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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 12:36 GMT
From the people who brought you Milton Keynes...
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Battle-scarred Najaf

The planning agency which designed Milton Keynes has been handed the job of reshaping a city which is no stranger to adversity: Najaf, in Iraq.

At first glance the stacks of labelled box files which line one wall of Martin Crookston's London office are a trot through some familiar locations in provincial England.

Smethwick, Birmingham, the Black Country and Telford, Newcastle, Najaf.

That's Najaf as in the Iraqi holy city. Najaf, the scene of two suicide bombs a couple of years ago which killed dozens of people and injured many more. Najaf, the arena for a full-scale American military assault to oust a radical Muslim cleric, back in 2004.

For 12 months, the city in southern Iraq has remained relatively calm compared to the violent unrest in some other parts of the country.

Now, in what is thought to be the first commission of its kind in post-war Iraq, the Baghdad authorities have appointed a British firm of town planners to remodel the entire centre of Najaf.

Box files
A run-through of some familiar English places names, bar one
And while most of the residents of the holy city have probably never heard of Milton Keynes, the company assigned the job of reshaping Najaf was responsible for designing Britain's most infamous new town.

Much has changed since 1970, when Richard Llewelyn Davies laid down plans for a new settlement to cater for the growing number of families fleeing London in search of a better life.

By the 1980s Milton Keynes had become a byword for both the pros and cons of post-war British urban planning. It was to some a spacious, modern, landscaped town, and to others a dystopic, soulless home to shopping centres and skateboard parks.

Mr Llewelyn Davies died in 1981 but his practice continues and more recently it has handled the regeneration of Cardiff Bay and the renaissance of Edinburgh's waterfront.

Nothing in the firm's history, however, compares with its latest commission. Martin Crookston, a director of what is now Llewelyn Davies Yeang, is well aware of the sensitivities of the Najaf project.

Road sign
Milton Keynes became the archetypal 1970s new town
But given the backdrop of bloody violence in Iraq, isn't it putting the cart before the horse to be thinking about traffic flow management and pedestrianisation?

"Millions of people are going about their daily lives and some of them are getting killed and hurt," he says, seeking to balance the widespread belief that Iraq is a daily bloodbath.

"But still all the normal things in life must go on. And if kids are unable to get to school because they've not laid out plans for a primary school then what good is that?

"Urban planning is not the world's most important priority bar none, but it is actually quite important."

Najaf however, is no ordinary Iraqi city. It is home to the tomb of Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, whose death launched the Shia Islamic sect. It is said to date back to the 8th Century and draws millions of pilgrims every year.

Quite how many is important to find out, says Mr Crookston, who, because of security concerns, cannot travel to Iraq. Instead he is working with Adec, a team of Iraqi consultants in Najaf.

Estimated population in 2003 was 585,000
Home to the shrine of Imam Ali
Re-design is part of initial $1.6m development plan
Click below for Digital Globe satellite image of Najaf

The arms-length approach is unorthodox for planners, who generally like to plant themselves in the centre of wherever they are working to absorb the atmosphere and "get the feel of how people use the place".

Instead, Mr Crookston and his London colleagues are in close e-mail contact with their Iraqi colleagues who are doing the preliminary assessment work.

Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Najaf was neglected says one of the project workers on the ground there.

"For the past 35 years there was a plan to minimise the importance of Najaf city by destroying many features of the old city," says the Adec spokesman, who asks not to be named.

The city has a host of other pressing concerns, he admits, such as security issues and water and electricity supply. But security is "better than Baghdad" and "the first step is always to plan... Without clear masterplans for Najaf, they cannot develop the city".

Critics will doubtless cock an eyebrow at an Anglo-Saxon firm re-planning a historic Arabic city. After all, the concreting-over of many time-honoured British towns in the 1960s and 70s hardly inspires confidence at home, let alone abroad.

Mr Crookston, however, has experience of the region, having overseen the restoration and redevelopment plans in the historic city of Salt, in Jordan, and the old Bastakia district of Dubai. The team is also working with an expert on Najaf architecture.

Martin Crookston
Martin Crookston, who is running the redevelopment from London
Najaf escaped major damage in the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, but it took a battering during a three-week assault by American troops in 2004.

It's too early to say what the new Najaf might look like - the plans will come towards the end of this year - but given the sensitivities, Mr Crookston foresees "a lot of long slow conversations over coffee" with municipal elders.

While respecting the city's authenticity, there is a balance to be struck, he says, with modernity.

Something that can't be ignored is how to handle Najaf's deluge of pilgrims. To the north of the city are huge cemeteries, but access for mourners is messy and haphazard.

In the city centre there is a swathe of land known as Pilgrims' Town that has been neglected. And at the moment visitors from far and wide who arrive by bus are deposited near the centre on a plot of land that can loosely be called a bus station.

One option, says Mr Crookston, would be to build a bigger bus station out of town and have shuttles running to and from the shrines. In effect, it could be Iraq's first park-and-ride scheme.

Below is a selection of your comments:

Haven't we ruined the city enough?
C Randall, St Albans, UK

Holy Cow!
Will, London

If all cities were like Milton Keynes, the world would be a greater place. I have seen MK develop from open fields to a thriving and prosperous environment. It makes a change to hear MK is actually recognised at last rather than a joke.
Doug Yates, Milton Keynes

Well if the main trunk road that sliced Smethwick in half in the 1970s, and the general planning of Milton Keynes is an indicator, then WATCH OUT NAJAF!!
Paul Kerton, Smethwick, UK

Great - good luck to him. We moved to MK over 2 years ago and kicked ourselves for not doing it sooner - it's a great place to live! Loads of things to do and see and a fab road and walkway system. Spot on.
Sarah, Milton Keynes

I went to Milton Keynes at the weekend for the first time and was impressed and disappointed with the design. It felt sterile yet it was spacious, easy to move around and therefore very functional. I doubt whether Najaf would have an indoor ski slope though!
D Syme, London

Greetings to the people of Najaf - I love Milton Keynes - you'll be getting a geat New City.
PeterCS, Leighton Buzzard

Haven't the people of Najaf suffered enough?! Does this historic city realise what they've bargained for: roundabouts, faceless "boulevards", joy riders in cars with under-chassis lighting, chequered caps, extortionate parking costs, a shopping mall the size of Albania and a no-frills cinema that looks like a pyramid.
Chris , Luton

Just out of interest why is the project being handed to a British consultancy? This is an ideal opportunity for the Iraqi's to bond as a country and would provide jobs for many. Why is a Christian country rebuilding a Muslim country?
Dave Gent, Nottingham

As Americans seem to know nothing but destruction it's about time we got the construction ball rolling. It saddens me that Najaf's history can never be restored and its legacy has been lost forever but hopefully this will be a start in the right direction for its brave people.
Tanveer, High Wycombe

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