Brega (بريقة) is a peculiar plan, primarily because it is a compact version of American suburbia located a few meters from the Mediterranean. Its morphology looks nothing like the surrounding area, particularly when compared to the old town of Brega. Today, it is primarily inhabited by Libyans; most expats left the country after the war began. In Libyan lore, New Brega is considered the epitome of good city living; the streets are paved and walkable, all services are in the middle of town at equal distances from each house, no one can violate planning code by building an extra story and block their neighbour’s access to sunlight. In a country where there is very little order and stability, it’s easy to see why a plan like Brega would appeal to people.

Al-Sarir

Al-Sarir Master Plan, Yachiyo and Kurokawa 1980 (in Kezeiri***, 1987)

Another interesting plan was Kisho Kurokawa’s vision for the town of Al-Sarir (السرير). Rather than adopting straight lines, he wanted to shape a morphology closer to Japanese towns, in which the street is the main public space (something he felt both countries had in common). Interestingly, he also rejected the notion of concrete housing in the desert in favour of reinforced sand brick. (You can read the full philosophy behind his plans here). Now, he says that constructed had begun on the plans, but a document from the Al-Emara office (the official public urban design office in East Libya) indicate that it was never built for a number of reasons. The only explanation I can think of is that the initial construction of Kurokawa’s plan ended up being the compound that houses employees for the Sarir oil field.

So focused was the government on creating new urban settlements in Libya to meet the population growth that, after the destruction of Marj following the earthquake, they opted to build a new city rather than reconstruct the old one. As cities and towns grew, and as dependency on oil money became the new culture, Libya began losing agricultural land in favour of more urbanization. While there were considerable efforts placed on creating new towns or expanding on existing ones in order to lessen the pressure on the two main cities, it didn’t stop the massive growth seen by Tripoli and Benghazi.

Marj

The old town of Marj (right) and the New Marj (left), two different morphologies of the same population

In the years before the 2011 revolution, the government engaged in a series of large-scale housing projects. Run a Google satellite search around the periphery of any Libyan city and you’ll see the mosaic of badly planned satellite neighbourhoods. It was a desperate response to the growing housing crisis in the country, exacerbated by decades of bad economic policy which limited the housing supply. Many of these projects are incomplete and lay empty, a haunting reminder of a regime who perhaps knew that its time was running out.

Ganfouda

Ganfouda housing project, Benghazi suburbs. One of the battlefields during the 2014 civil war

Janet Abu-Lughod, in writing about Libyan urbanism in 1996, termed the new developments as ‘instant cities’; places that were born out of the oil wealth and which needed that wealth to sustain themselves. The ensuing instability after the revolution and civil wars has sadly proven her right. There is a strain on Libya’s cities today, impacted by the unpredictable shifts in population and demographics as internal displacement reaches catastrophic levels. But even without the war, the way Libyan cities are designed are a relic of colonial masterplanning which never really produced cities for who Libyans were, but rather what they should be.

In the case of the new settlements, this was a vision of a Westernized population dependent on cars and government hand-outs, rolled out over fertile agricultural land that no longer served a function. The empty spaces between the buildings reflect the sterility of the plans, addressing no one’s needs. Libyans must turn towards a new way of building urban settlements, one that creates cities that can last.


* In 2014, the Ministry of Local Government identified 99 cities and towns as the basis for the new municipality system. By 2016, this expanded to 124, the increase of which can be attributed to several smaller towns seeking ‘independence’ from a larger city that they were grouped with (i.e. South Zawiya, Benina, etc.) Some municipalities still consist of villages grouped together (i.e. Sharqiyah consists of Umm Alaranib, Semnu and Zwaila)

** Fuck Italian fascism always

*** If you’re interested in learning more about urbanization in Libya since the 1960’s, Saad Kezeiri conducted a large volume of research on the topic which I highly recommend.

“Families Only”: Understanding Social Segregation in Libyan Cities

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Comic by Abdullah Hadia, a young boy can’t wait to visit a new amusement park only to be told that entrance is for families only (you can check out more of his work on Libyan culture and society here)

There are certain parts of Libyan society that you can only see if you’re a woman. Whether it’s the glass ceiling or anxiety of walking in the street, it’s hard to explain the invisible bonds that restrict a woman’s daily life to someone who isn’t tied down by them. It is the crux of the issue affecting the discourse on women’s rights in Libya, that men cannot fathom what it is that limits a woman’s abilities.

But then, there’s one aspect of injustice in Libya that only men experience: family-only spaces.

“للعائلات فقط” “Families only”; This is what is written on signs that are increasingly posted in front of cafes, restaurants, resorts, beaches, parks, any and all kinds of public spaces in Libyan cities. The term “family” is a euphemism; what the sign really says is “No single men allowed”. The sign also says something else, “This space is safe for women”. That’s because you don’t need to be a “family” to enter this space, you just need to be a woman. You can come alone, with friends, or even with your actual family. Women have complete access to this space, but men only have access if they are accompanied by a woman. In a patriarchal society, it’s a strange twist of power.

This concept began several years ago, when “public” (commercial) spaces became more ubiquitous in Libya following the lifting of sanctions. The ability of citizens to open private businesses led to the establishment of cafes and restaurants which – in conservative Libyan societies – were just for men, a space outside of the house to hang out. But in big cities, the trend began to change (either because city women are bold or because business-owners realized they also had disposable incomes, or both) and restaurants were designed to have two sections; “men only” and “family-only”. Since women were sometimes accompanied by men, it didn’t make sense to create a women-only section, so instead it became a condoned space for mixed-sex mingling.

But the family-only space has evolved to a multi-dimensional space not only limited as a place to ‘hang out’, especially as the spaces themselves have become more than just cafes; it’s where civil society organizations conduct their meetings, it’s where couples have their dates, and it’s where a lot of social events that were previously held in homes now take place. Birthdays, engagement parties, women’s gatherings, you name it. Libyans in big cities are moving out of their sitting rooms and into the public spaces offered by private businesses. In Benghazi, we’ve seen the creation of ‘resorts’ and ‘parks’, places that offer not just somewhere to eat but also outdoor areas to walk around, within the double enclosure of a physical wall and the protection of the family-only sign.

What is the logic behind the family-only space? In the unregulated jungle that is the Libyan street, women are often targeted by the harassment of men, whether uncomfortable leering or catcalling, and in some cases physical harassment. Unlike the more progressive example led by neighbour Tunisia, there are currently no laws (and in the case of the current situation, no law enforcement) stopping street harassment. Where can Libyan woman go that is both outside the confines of the house but also comfortable enough to walk around without being bothered? Behold the birth of the family-only space.

This family-only concept has evolved even further. Recently in big cities such as Benghazi and Tripoli, entire streets are closed off as ‘families-only’ during festivities. The entrances of one major street in Tripoli is manned by militia men at night during the entire month of Ramadan, with men being told to go away if they don’t have a “family” accompanying them. As this trend increases, men are feeling increasingly pushed out of their cities, especially as businesses see that it’s more profitable to target families rather than just men. Young men have taken to social media to complain about the family-only concept, saying that it’s not possible or fair that they need to have a female companion in order to enter most public places.

It’s not fair to be expected to have a member of the opposite sex with you at all times? Now you know how we feel, say the women! While it’s fantastic that this dialogue of gendered spaces has been opened in Libya, it avoids one key issue, which is that of our public spaces in general.

Whether it’s men-or-family only, most of the time it’s private businesses who regulate “public space”, which require that you pay to enter or stay. Actual public spaces, ones that don’t require fences or entrances and exits, are being neglected, because these are not considered “safe spaces”. The formation of two public spaces, one regulated and the other neglected, is cementing inequality in Libyan cities. Those who cannot afford to enter family-only spaces but don’t feel safe enough to use the free spaces will have no part of the city besides their homes, and they lose all the joy of being an urban dweller.

The segregation of single men from public spaces also creates a kind of inequality. A man is not considered decent enough to mix with society until he is part of a family or can create one. Women, by contrast, are expected to be part of a family but have full access to societal spaces since they are the “core” of any family anyways. A family is created when a woman is added to the mix. The entire concept is underpinned by the segregation of gender which permeates the functioning of cities in the Middle East and North Africa, that men and woman can’t, or shouldn’t, mingle together in spaces. Even in liberal Tunisia, cafes in less affluent parts of cities are clearly only for men, spaces that can’t be accessed by women.

Yes, big cities are moving away from this type of segregation, and smaller cities are following, but it’s being replaced by a new type, a more complex gendered segregation influenced by economics. Men still largely dominate the right to the city, but women are now taking this right through a more socially accepted approach, at the expense of the truly public spaces. Both men and women will have to negotiate city space and find a way to coexist without any type of segregation if the city is to be enjoyed by all its denizens.