URBANET interviewed Shadnaz Azizi, a SDSN Youth Local Pathway Fellow from Tehran, about urban activism in Iran. An urban thinker and advocate, Azizi is passionate about the “in-between spaces” operating between the public and political spheres to campaign for sustainable urban development. She calls for more recognition of the essential role of virtual communities and online platforms in realising sustainable urban development.
Who, would you say, is most actively engaged in campaigning for and realising sustainable urban development in Iran?
Shadnaz Azizi: The national government definitely has the most power, and it is responsible for most of the issues related to urban development. The local government is important for implementing what has been decided on national level. It has only little flexibility as it has to follow the rules of the national government. And then we have what we call “in-between spaces”, a trend that is still in rather early stages of development. People acting in those in-between spaces – like myself – are most actively engaged in developing sustainable urban solutions.
What are the characteristics of these in-between spaces and how were they formed?
Shadnaz Azizi: We use the term “in-between spaces” to describe urban activists and advocates, community-based organisations, or other initiatives and collectives that work between the political and the public spheres. These groups have distanced themselves from the organised spheres of the state, but also from existing civil society organisations.
Many of the people who are acting in the in-between spaces formerly worked for the government or the formal planning sector. But they were unhappy with the government’s approach to urban development – especially under the presidency of Mahmud Ahmadineschad, when our economic situation was bad and many cities lost their liveability due to mismanagement. So those people – specialists – entered civil society. But existing civil society organisations were too bureaucratic for them, so they decided to create a new space where they can campaign for sustainable urban development by their own rules. They were joined by many well-educated young people who came back to Iran after the Ahmadineschad government and felt that their talent and creative skills were not appreciated by the government.
Compared to other civil society organisations, the in-between spaces still have strong connections to the political sphere. So we use in-between spaces to refer to the organisations, initiatives and actors that occupy this space, their networks and relationships.
How are the people organised who are active in these in-between spaces?
Shadnaz Azizi: These in-between groups are primarily organised in the virtual space, using different platforms such as social media tools and web-based systems. This is a very democratic way to mobilise people and get things started. Here are three examples of the kind of platforms we use and what purpose they fulfil:
- In Iran, there was a huge knowledge gap on the issue of sustainable urban development. With a lot of effort from individual urban activists, advocates and organisations, such as Space & Dialectics, we managed to slowly fill this knowledge gap and raise awareness by translating foreign literature, as well as writing our own books and articles on the topic of urban development and publishing them online on websites and blogs.
- We use social media to disseminate innovative urban development practices and mobilise people. The organisation Noir Art Group is one of the pioneers that started to raise people’s awareness of how they themselves could contribute to urban development with very practical, small-scale actions. For example, Noir Art Group drew attention to the issue of unused urban space through performances and interventions, and mobilised people via social networks to start thinking about brownfield development.
- In addition to knowledge creation and the diffusion of innovation, we use online platforms to facilitate trainings for people that want to collaborate with the government in urban development projects.
Do they face any difficulties in their work?
Shadnaz Azizi: We think that these small-scale movements and forms of civic engagement can be a very powerful vehicle for a sustainable urban transformation in Iran. We realised that we ourselves need to be the changemakers in our cities. But currently, this approach is based very much on the efforts of passionate individuals, who often put a lot of private time into this work. To work more efficiently, we need financial support from the private sector and also from the government. They also have to support us in mobilising more people to join these in-between spaces. Right now, the in-between spaces are still dominated by urban specialists and not by the general public, who often cannot afford to do this kind of voluntary work.
It is important to convince the private sector and the government that the work of urban activists, advocates and organisations operating in the in-between spaces is essential to realise sustainable urban development. They also need us to implement their projects, because we are the experts.