Inside the Iraqi city that banned concrete to adapt to a changing climate
It was 35 degrees Celsius outdoors but only 27 degrees inside Ismael Taher Mahmoud’s house when The New Arab visited it, one afternoon this June.
Protected from the raging sun by meter-thick stone walls, its rooms would stay fresh all summer without air conditioning, Mahmoud told The New Arab.
“In summer it’s cool inside, and in winter it’s relatively warm. We don’t use air conditioning or heaters, only a fan,” Mahmoud said, sitting on the carpeted floor of his living room. Deeper into the house, in cavernous windowless rooms, the temperature dropped even more, allowing the family to use it as a pantry without worrying that food would spoil.
"Iraq is ranked the fifth most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change by the UN. Already, the country faces increasingly frequent dust storms and intense heat waves, and Iraqi cities routinely feature among the hottest in the world in summer, recording peaks around 50 degrees Celsius"
Nested in the northern mountains of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), Akre is rooted in a rich human history spanning 2,700 years. Most of Akre’s 90,000 residents now live in modern buildings in the city’s sprawling suburbs. But its picturesque old town, with its narrow winding streets, Ottoman-era stone buildings and centuries-old houses, is what makes the city unique and draws thousands of tourists each year.
To preserve the town’s identity, local authorities have adopted radical tactics since the early 1990s, banning the use of concrete in three neighbourhoods of the historic centre. Anyone who breaks the rules risks three years in jail and a heavy fine, “around two times the value of their house,” Hiwa Shimal, the head of Akre’s heritage and culture department, told The New Arab from his office on the outskirts of town.
Shimal said the policy stems from concerns about preserving the city’s rich heritage for tourism – combined with a desire to help neighbourhoods adapt to a changing climate. “We already feel the difference: summers are hotter today than 25 years ago, but Akre suffers less than other Iraqi cities because it’s built in the mountains.”
Iraq is ranked the fifth most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change by the UN. Already, the country faces increasingly frequent dust storms and intense heat waves, and Iraqi cities routinely feature among the hottest in the world in summer, recording peaks around 50 degrees Celsius.
But it will get worse: by 2050, most residents of the Middle East will be exposed to extreme heat, defined as an average annual temperature above 29 degrees Celsius. Its effects will be most acutely felt in cities, which tend to be warmer than surrounding rural areas due to the high density of concrete and pavement.
The way cities are designed can play a huge role in mitigating heat. Having abundant trees and vegetation helps thanks to the shade and moisture they provide. But the materials used for construction also play a huge role.
“Back in the day, people used locally sourced materials like mudbricks, wood and hay, all of which are more efficient than concrete against heat,” Shimal said. Wealthier houses in Akre had thick limestone walls, which helped keep a stable temperature inside – similar to the way stone caves maintain a stable temperature year-round.
“When you get inside the houses, you can immediately feel the difference,” Shimal added. “The heat drops.”
Akre’s old houses are a formidable asset to help residents cope with a hotter future. Their lasting presence over decades and centuries pays tribute to the power of traditional architecture – and makes them an important repository of knowledge about heat-resistant design.
And unlike the (much larger) Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil, whose historic centre has been largely emptied of its residents, Akre’s remains largely inhabited, which means its houses have been maintained over the years.
But that situation is changing fast, some residents say.
“Ten years ago, houses were in a much better shape. But now, many are collapsing and have been abandoned,” Mahmoud regretted, standing in front of the wall of his house, which is crisscrossed with deep cracks. “We worry that in ten years, no one will live here because all the houses will have come down.”
Mahmoud says he can’t afford to fix his house due to the high cost of traditional materials. Although he would prefer to preserve the house’s ancient character and use stone, his salary as a civil servant isn’t enough. And concrete – a cheaper alternative – isn’t an option due to the ban.
“We stopped using the bedroom above this wall,” he said, gesturing towards a window above the caved-out wall, which runs a dozen centimetres deep. “I moved my daughter to the back of the house in case this collapses.”
And he is far from the only one struggling to maintain his decaying house. In the same street, located near the market, four houses out of seven have been abandoned, their windows and doors shuttered. Higher up in the neighbourhood, steep alleys wandering off the beaten touristic paths are lined with dozens of abandoned houses, caved-in roofs, and leaning walls.
“The government says that this law against concrete is meant to protect our old houses. But what’s the point of protecting them if everyone is gone?” a young woman called Sidra told The New Arab, standing at the doorstep of her house, at the end of a dark alley lined with gaping doors.
All of them open onto abandoned rooms and littered floors. Sidra’s concrete house, built before the ban, is the only one still inhabited. Nearby buildings were abandoned after their mud roofs gave in one after the other, despite residents’ attempts to protect the dissolving mud with plastic tarps.
From 2011 to 2014, Akre’s heritage protection policy was supported by public funding, which paid for the renovation of 25 houses and historic buildings. Renovations were done in coordination with the city’s heritage department, which provided technical advice and supervised the works. Owners would receive 150,000 Iraqi dinars (around $100 at the time) per square meter on average, according to Shimal.
When the funds ran out in 2014, subsidies were suspended – but the ban on concrete remained.
“It’s a problem for some people because traditional construction materials – like stone – are either difficult to procure or very expensive compared to concrete,” Shimal recognized. “In certain cases, we tolerate the use of concrete, as long as it’s eventually hidden behind a layer of stone.”
There are only four masons in Akre who are approved by the municipality to renovate heritage houses, and their labour is in high demand.
New funding worth 900 million Iraqi dinars (around 620,000 USD at the time) was approved by the Kurdistan Regional Government in 2022, but won’t suffice to cover all needs. Shimal estimates that around 1500 houses across the three neighbourhoods still need a fix, which few families can afford.
“Two types of people live in this neighbourhood,” Mahmoud explained. “Kurdish families like ours who were born here and can’t afford to buy a house elsewhere, and Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are drawn here by cheaper rents. The downside it that they must live in crumbling houses.”
Still, as most of the neighbourhood falls apart, patches of the city centre are enjoying a vibrant revival thanks to tourism and heritage protection initiatives. The value of some properties reportedly increased in one staircase street after it was decorated by a local organization, Bozhin (pronounced Bo Jin, meaning “for life” in Kurdish).
“This neighbourhood was completely neglected by the government,” Suroud Titan, a founding member of Bozhin, told The New Arab. “We wanted to give it a new life and protect its heritage.” For the past two years, Bozhin’s volunteers have been running cleaning campaigns in the centre, painting the streets and planting flowers.
The staircase street they fixed up is now lined with cafés and restaurants that settled into old stone houses renovated with public funding. They advertise fantastic views of the surrounding neighbourhood – which, seen from a safe distance, doesn’t seem to be crumbling.
Karzan Ahmad Maaroof contributed to this report.
Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.
Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais