Iran, the storied empire of Persian antiquity is majorly a desert plateau ringed by lofty mountain ranges. Famed for their handsome architecture and verdant gardens, the old Iranian cities of Pasargad and Neishabour were exceptional examples of early urban planning. With the Islamic conquest of Iran, traditional Iranian culture was swept over by the successive waves of Persian, Turkish, and Mongol invasions. The architecture and urban planning engaged itself in the construction of several new cities adorned with bazaars, mosques, and Islamic scientific schools. In 1925, the ill-planned efforts of the Pahlavi dynasty to modernize Iran led to widespread dissatisfaction and eventually the Iranian revolution of 1979. Though the revolution brought about a regime that combined elements of a parliamentary democracy with an Islamic theocracy run by clergy, the country soon found itself embroiled in a long-term war with Iraq. Owing to the clergy rule, the alleged support for international terrorism, and global ostracization, Iran somewhat lost its charm post-war.

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City ruins in Pasargad ©

Urban Settlements

Post-1960s was a period of rapid urbanization for Iran. The discovery of oil as the new economic resource, improved trade with other countries, and the growth of importance of the Persian Gulf were the major drivers that initiated this drastic shift catalyzed by Industrialization, modernizations, and the Iran-Iraq war. By 2010 about three-fourths of Iran’s population was living in cities calling for urgent urban planning strategies in the country. Tehran grew to be the capital and largest city. 250 miles south of Tehran is Esfahan, the second most important city famed for its splendid architecture. 

Most cities sit on the foot of a mountain or a hill owing to the water scarcity in the region. The cities draw water through an underground irrigation system called Qanat that taps and channels water from a mountain through a series of underground tunnels. Traditional Iranian cities are labyrinths of narrow streets and clusters of traditional houses with domed roofs built around courtyards with gardens and pools. The urban fabric is divided into sectors such as government, residential, and business based on the function. Though the cities have been overlayed with broad avenues, ring roads, business centers, and modern buildings, the basic structure thrives beneath this layer of modernity.

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Jameh Mosque of Isfahan ©Wikimedia commons
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Tehran city on the foothills of Alborz Mountains ©

Comprehensive Urban Planning

Post-war, a system of rigid comprehensive urban planning was developed in Iran that prepared comprehensive plans for cities with a population of more than 25000 and guide plans for smaller cities. Planning hierarchy in Iran has four levels namely national, regional, sub-regional, and local. The comprehensive urban plans fall under the local planning level. The plan focuses on physical development with a criterion for protecting heritage sites while leaving social, cultural, and economic development unaccounted for. The plan is developed through a series of studies and analysis done by architects and urban planners and is a joint effort between the municipality, city council, and provincial offices. Once approved, the plans are then detailed out with zoning, land use, city network, and population density for each city. 

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Comprehensive Urban plan of Tehran 1968 © Research gate
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Comprehensive Urban plan of Tehran 2006 © Research gate

Assessment of Comprehensive Urban Planning strategy

The pace of urbanization varies with the size and potential of a city. Cities such as Tehran and Isfahan have better prospects for economic growth and investor concentration; hence, these cities attracted a huge population of migrants while the smaller, less developed cities did not have such huge migrant inflow. Therefore, the larger cities saw more problems associated with the high population. Iran had slums and squatter settlements concentrated around the major cities while the urban planning strategy does not take this disparity into account. This led to inequality between large cities and other smaller cities in terms of the economic development required to meet population growth. 

The Comprehensive Urban planning model also faced serious criticism for the lack of involvement of citizens, NGOs, and other stakeholders. Several studies were conducted on the comprehensive plans of Iran and its implementation. The plans have revealed to have high discrepancies in their objectives and implementation. They turned out to be inflexible, unrealistic, and unfeasible. There is no system of monitoring the implementation of these plans, nor are there any regulations or standards that can keep the plans up to date. Though other strategies such as systematic and strategic plans have come up, comprehensive urban planning continues to be a dominant approach in Iranian planning. 

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Growth of Tehran from 1850s to 1970s. © Research gate
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Slums in Iran ©FAVEL

Planning is not a neutral unidirectional exercise but involves an in-depth understanding of the place, its people, and the pace of growth. Urbanization in Iran is so fast-paced that planners are unable to cope with the changes adequately. Further, the rigidity of the conventional models makes it impossible to adapt to the requirements of the changing times leading to their failure. Conventional methods of comprehensive planning and master plans must be replaced with flexible and sustainable urban planning strategies equipped to cope with the rapid economic, social, and environmental challenges of the 21st century. 


Akshara is a graduate from SPA-Delhi who believes that the ability to see and read the world around through multiple perspectives is one of the must haves to make a positive change. As an architect, she aspires to develop her writings as a medium of self-expression and self-exploration.