Featured, Failure & Frustration
It is always wonderful to feature in a publication, especially when the paper is written by someone you greatly respect. Dr Susie Lingham is a truly gifted thinker and creative activist, so it is with great pride I read about one of my projects in her recent contribution to the Cultural Connections Journal, Volume V1, a piece called, The Larger Reality, War and Architecture.
The project that Dr Susie Lingham feature is a park in the old town of Mosul. A part of the city which was devastated by war, an area of unbelievable physical destruction and emotional trauma. I was contracted to build a park in an area. An urban space that had ISIS tunnels, broken buildings, and an everyday place with uncomfortable social meaning and memories. The Halo Trust, UNMAS and a local NGO called Al-Ghad had the money and the presence of mind to convert this sorry site into a place that brings communities together, an area that supports the youth and teaches them the dangers associated with landmines, IED and unexploded ordnance.
A year later, I returned to Iraq on a different contract, I took the time to visit the park with a group of inspiring young architects and engineers from Mosul. My optimism began to fade as we drew closer to the area, the trees were in a sorry state, the grass was poorly kept, the play equipment was broken or wasn’t what was specified, the gates were closed and the site looked bleak and unloved, most sadly, there was no one in the park and the water features were dry. Too uncomfortable to walk straight into the park, I sat with a local baker who gave me a free piece of (delicious bread) and took stock, he didn’t know how I was (I mean he didn’t know I was the designer of the park opposite) so I asked what he thought of the park. He told me it was horrendous, the kids don’t play there, the lights don’t work, there is no shade, the people inside are not accommodating and it gets locked in the afternoon. With some embracement, I told him I was sorry and that it was me that designed it. He smiled and gave me another piece of bread (Mosul people are so kind and gentle), he said I wasn’t to take it personally, it wasn’t my fault. The municipality has used the place for offices, they park their cars there and don’t look after it, they lock it after work and don’t care if there is no electricity for external lighting and water features. The park equipment was bought second hand and it's made of metal that gets very hot in the sun so the kids can’t play on it and the trees are so unhealthy that the little cover their foliage would have offered is compromised.
Despite the sadness, irritation and embarrassment I still brought the architects and engineers over the road to see the park, I was now determined to turn this peacebuilding circus into a positive situation of learning and dialogue. With a heavy heart, I spoke to the seven government officials now in residence, they assured me that the gates weren't locked and that the lights work etc. The group of architects and engineers were amazing. They felt my emotions, understood the situation and were gracious in their feedback. We left the park wiser.
After a while, I understood I had little to do with the park’s poor fate, that said, I still felt at fault to some degree, despite designing the park during the Covid lockdown in my makeshift home office in Scotland, I should have written a maintenance plan, long-term as well as short-term. I should have ensured all stakeholders' agreement and ownership of the project's peacebuilding purpose and longevity. This has amplified that a project like this one absolutely requires day-to-day management on site by either the designer/project lead (me in this case) or an experienced project manager/peacebuilding specialist.
However, no matter the processes and paperwork it is almost impossible to safeguard a project if the local municipality is not committed or has alternative genders.
I feel frustrated that the trust, goodwill and resources UNMAS, The Halo Trust and Al-Ghad have invested in this project have been squandered. most of all I feel deep frustration that the youngsters, parents and youth in this area are without a much-needed place of play and relaxation.
I hope that this article is useful – To some readers, If you are about to engage in a small-scale peacebuilding project in an unfamiliar context please learn from my misfortune and failure – To other readers, please be brave and share your problem projects so that we can celebrate the challenges as well as the successes as we move forward trying to improve our humanitarian services. To all others, I hope your week is a kind one