By night, Iran’s urban gardens are disappearing

A park in Iran being demolished.
A park in Iran being demolished.


Iran’s trees and gardens are disappearing, causing a backlash on social media and making environmental activists angry. On March 8, an amateur video showed the destruction of an entire garden in Malard, a small town near Tehran. The man who filmed it explains that the stumps of the trees are still visible – and that the city hall being situated only 100 metres away clearly did not prevent the demolition.

Just a few weeks before, on February 13, another amateur video spread through social media showing workers cutting down trees in a famous apple orchard in the Tehran suburb of Mehrshahr.

But who is behind the bulldozing of entire gardens? Usually it is private companies cooperating with local authorities, or even the local authorities themselves, who replace trees and green spaces with buildings, seeking a profit.

Video of workers chopping down apple trees in Mehrshahr.

These videos are not rare. There are dozens of these kinds of videos from different cities throughout Iran. Green spaces are being quietly destroyed, usually during the night to avoid media attention and protests from citizens and activists. And it works. Trees are cut down, the site is ready to be built upon and despite some sparse media coverage and reports that local authorities are “launching juridical investigations”, there has yet to be a real legal prosecution.

Video showing the stumps of trees after the destruction of a garden in Malard.

"Cutting a living tree is illegal, so they deliberately kill trees first"

We have two different issues.

One of them is the cutting down of street trees in Iran, mostly in Tehran.

The owners of shops that are covered by trees in the street put oil or even acid on the roots of the trees in front of their store, in order to kill them and dry them up. Cutting a living tree is illegal, so doing this then allows them to cut them down. Shop owners have been using this tactic for years to destroy trees. They want to have open space in front of their shops and to be more visible from the street.

These trees have been replaced by saplings. It is hard to punish the perpetrators, because there is no evidence of who did it. Recently, the Tehran authorities have adopted a clever idea: they don’t cut out completely the base of the dead trees, but only chop down the upper part that is dangerous as it could fall on passers-by. A big part of the tree trunk stays in the ground. We have to wait and see if this new strategy works or not.

But the other, more significant, problem is the destruction of gardens in Tehran and other cities in Iran.

According to law, neither government nor private companies have the right to destroy green spaces and replace them with buildings. However, as you can imagine, we are talking about millions of euros of profit here. There are some holes in the law that construction companies use. For example, according to law, it is authorised to build upwards in a garden, and to use up to 30 per cent of the surface of a garden. The building has to have a maximum eight floors, and this way construction companies can obtain permission to replace some trees.

Actually, they use this permission to destroy trees as we have seen until now, and they dry up the other parts to get permission for more construction. This scheme works mostly because there is not any effective supervision over these construction sites. This is because money is more important than anything else in their mindset.

One the best examples is a vast garden in the north of Tehran that was transformed into a huge shopping centre in 2013. Citizens, the media and even members of the City Council protested against it for a decade, but nothing stopped the new owners from destroying this historical garden. Everyone in the Tehran local government just looked away.

The 10 ,000 square-metre garden was turned into 200 shops over four floors, nine cafes, two restaurants, a theatre, a food court, an indoor amusement park and a carwash.

Satellite photos show the extent of the damage.

According to the deputy minister of Roads & Urban Development of Iran, 4,000 gardens in Tehran alone have been destroyed in the last 10 years because of “wrong policies”.

Despite these green environments disappearing, according to official statistics Tehran gets more and more greenery every year. Tehran authorities report that, from 1985 to 2013, green space in Tehran increased by up to 15 square metres per capita. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that each city must have at least nine square metres per person. But our Observer says that official statistics on green space in Tehran are not entirely reliable.

Hamidreza Mirzadeh, our Observer, explains:

These statistics contains any kind of plantation in Tehran – even lawns next to highways. Many specialists believe we must consider trees, shrubs, and bushes as green spaces, so this reduces the number of “real” green spaces in Tehran and other cities in Iran.

Except with huge projects, the media and activists always arrive late because we don’t find out about what is happening until it is finished. And even we could, the situation would not change.