Dispatch From Kabul, Afghanistan: Urban Sprawl Up Kabul’s Mountainsides, With Splashes of Color

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What does a city do when housing needs grow so quickly that illegal settlements spread up steep hills and mountainsides? In Kabul’s case, the municipality has decided to accept that reality and paint the homes in bright colors.

One of the fastest growing cities in the world, Kabul has already expanded to more than five times its intended size. About 70 percent of the houses in the capital city of about five million are informal and unplanned. Many are in settlements like the color-speckled one shown here, but there are also tall apartment buildings, like this one nearing completion, as well as cafes, restaurants and shopping centers popping up all over town, giving Kabul a new look.

For the Afghan authorities, the challenge is twofold: how to regulate the jumble of unplanned neighborhoods to create a presentable capital city, and how to plan for a future when, by 2060, one of every two Afghans is expected to be a city dweller.

Kabul’s population growth is part natural and part born of a long conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people from the countryside were forced by earlier wars to flee to Pakistan and Iran, where they were introduced to better standards of living. Now back in Afghanistan, they prefer to live in the capital rather than return to their home villages. The relentless recent fighting in the provinces has also forced people to take to Kabul.

Drive into certain neighborhoods, and you will find them unrecognizable. Once, “poppy palaces” that had dozens of rooms were hastily built to be rented out to military contractors at ridiculously expensive prices. Now, new, modest apartment buildings are being erected, catering to a more sustainable urban economy.

For the informal dwellings up the mountains, like the ones in Joy Sheer, shown here, the Afghan government tries to provide at least basic security. Police checkpoints dot the neighborhood, and officers often make the steep climb multiple times a day to patrol and project a presence.

Private businesses have stepped in to provide other basic needs like water. Shamsul Haq, a resident of Joy Sheer, said 80 percent of his neighbors were provided water by a private piping network. “We pay about $10 a month for every tap of water,” Mr. Haq said.

The Kabul municipality has had a drastic change in leadership over the past year, with the government appointing younger officials, many of them with graduate degrees from abroad. The new team is trying to standardize roads, increase parks and green areas, and improve trash collection. They also hope to take over the traffic department from the police to better integrate it into the city’s services.

Recently, the municipality decided the informal mountainside settlements needed a makeover. As a pilot project, the municipality is painting about 2,000 homes in the Joy Sheer area in shades of blue, green, yellow, white, pink and brown.

Day in and day out, a group of about 10 painters mix lime and color in a barrel, swirl it and start spraying the walls.

“People are more interested in the blue and the green color,” said Mohammed Gul, 47, one of the painters.

While many of the residents have been supportive of the effort, it has also stirred some backlash among activists who say it is a type of whitewashing of the poverty that prevails in those neighborhoods.

Musa Khan, a resident of Joy Sheer, said the government was better off focusing on paving paths to the homes high up the mountains or providing water to those houses whose residents still have to carry buckets on their backs.

“Every day, children slip and fall down on their way to school and return home with broken arms or broken heads,” Mr. Khan said.

But Gul Jan, 50, who was transporting buckets of water on her back from the foot of the mountain in Joy Sheer, was less critical.

“Water is important,” she said. “But color is also important.”