Squatter Cities and Megacities Week

Tehran: Squatter City, Megacity

By Aaron Wolf


Where do the poorest residents live in Tehran? How did they get there? Are there or were there in the past districts of housing built by the occupants themselves?


Tehran has seen expansive growth as a metropolis over the past half century. In 1956, the city’s population was just 1.56 million. It increased to over 4.5 million just before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and exceeded 8 million by the 2010s. To accommodate this exponential growth, the city’s municipal boundaries have also expanded tremendously, increasing 13-fold over a 70-year period (Madinipour, 2011; Movahhed, Noori, Hataminejad, Zanganeh & Kajouri, 2016). At the same time, the urban poor of the Tehran Metropolitan Region (TMR) have been largely marginalized by public policy. Efforts to generate sustainable housing for the city’s impoverished residents have largely backfired, constricting the poor to areas of the city lacking critical services, while forcing an enormous proportion to move into informal settlements on the fringe. This report tracks the movement of Tehran’s urban poor by first establishing the areas that the urban poor of the TMR inhabited over the past half century and then analyzing some of the factors that have led them to take up residence there.

Starting with the urban poor that live within the city’s municipal boundary, recent research indicates that they remain in the same areas where they have resided for decades. Since Tehran’s establishment as a major city within Iran, the city’s richer citizens have preferred to live in the northern districts. These districts lie close to the foothills of the Alborz mountain range, and as a result, offer a more temperate climate for those who can afford to live there. In contrast, the poor have mostly lived in the southern districts, which are hotter, dryer, and more congested (Khosravi, 2008). Despite the fact that by the 21st century, Tehran consumed a disproportionate amount of the country’s resources compared to other cities and rural areas, research suggests that these southern districts of the city have remained areas of severe deprivation (Fanni, 2006). In 2016, Movahhed and colleagues conducted a spatial analysis of the city of Tehran using 43 survey indicators to determine which districts struggled most with poverty. As anticipated, Districts 16, 17, 18, and 19 had the highest ranks on all four poverty factors: economic, social, cultural, and educational (Movahhed et al, 2016; see Table 1). Beyond revealing the continuing problems within these southern districts, the researchers also conducted a block-by-block statistical analysis. Using their model, 34.1 percent of Tehran’s city blocks were labelled as ‘poor,’ while 38.5 percent were labelled ‘very poor’ (Movahhed et al, 2016). As evidenced, despite substantial progress in many areas since the Islamic Revolution, Tehran continues to be a city of mostly impoverished residents. Some of the possible reasons behind this will be explored in the following discussion of informal settlements on the Tehran fringe.

In large part due to the struggles of the urban poor within the municipal boundary, a large proportion have been forced to live in informal settlements outside of the city limits, but within the TMR. Zebardast characterizes these settlements as neither fully urban nor rural, existing along Tehran’s major transportation routes, such as the Saveh Road, the Khorasan Road, and the Varamin Road corridors (Zebardast, 2006). The households that have taken up residence in these informal settlements are composed of majority low-income, long-term urban residents who have been forced outside of the city limits due to the failures of the municipal government to provide adequate, affordable housing. In fact, approximately 60.2 percent of all informal settlement households in 2006 last lived in another part of the metro region (Zebardast, 2006). Due to this, Zebardast has characterized the movement toward these settlements as not a part of a progressive rural-to-urban migration as some have labelled it, but rather, long-time city residents moving out of the city proper to seek new housing opportunities (Zebardast, 2006). These are families with typically one male income earner who engages in informal economic activities for income. As opposed to illegally occupying this land or engaging in land grabbing as is often the case in other countries, these residents in the TMR usually pay for the land that they occupy legally. Additionally, while by no means an optimal place to live and raise a family, Zebardast notes that informal settlements in Iran tend to have a superior physical structure to those in other third-world countries (Zebardast, 2006).

The growth of these settlements over the last half century has constituted a massive portion of the overall growth of the TMR. Tehran’s population increased by about 3.5 million people from 1966 to 1996, and Tehran during this time was the most rapidly growing city in Iran’s urban system (Fanni, 2006). Despite this, over the same period, the share of the city proper’s population within the TMR decreased from 87 percent to 65.5 percent while the fringes grew exponentially. From 1986 to 1996, around 40 percent of the TMR’s population increase was due to these informal settlements (Zebardast, 2006). Another way of looking at this is that while the city grew 2.3 times, the rest of the metro region grew 7.8 times. And during the period of the most rapid change in Iranian society, due to both the revolution and the ensuing eight-year conflict with Iraq, growth on the fringe was tremendous, exceeding 10 percent annually (Zebardast, 2006).

Both general and specific factors explain the continual struggles of the urban poor within the city itself and the mass movement towards the fringes. In general, the expansion of informal settlements can be characterized as a failure of the formal market to meet the demands of the urban poor, a phenomenon that is common in developing countries. When this occurs, an informal market supplants it, offering an increasingly diverse and commercialized arena for economic activity. The failures of this official market can be largely traced to the Tehran Master Plan of 1968. This modernization effort did not take the needs of the urban poor into account because part of its vision included a plan to eliminate poverty within the city altogether by 1974 (Zebardast, 2006). This did not occur, and the struggles of the urban poor continued even through a drastic change in government. 

In 1979, the Islamic Revolution removed the monarchy and replaced it with the combined rule of the clergy and parliamentary republicanism (Madinipour, 2011). In his 2009 review of the revolution and its impact on poverty, Salehi-Isfahani describes the new government’s grand aims for eradicating poverty and social inequalities (Salehi-Isfahani, 2009). These efforts initially had some success in reducing pre-revolution income inequality, but the war with Iraq halted many of these initiatives, especially in Tehran (Salehi-Isfahani, 2009; Madinipour, 2011). In the 1990s, the city recovered, but this recovery mostly benefited those at the top, as Tehran’s advancements in urban development and education facilities attracted migrants of higher socioeconomic classes to the city. As a result, from 1996 to 2003, many of the poorer migrants to the city were priced out and forced to seek more affordable housing in the southern districts or the informal settlements on the fringe (Fanni, 2006).

On top of these general trends, many specific urban policies motivated people to move out of the city to fringe settlements. These included a minimum residency requirement of 5-10 years and minimum age requirements of 25 for married couples and 30 for single applicants that precluded a large percentage of the urban poor from receiving subsidized urban land. Issues such as a skewed income distribution, a high housing price-to-income ratio, and a relatively small housing finance system within the city only exacerbated these effects (Zebardast, 2006). Several development plans, including a series of three five-year plans from 1989 to 2004, have been introduced by the municipal and national governments, but the common theme among them has been a tendency to neglect and marginalize the urban poor despite their being intended to help them (Zebardast, 2006).

Tehran’s urban poor have made up a huge portion of the overall migration in the TMR over the past half-century. Much of that migration has consisted of mass movements towards informal settlements on the fringe. At the same time, many impoverished Tehranis have remained stuck in the same southern districts of the city that they have occupied for decades. While a change in government in 1979 can be credited with at least temporarily reducing income inequality within the city, struggles associated with both international conflict and poor municipal policy have impeded long-term progress for Tehran’s urban poor.


Fanni, Zohreh. “Cities and urbanization in Iran after the Islamic revolution.” Cities 23, no. 6 (2006): 407-411.

Khosravi, Shahram. Young and defiant in Tehran. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Madanipour, Ali. “Sustainable development, urban form, and megacity governance and planning in Tehran.” In Megacities, edited by A. Sorensen & J. Okota, 67-91. Tokyo: Springer, 2011.

Movahhed, Ali, Saman Vali Noori, Hossein Hataminejad, Ahmad Zanganeh, and Moosa Kamanroodi Kajouri. “Spatial analysis of urban poverty in Tehran Metropolis.” Journal of Urban Economics and Management 4, no. 15 (2016): 19-36.

Salehi-Isfahani, Djavad. “The Revolution and the rural poor.” Radical History Review 2009, no. 105 (2009): 139-144.

Zebardast, Esfandiar. “Marginalization of the urban poor and the expansion of the spontaneous settlements on the Tehran metropolitan fringe.” Cities 23, no. 6 (2006): 439-454.

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