“Stop building”: in Libya, Benghazi sees chaotic urban sprawl

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During a decade of war in Libya, its second city, Benghazi, grew to double its size, creating an unplanned and chaotic urban sprawl.

The fighting has displaced countless families, forcing many to build new homes without a permit in a jumble of unplanned neighborhoods that often lack infrastructure, from proper roads to schools or sewage systems.

As this oil-rich but poverty-stricken North African country attempts to stabilize and rebuild itself, authorities scramble to address the legacy of years without urban planning.

“We had to leave our downtown homes because of the war,” said Benghazi resident Jalal al-Gotrani, an employee of the health ministry in the northeastern coastal city.

“When the fighting stopped, we found our homes destroyed and uninhabitable. We couldn’t afford rent, so we had to build a small house in an unplanned neighborhood, ”he explained.

Benghazi was the epicenter of the 2011 uprising that toppled late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, sparking years of lawless chaos in Libya.

The city was the site of the 2012 attack that killed United States Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and it saw more intense fighting between 2014 and 2017 that pulverized large neighborhoods.

Al-Gotrani, who supports a family with six children on a salary of just $ 130 per month, said that so far “there has been no state plan or assistance to rebuild the destroyed areas” .

‘Stop building’

As a result, entire informal settlements have sprung up in outlying areas zoned for agriculture, without planning permission and without a master plan.

“Stop building and contact the town planning department! Reads a notice on the fence of an unauthorized construction site on the outskirts of Benghazi.

An Egyptian construction worker works in an illegal construction project in Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi on August 25, 2021 (AFP photo)

The state is facing an increase in unregulated construction that it “cannot keep up with,” said Abu Bakr al-Ghawi, housing minister of the Libyan national unity government, which took power in March.

The head of municipal planning, Osama al-Kazza, warns that the phenomenon is creating neighborhoods devoid of roads, green spaces and schools and are not connected to vital water and sewage networks.

The eastern city has grown from 32,000 hectares to 64,000 hectares since the last urban master plan in 2009, largely because of the unlicensed buildings that now make up half of the city, he said.

“More than 50,000 homes are outside the public plan” – half of the buildings in the city – Kazza told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“Development is ahead of planning,” he added.

Homeless again

The Libyan capital Tripoli, some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) to the west, has also seen entire neighborhoods emerge without a single building permit, for similar reasons.

A year-long battle between the eastern coup leader Khalifa Haftar and armed groups based in Tripoli has caused extensive damage on the outskirts of the capital, displacing thousands of people and creating a housing crisis.

A year of relative peace since an October 2020 ceasefire, with United Nations-led efforts to bring about a more permanent peace, has focused minds on the colossal work of reconstruction.

Al-Ghawi said the government was working with Libyan and foreign consultants to define a new national urban development strategy, the third in the country’s history.

The last, in 2009, was never implemented because of the war and the years of lawlessness that followed the overthrow of Gaddafi.

But a rush to enforce planning laws without providing alternative housing has had human consequences.

In recent weeks, authorities in Tripoli have demolished a series of structures built since the fall of Gaddafi, including cafes and restaurants – but also houses.

However, by demolishing buildings without a permit without offering alternatives to their occupants, the authorities risk rendering homeless some families already displaced by the war.

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