Mashhad, Iran: Transformation of “Beltway to Green Belt”

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City: Mashaad
Country: Iran
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* This case study was written by the city and has not been edited by AIPH

Initiative: Transformation of “Beltway to Green Belt”

The holy city of Mashhad is located in the northeast of Iran. It has a population of 3,001,184 and about 20 million pilgrimages and tourists yearly. The Mashhad climate is cold semi-arid with hot summers. The city only sees about 250 millimetres (9.8 inches) of precipitation per year and in recent years, it has faced a sharp decline in rainfall and water shortages.
The 27 km long southern Beltway project of Mashhad in the southern heights of the city was introduced and implemented in 1990 in order to facilitate citizens’ access to suburban highways and reduce the traffic load of the inner-city streets. However, after about 20 years, the negative effects of this highway project were observed on the surrounding environment and the nature of the highlands.

Although environmental reports portrayed a dark future for the region, the construction of the highway continued despite the devastating effects on the environment. Finally, in 2018, in order to protect the environment and the interests of citizens, it was decided to stop the development of the southern part of the beltway. Then a comprehensive environmental protection plan related to this area was developed. Based on the document, different projects such as the development of multi-purpose parks and natural-mountainous parks were designed with the aim of preserving the environment and also developing native vegetation and transforming the “Southern Transport Belt” into a “Green Belt”.

The most important features of this project are as follow: – Stopping the construction of the highway due to its negative effects.

  • Preparing the ground for the possibility of protest and follow-up through legal and judicial
    institutions in all stages of project implementation, whenever actions are contrary to the public interest and the environment.
  • Carrying out comprehensive environmental studies in the region and providing solutions.
  • Design of “natural-mountainous” multi-purpose parks (access routes to parks and mountain heights
    were designed to provide a safe space for citizens).
  • The scope of the project has led to the design and implementation of other small-scale micro-projects with different objectives. Like the Bio park project, Waterfall, Chelbaze Natural Park (in three phases), Kuh Park, Khorshid Park, etc. are designed as a space for citizens and families to get acquainted with the natural ecosystem of the city.
  • Connecting several large green space projects to each other, the project is topographically located in an area consisting of hills and mountains, which is surrounded by southern heights overlooking it. This feature allows all these multi-purpose parks to be connected to each other over time as projects progress.
  • Construction of canals to direct surface water and seasonal rainfall and store it for irrigation of green space.
  • Rehabilitation of water resources due to lack of rainfall and depletion of groundwater resources that were within the scope of this project.
  • Providing a platform for citizens to get acquainted with cultural, nomadic, and rural ecosystems.
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Did you know?

Mashhad is situated on the ancient Silk Road, which facilitated trade between the east and the west.

Addressing the urban challenge

Breadth of the issue – How are the problem(s) that are being tackled by your initiative affecting citizens/local businesses or a significant component of the local wildlife?

The most important factor that is affected by the project is its natural environment. The construction of the former highway has led to the imposition of irreparable destructive effects on vegetation and water resources of the region. By stopping road construction and changing land use, the process of destructive environmental interventions was ended, and efforts were made to preserve the existing nature. Predicting investment packages will also increase employment opportunities for citizens.

The main phenomenon that needs attention in this area was the construction of residential structures along the thalweg line of the project. A place whose inhabitants were affected by a flood in 1988. Due to the passage of the thalweg line through the project and looking at the water supply needed to irrigate the green space and wildlife of the project, the plan to build a flood control dam was considered. In this regard, a sewage canal was constructed to transfer and collect seasonal runoff to the built-in dam. With the construction of this dam, the risk of damaging seasonal floods to residential areas was eliminated, and also by maintaining water, the possibility of irrigating the green space of the project was provided from within.

The special potential of this project is a good view of the city. Therefore, a section entitled “Vision Terrace” was designed, and built. Using the concrete slab network, the problem of not crushing the subsoil poured in the path of the sidewalk was solved.

Depth of the issue – How seriously are the problems being tackled by your initiative impacting the life of the citizens/businesses/wildlife concerned?

This project has caused the quality of housing in the surrounding areas to be improved. Changing the traffic function of the area to a natural park and preserving nature has prevented further damage to the environment and the plant and animal life of the area is preserved. Changing the application of the area to a natural park will increase the price of land in the surrounding areas and attract investors, and to prevent the destructive effects on urban structures, it is necessary to control the investment process by urban management. The proposed measures to organize the climbers’ routes and provide mountain safety services will increase their safety in the area. In addition to the above, in the project policies of conservation and restoration of damaged plant species, reorganization of the hydrological network, restoration of water resources, preservation and restoration of topography and natural bed of the area to reduce the destructive effects of the road operations of the former South Belt project and the improvement of spatial quality and conservation of natural resources are considered. The project intends to attract recreational activities and provide urban services, attract capital and create jobs in the area and attract different groups of people.

Another issue was the collapse of wells in Gash village. Due to the proximity of the city to this village, its inhabitants migrated, and the village was in a semi-ruined state. In the visits made during the project studies, the wells were identified and placed on the rehabilitation agenda.

The power of plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits

How is the initiative shaped by scientific evidence of the potential for plants and natural ecosystems to deliver benefits?

This Megaproject is located in the metropolis of Mashhad and is the first transformation highway project to an urban park and leisure space in Iran.

Other courageous initiatives of this project include paying special attention to the city’s environment, giving importance to the region’s heights as the city’s geographical memory, focusing on the green belt as the city’s main lungs, changing the use of transportation infrastructure to natural and public green space, and changing the senior officials approach in urban management regarding how to deal with the city natural resources as a vital asset in urban development. After the termination of Highway construction, efforts were made to rehabilitate the damaged natural bed of the hills and mountains of the region, the existing hydrological network was re-design and the per capita urban green space was increased. Other unique features of this initiative include Relying on innovation and finding a creative plan for the reconciliation and friendship of man with nature, preservation of natural values, and establishing a balance between earth and man, which seeks to adapt and coordinate the whole project with nature.

How has the city exploited the potential of plants and associated ecosystems to deliver more than one benefit?

In the first study phase, an appendix entitled Environmental Annex was prepared to examine the project’s effects on the natural environment. According to these studies and based on the “Executive Regulations for Environmental Management of Civil Projects”, it was determined that the implementation of this project will not be harmful provided that the highway is removed. This amount of effects can be controllable according to the type of leisure and general use of the project. The most important lasting positive effect of this huge project will be the restoration of the water routes and the formation of surface water outlets, and in terms of risk management is to create a suitable space for possible storage of food and medicine and facilities in emergencies, and to use this area as a gateway to the southern heights of Mashhad and provide related infrastructure services. In addition, due to the content link of the project with sub-projects such as Kuhshar, Kuh Park, Khorshid Park, Chehelbazeh Park, Rudpark, Haft Houz Complex, and especially the Green Belt, it will create suitable ecological interconnections between urban ecosystems.

The main approach of this project is “Development of urban spaces with leisure, cultural, educational, recreational, sports and …” The ultimate goals of this mega project are:

  • Promoting the values and natural and climatic specifics of the region.
  • Creating a place for people to connect with nature.
  • Filling citizens’ leisure time by using cultural ecosystems.
  • Creating a site for recognizing nomadic and rural ecosystems.

Innovative and Collaborative Solution

How does the initiative show evidence of feasibility, including on-going financial and logistical support?

Changes in the application of the lands in the area in the approved detailed plan and the use proposal of the natural park – mountain lands for the area have caused the use of the area as a public urban space to find legal status and become a criterion for municipal action paying attention to this and the potentials of the area as a recreational area with unique natural features to make it possible to achieve the goals of the project.

In what ways is the initiative innovative?

Given that the project was inaugurated at the beginning of the implementation process and provided unrestricted access to the public, the initiative in this project, unlike other projects, is the comprehensive monitoring of people, institutions, and various groups in all stages of its implementation. The project budgeting and development process fluctuate according to the revenue and budget constraints of urban management. The project started with a relatively good budget and is in progress.

How is the initiative supported by collaborative working across disciplines and sectors?

Due to the sensitivity of this project and its complexity, from the first stages of studies to the stages of policymaking and implementation, experts in various fields have been used. The cooperation of the professors of the first-level universities of the country and their support for the cessation of the highway project, as an influential factor, led to the presence of different specialties in this project.

The coordination between experts and recognizing the considerations of each makes the projects more socially accepted and efficient, and as a result, the goals of the project will be achieved more than before.

How does the initiative demonstrate evidence of community support?          

In addition to the residential communities in the surrounding areas, the project also has the support of scientific institutions, political and governmental organizations. During the project implementation process, various groups, including university professors, NGOs active in the field of environment, social, urban, etc., in various ways, such as sending letters to executive bodies, etc., support the cessation of road operations and the use of the bed as a green space has been announced. Also, this project has the support of the members of the Islamic Parliament and the urban management of Mashhad and their support as government institutions. The Mountaineer’s Association is another supporter because the southern highlands are one of the main destinations for mountaineers in the region. Some of this support is in the form of official letters, such as the letter from the Office for the Preservation and Publication of Ayatollah Khamenei in 2015, the letter of environmental organizations is addressed to Mashhad City Council, and the letter of the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development is addressed to the Mayor of Mashhad in 2021 and so on. Also, the Law on Environmental Protection and Improvement adopted in 1974 and Article 50 of the Constitution of Iran are the legal documents supporting the project.

Implementation, Impact and Replicability

How does the initiative demonstrate evidence of a track record of success against pursued objectives?          
  • The success history of this project can be examined in various dimensions such as legal, social, executive, etc. dimensions. The change in the performance of the area lands in the approved detailed plan can be considered the success of this project from a legal point of view. But the main success of the project became clear to everyone when, despite the unfinished design and execution process, it was met with a great response from the citizens as a family recreation area. Evidence of this is the full presence of people on different days of the year and at different times of the day. The creation of multi-purpose green spaces in this project has led to the reduction of pollutants in the city of Mashhad and the improvement of the urban environment.Also, in this project, an attempt has been made to make full use of the existing facilities, for example, old wooden electric beams that were previously used in the old city of Mashhad, as well as wooden traverses of train tracks, all of which were located in the municipal depot they were renewed and used again.
How has the initiative had a ripple effect beyond the scope of the initiative itself, thereby demonstrating a change in the city’s and/or its partners’ way of working with plants?

This project, as the first experience of eliminating highways in Iran, is the leader of sustainable urban development projects in the country. What sets this project apart from other urban projects is the boldness of accepting the removal of a highway despite its high costs and changing its use to leisure-recreational use. Innovation of this project in changing the use in order to preserve the environment and natural resources and transparency in the implementation process by the presence of people can be considered the most important initiatives of this project so that in Mashhad and at the same time other parts of the project Like Kuhshar, Rudpark, and Zist Park, with preserving natural resources approach, were executed. The location of these projects in the city and the balanced distribution of leisure activities in the city will reduce the pressure on the surrounding countryside. Also, the location of these projects relative to each other in Mashhad has led to the formation of a continuous ecological network. The project aims to provide a deeper understanding of ecological processes and a platform for environmental education by showcasing natural infrastructure and processes and recovering landscapes and recalling the past; So that users of space become sensitive to nature by observing ecological infrastructure and natural processes and the experience of being in revitalized nature. Finally, it can be said that this huge project in Mashhad will be a place where we learn from nature, enjoy it, adapt to it, and shape our environmental behaviours.

How have other cities expressed interest in the initiative, or what potential does it have to interest other cities and be customised to their own circumstances?

The project was designed in coordination with various organizations, grassroots groups, NGOs, and the academic community to carry out large-scale environmental action. Changing the perspective on urban development, paying attention to the environment, adopting approaches appropriate to sustainable development, conducting environmental studies, involving different social groups and national and urban decision-makers in urban development projects and decentralization in the development process are some of the things that this the project can educate other cities. The unparalleled welcome of citizens and the results of environmental studies are a testament to the educational capabilities of this project.

In fact, it can be said that this collection is a unique combination with the ability to identify and present different ecosystems in different climates of Iran, which can be localized based on the needs of each city. In this way, each city with a different climate, architectural style, and lifestyle can use this diversity to implement and simulate this project.

Sustainability and Resilience

What efforts have been made to reduce the carbon footprint of the initiative?

One of the best ways to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide is to plant trees and afforestation. The immediate vicinity of the southern ring road of Mashhad is a relatively natural and low-density environment that has good air quality due to its proximity to natural lands and tree planting in the form of the Mashhad Green Belt. However, ring road traffic and passenger car traffic have a great impact on increasing the number of pollutants and reducing air quality. Stopping this project and changing its use to a natural-mountain park and carrying out various measures such as restricting car traffic, planting different plant species, and planting trees have caused the air quality of the area to be improved while reducing air pollution sources. The formation of this project was aimed at preserving native plant species, producing and propagating them, and planting trees that are compatible with the climate of the region, which has reduced the destruction of nature as much as possible and has improved the existing landscape. The important thing is that all efforts are focused on the maximum use of natural materials such as stone and wood to be considered part of the landscape in harmony with nature.

How have the anticipated impacts of climate change been considered?

The dry climate of Mashhad and the difference in temperature and precipitation in different seasons are among the items considered in the project design. In selecting the type of plants, attention has been paid to the current vegetation, native plants, and limited resources available. This area is full of broadleaf and coniferous trees, which according to the site functions and the need to maintain the natural bed, the planting of tree species in accordance with the architectural performance has been proposed and the project design has been based on the use of native shrub species such as Mastic tree (Beneh), Sumac or Sumaq, Purple and native shrubs such as Barazambal, Yarrow, etc. The native plants have very little water needs that are supplied through rainwater and groundwater. Also, the combination of deciduous and evergreen plants is intended to improve the qualities of the winter landscape and absorb more sunlight in the cold seasons. Due to the arid climate, there is no permanent flow of surface water. However, due to rainfall in autumn and winter, the rehabilitation of seasonal water channels in order to preserve and manage water resources has been a priority in design and implementation. The use of renewable and clean energy such as generating electricity from solar energy for energy efficiency and locating waste stations for recycling are among the other measures. In the design and policy-making process of the project, the interconnection between spots and green-blue corridors in the city and metropolitan scale has been considered.

What processes does the initiative include for it to be considerate in its use of soils and other natural resources?

The former southern belt project with extensive explosions in the heights and excavation in the area to facilitate road construction operations and pave the way for vehicles has caused irreversible destructive effects on the natural bed of the southern heights of Mashhad while changing the topography of the land. This project prevented the continuation of the excavation process in the highlands by stopping the road construction operations and changing the traffic performance of the area. Preservation and restoration of the local natural have caused in the policy-making process and definition of proposed activities to preserve the topography of the land and natural resources, restoration of damaged bed, especially water resources (canals, springs, etc.) to be considered. In this project, we are trying to protect the city’s environment by making minimal interventions in the natural bed of the heights while creating a leisure space for the general public.

Also, due to the lack of construction in the project, we did not have significant excavation and embankment operations, except for the construction of a flood control dam and the creation of a horse manege in the nomadic area which the soils obtained from the excavation of the dam were used to level the manege area of the nomadic area, therefore, most of the soil did not enter the project site from outside.

Monitoring, Maintenance, and Management

How has the initiative been designed and implemented so that long-term needs for management and maintenance are reduced and can be met?

Studies show that natural environments have the ability to regenerate over time through natural cycles. Attention to this matter has led to the recognition of the natural conditions of the bed of the area in the first step and the proposed actions in coordination with the bed conditions and to facilitate and accelerate the process of restoring the natural environment of the area. Cultivating native plants in accordance with the climate of the area and its limitations, paying attention to soil cover and composition, rehabilitating the existing hydrological network are among the actions taken to facilitate the natural cycle of rehabilitating the area and as much as possible rehabilitating the damaged parts.

Also, special attention to reducing the construction level to about 0.3% of the huge area of the project will cause the maintenance costs to be reduced normally and in case of destruction of sidewalks, wooden furniture, and wooden beams due to the nature of the material used in it can be easily replaced and repaired.

What protocols are in place to facilitate monitoring of results?

The most important and main event in the protocols and city instructions is the change of highway performance to a natural park – mountainous lands (protected area) in the approved detailed plan related to the project area. In this project, the consultant, planner, and designer are also responsible for supervising its implementation at the project site, which will lead to the implementation guarantee of the consultant’s proposals and according to the operation of the project before the end of the implementation process and the unrestricted presence of people, groups, institutions, and NGOs in the project area, it has provided the possibility for them as the main project supervisors to constantly monitor the project activities and if any Contradictions in the execution plan with the interests of the environment and the people to express their protest to various organizations and follow up the results through various legal and judicial authorities.

How has the initiative been enhanced in response to monitoring of results?

Stopping the executive operation of the southern belt of Mashhad is one of the greatest achievements in which this complex contributes. Despite the conflict of interest, this project has led to an alliance between city managers, project decision-makers, city representatives in parliament, and the legal system, which has led to the first project of this scale and with this approach in Iran. The cooperation of these organs and groups simultaneously in the implementation of the plan and transparency in the implementation of actions and interventions has led to the conditions for their comprehensive monitoring of all project processes.