Najmeh Bozorgmehr

Published: March 7 2009 00:25 | Last updated: March 7 2009 00:25

There are some things that residents of Iran’s bustling capital city complain about on a daily basis: Tehran’s traffic has turned its streets and even highways into immense parking lots; the pollution is choking; and housing is more expensive than in New York or London.

Some of these are exaggerated, of course, and, on the last point, rents and sales prices have come down about 30 per cent due to the global economic crisis. But, when it comes to the first two challenges facing more than 8m Tehranis, there do not seem to be any immediate solutions – except escaping from the city centre toward the north-west.

This area of Tehran offers more reason able prices, wider streets and greener areas, plus the unique advantage of the wind blowing from west to east, filtering the smog. And on its very edge is the least touched neighbourhood in the city, called District 22, also known as “Tehran’s lungs”. Indeed, when a daily newspaper prints a map of pollution in different parts of the capital, with many central, southern, eastern and northern parts emblazoned in red and orange to show the “dangerous” and “very unhealthy” air quality, District 22 is often the only one in light green for “clean”.

“I work downtown, which is not an easy commute, but am happy that my wife and daughter can have a breath of fresh air,” says Hamed, one resident.

“This district feels like a village in terms of beautiful landscape and tranquillity but is supposed to have urban facilities,” adds Jafar Estiri, a local real estate agent.

Tehran was a 15,000-strong town full of gardens when leaders of the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) chose it as the seat of government because of its relatively central location and protection from the surrounding Alborz mountains. It emerged as a metropolis with a population of 1m by 1950, after King Reza Pahlavi (1925-1941) ushered in an era of modernity and defined the city as Iran’s industrial centre. Without a comprehensive development plan, the government established its base close to the traditional bazaar, newly established banks and embassies downtown. The next ruler, Mohammad-Reza (1941-1979), pushed Tehran to grow in all directions. The east became an area for government employees and labourers to live; the west was turned into a factory area that still houses 24 per cent of the country’s industries and employs 120,000 workers; the south-west was where lower-income workers settled; and later, in the 1980s, the north-west, particularly District 4, adjacent to District 22, became another residential area.

A predominantly grey city with no consistent architectural style and little trace of Persian or Islamic culture, Tehran now looks from above like a deformed butterfly with a thick spinal cord that embraces the commercial, art, historic, service, medical and bureaucratic centres – and four unbalanced wings that mainly accommodate residents. And it is the north-western wing that can stretch furthest, since it is less restricted by the mountains.

In 1991 Iran’s High Council for Urban Planning and Architecture decided to encourage development of infertile lands in District 22 to help compensate for the shortages of social, educational and sports services in the city. But it was 2000 before the comprehensive plan was approved and only in recent years has it caught the attention of Tehranis. Now they are making up for lost time, says Hassan Karimian, the district’s mayor. “Prices have tripled over a few years,” he explains.

Estiri says that a standard, new, 120 sq metre, three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with wooden kitchen and ceramic floor in the northern part of District 22 would nowadays cost about 2,000m rials ($206,000), compared with about 600m rials three years ago. That is still less than half the cost of similar apartments in affluent parts of Tehran. But, according to Reza Nouri, another local real estate agent: “This district will be unaffordable in the not-too-distant future.”

One reason is the building restrictions that keep District 22 clean. The new neighbourhood stretches over 10,000 hectares, 6,000 of which is a green and mountainous area that by law can never be developed. Only 2,500ha can be used for residential and commercial needs, while the rest is allocated for parks and cultural, medical, educational and sports centres, plus an artificial lake of more than 355ha. “This area is unique in the country in the sense that it allocates most lands for services,” Karimian says.

Unlike in District 4, which has 1m residents and no cinema, there are grand plans for ammenities in District 22. Assuming the locality can attract enough investment – about $2bn – these would include an eight-screen cinema, a 42-storey commercial and administrative building overlooking the lake and Chitgar national park, a Disneyland, a cable car, hotels, big restaurants and specialised hospitals. There is even talk about transfering Tehran’s old bazaar to the area. “Foreign investment is welcomed for all these projects,” Karimian says, though he knows domestic resources are the most viable option because of international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Most observers expect District 22 to become a destination for middle-class homebuyers. About 140,000 already live there though the intention is to keep the population below half a million. “For environmental, economic and social reasons, the Tehran population is constantly moving,” says Ahmad Saeidnia, the head of the Iranian Society of Urban Planners. “Every person moves 16 times in his/her lifetime – much more than the average rate in other big cities in the world.”

Technocrats, doctors, engineers and lawyers have always gravitated toward the west because they cannot afford affluent northern Tehran and find lower and working class neighbourhoods in the south and east below their social dignity. The west also offers easier paths to ownership, which is complicated in the Iranian capital.

One issue is the tradition of vaghf, by which landowners dedicate their holdings to the imams of Shia Muslims. This usually gives rights to Astan-e Qods, the religious foundation in the holy city of Mashhad where Reza, the eighth imam of Shias, is buried, and now applies in some posh areas of Tehran, like Shahrak-e-Gharb in the west and Velenjak in the north, which have gone under vaghf 99-year lease terms.

The other issue is the military. Garrisons were built around the city early last century to protect it but they are now engulfed in the middle of the city, obstructing development projects, including highway construction and housing.

Although north-west Tehran has some of the same problems, there is more land available. The mayor of District 22 refuses to say what percentage of land is owned by military organisations and religious foundations but he insists there is enough for the area to make it into an exemplary zone.

Its distinctive features include more uniform architecture than the rest of the capital, where buildings as high as 20 storeys sit in narrow alleys next to single-storey houses. Aside from some high-rise residential compounds reserved for teachers, military personnel and other government employees, new properties in District 22 are limited to three floors and the municipality insists that it will not issue permits for anything higher. Many streets also have cycling lanes, which is unimaginable in other chaotic parts of Tehran.

“[Tehran] is like a kid; it’s easier to form its character now,” Karimian says.

And Estiri, for one, is confident about this particular neighbourhood’s future. “District 22 will eventually become a golden gate to Tehran,” he says.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr is the FT’s Tehran correspondent

Aerial photographs of prerevolutionary Iran: FT Weekend Magazine