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Avar Almukhtar is originally from Erbil Iraq and joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in 2011. His thesis title is ‘Place-identity in historic cities; embracing heritage, globalisation, and conflict in Erbil Iraq’.
I did my MA in Urban Design at Oxford Brookes through the Chevening Scholarship Programme in 2010.
I was attracted to Oxford Brookes University for three main reasons. Firstly, my MA experience was a positive one which encouraged me to continue here. Secondly, the University’s successful postgraduate programme in Urban Design alongside excellent and supportive academic staff; Professor Georgia Butina-Watson is an expert in place-identity which is my research topic. Finally, the beautiful historic city of Oxford with its wide and international academic environment, and its location close to London, was an influencing factor too.
I was practicing Architecture in Iraq before moving to the UK, working on various projects from housing developments to shopping malls. I worked as an Architect at Costain, a British Construction Company based in Erbil, before starting my own architecture practice.
The great support from both supervisors and the wider department made it easy to integrate into the research environment.
There is wide concern about the erosion of place-identity in our cities and urban areas. The world has experienced significant changes ranging from globalisation, technology advancement, and rapid urbanisation, to conflict and war. Throughout history, war has caused fundamental political, economic, and social transformations around the world, spatially impacting urban form. Cities that face conflict and war such as the Iraqi and Syrian cities of Aleppo and Mosul are under attack, not only on the human and physical level, but also on intangible elements such as culture, traditions, historical values, and heritage sites and landmarks. As the situation stabilises and political, economic, and social changes emerge, reconstruction efforts begin as a part of the post-war recovery process. However, changes introduced by post-war urban reconstruction may result in challenges that threaten and weaken local identity such as rapid urbanisation and globalisation.
This is especially relevant in the developing world where priorities are focused on primary needs and there is a lack of governmental structure that is capable of creating comprehensive policies for urban developments and reconstruction. Nowhere is that more evident than in emerging nations that have been beset with war, conflict and ethnic tensions as they strive for autonomy and independence without restraints on place-identity and global positioning. Iraqi Kurdistan is a clear example of such a case where place-identity is a struggle between social values, the importance of heritage and tradition, new governance structures, and global promotion of the region through a post-war urban reconstruction process. The city of Erbil specifically is one of the cities in the forefront of these challenges as it is the preeminent capital of the emerging Iraqi-Kurdistan Nation, which is the context of my research.
Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq is such a city. The city hosts the Erbil Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which dates back to nearly 5000 B.C. The Citadel is thought to be one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements, which has gone through layers of different civilizations. After war ravaged the country in 2003, a decade of reconstruction ensued with a long period of political and economic stability resulting in a rapid urbanisation. The post-war reconstruction process was a challenge between aspirations of promoting the city globally (as a capital of an emerging nation) and Erbil’s historical roots represented in the Citadel and the old town. This has involved an array of urban actors including international investors and NGOs that have influenced the transformation of Erbil’s place-identity.
My research studies the transformation of Erbil and its historical identity during the post-war reconstruction period. It employs a morphological analysis of the city’s historic core and contemporary areas combined with key informant interviews with local residents, policy makers, and stakeholders in order to explore the impact of the intensive post-war urban development process on the city’s place-identity. Key findings of Erbil’s morphological analysis indicate that post-war reconstruction process has radically transformed the city’s urban fabric both in the old and the contemporary areas. Arguably, reflecting globalised design patterns and ignoring the historic morphological traces that the city has acquired through centuries. Consequently, post-war urban transformation has been negatively impacting Erbil’s unique place-identity. Additionally, this loss of place-identity has spread to other areas of the city as a result of insensitive and short-sighted redevelopment strategies and policies. Therefore, the erosion of place-identity of growing importance, particularly in the context of historic cities facing, or coming out of, periods of conflict and especially through post-war development interventions, rapid urbanization, and political aspirations to promote the city globally as a capital of an emerging autonomous micro-nation. Therefore, there is a pressing need to address the issue of place-identity within a planning and urban design framework in a post conflict zone context.
The key challenge of my research is to identify how urban development processes can enhance place-identity within post-war development interventions and rapid urbanisation; a key gap in the knowledge. Using Erbil as a case study, this research aims to develop a methodology and theoretical propositions to support place-identity in this unique context. It further develops a set of urban design strategies and guidelines to enhance place-identity in the process of post-war urban reconstruction to result in a harmonious relationship between historic urban cores and new urban developments. Focus is placed on accommodating the needs for modernisation without compromising historic character and local place-identity.
I enjoy the exposure to various researchers through seminars, workshops and talks, where interesting topics are debated. I also enjoyed the opportunity to engage with teaching urban design in the department.
I am very satisfied with the research training, it’s absolutely great. I feel it has prepared me to face challenges during various stages of my research. I have also received incredible support from both of my supervisors, Professor Georgia Butina-Watson and Dr Laura Novo De Azevedo. Additionally, Graduate College training and events have helped me to acquire skills and be prepared for a career after completion of my PhD.