Regimes of Urban Transformation in Tehran: The Politics of Planning Urban Development in the 20th Century Iran

Azadeh Mashayekhi

Research output: ThesisDissertation (TU Delft)

341 Downloads (Pure)


This thesis contributes to a detailed understanding of the urbanisation of Tehran, and offers a new perspective on its complexities and specificities. This perspective builds on the work of urban scholars who have critically questioned the Eurocentric understanding of cities and have moved beyond an artificial hierarchy of cities that pushes for ‘backward/underdeveloped’ cities to become like ‘advanced/developed’ cities, even if that is inappropriate to their specific material and cultural condition. The thesis considers the urbanisation of Tehran over the course of the whole 20th century and argues that urban change and development process of Tehran is a multi-scalar process and despite its particularities and differences, have been connected to wider global development processes. In doing so this research examines the historic trajectory of Tehran’s urbanisation and development through the lens of international development discourse (such as state-led industrialisation or long-term economic development planning and privatisation) and shows how the interconnection between Iranian city making practices and international development ideas have shaped Tehran urban spaces and social structure. Throughout the last century, many international perspectives on Iran diagnosed the country and its capital city as being ‘backward’, ‘Third World’, and ‘undeveloped’. Thus, the pressure to ‘catch up’ with developed and economically powerful nations has been crucial in the ways in which Iranian government regimes, political elites, experts, and citizens have dealt with the ‘problem of underdevelopment’. In this thesis, the discourse of development refers not only to how development is defined or described, but also to how it is measured and practiced. Since the beginning of the 20th century, shifts in the global political economy have caused new discourses, institutions, and actors of development to emerge – bringing important implications for the formulation of national development polices and urban planning practices in cities across the Global South, including Tehran. Therefore, this study seeks to reveal how the interplay between the global discourse on development and Iran’s development policies has resulted in particular urban plans and development projects for Tehran, whose outcomes have had long lasting effects on trajectories of urbanisation and urban transformation in Iran. This research provides a historic perspective which first interrogates the relationship between urbanisation and development discourses and problematizes their perceived positive relationship in studies of cities in the Global South. Then a series of theoretical debates on history of urbanisation in non-Western cities, and shifts in international development discourse and its implications for the formulation of national development polices and urban planning practices in cities across the global south are presented. These theoretical discussions have offered conceptual lenses and an analytical framework that have helped to create a multi-scalar approach which frames the history of Tehran’s urbanisation as an intertwined local and global process. It is particularly through the application of this analytical framework that this thesis provides a novel understanding of Tehran urban development and the role of urban planning and design. The multi-scalar analysis of Tehran’s urbanisation is divided into three major periods over the last century. The beginning and end of each of these chronological periods is defined by crucial socio-political changes in Iran, each of which were motivated by the ambition to develop a modern and independent Iran that resists Western hegemony. Moreover, each period has been structured around the key shifts in international development discourses, as well as key national development policies, urban plans and projects for Tehran, their political and economic purposes, and the experts and institutions involved in making them. The empirical analysis of each period unpacks the differing agendas for the construction of nation-statehood and traces the conflict and alliances between state and non-state actors and agencies in the process of negotiating and implementing national development policies and urban plans for Tehran. Finally, the role of local and Western urban planners and experts, and the ideas and principles that guided their work, were examined through tracing the institutionalisation of expertise and the plan-making processes. By revealing the pathway of Tehran’s urbanisation and its specific historical trajectory, this study finds that the development of Tehran as a capital city during the 20th century has been one of the key mechanisms with which the Iranian state has constructed itself, and fortified its role as a builder and engineer of new ‘modern’ urban spaces. In each of the different periods, extensive powers to organise the territory were in the hands of the state, which can be seen as a way of maintaining and extending its authority and legitimacy.
The case of Tehran’s urbanisation uncovers a mutual relationship between national development plans and urban change. The historical study of a series of key national development plans shows how Iranian ruling elites and chosen experts responded to dominant international development discourses and attempted to nurture a locally interpreted version of the ‘developed’ city. These efforts had direct implication for planning procedures and city making practices. As such, the case of Tehran deepens knowledge about the role of state and nation-building processes in shaping urban planning practices and urbanisation of southern cities, and also offers a counter-narrative to the common views in urban studies which suggest that large cities are bypassing their nation-states in driving economic growth and becoming strategic actors in the global economy.
Ultimately by interrogating state power in producing Tehran urbanism, we highlight the importance of and need for more research on the role of state (formal) and non-state (informal) actors in shaping Tehran’s urban development trajectory and the politics of city-making practices. This is particularly pertinent to the careful investigation of the role of revolutionary charitable foundations in planning development as these foundations cannot be defined simply as public or private sector. In more general terms, it is important to further research the role of the religious-political groups (as non-state actors) or any other developmental organisation with ideological orientations in shaping urban spaces and spatial practices of Middle Eastern cities. In fact, it will be impossible to do any planning reform without considering the crucial role these ideological groups and organisations play in socio-economic development of these cities.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Delft University of Technology
  • Zonneveld, W.A.M., Supervisor
  • Stead, D., Supervisor
Award date16 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Cite this