Urban Revitalisation in Middle East Cities
Over the past fifty years, development in the rapidly-growing cities of the Arabian Gulf has been based primarily on ‘greenfield’ development. Recently; however, investment is turning towards revitalization of existing urban areas. The drivers for this shift vary, from promoting cultural tourism to developing new models for citizen housing. Overall, the revitalization initiatives provide an opportunity to promote the sustainability and livability of the urban core and have the potential to catalyze a fundamental shift in urban lifestyles.
Dubbed “The World’s First Sustainable Downtown Regeneration Project”, the Msheireb Downtown Doha project is perhaps one of the first and most obvious examples of a revitalization project in the Middle East. Made possible by significant investment from the Qatari government, this project aims to provide a new model for sustainable, high-end living in Doha and the wider region. Through careful planning and design, the new mixed-use development aims to achieve the highest sustainability performance against international rating standards such as LEED® while remaining authentic to the region’s architectural heritage and culture and accommodating the sometimes-harsh local climate, particularly during the summer.
The project is car-free at surface level thanks to a development-wide basement providing parking and logistics access. Its central location will provide future residents and users with excellent accessibility and maximize their benefit from the upcoming public transport network, a clear advantage over other greenfield ‘sustainable cities’ in the region. Msheireb also aims to offer a more sustainable housing alternative by providing high-end, medium-density apartments as opposed to large detached villas, which are currently norm for subsidized citizen housing in the Gulf.
The first phase of the project is expected to be fully functioning soon and will provide an interesting case study on the impact of sustainable revitalization projects on urban behaviors and lifestyles in the Gulf. Of course, it will then also remain to be seen whether or not the sustainability performance can be replicated at a more affordable cost.
Culture, Tourism and Retail
Another example of an ongoing urban revitalization project in the region is the Marsa Al Seef project in Dubai. In the heart of ‘old Dubai’ the project aims to redevelop the underused waterfront into a culturally-themed hospitality destination. Sharjah is also focusing on restoring and revitalizing its cultural district: Heart of Sharjah. In addition to providing economic diversification opportunities through promoting tourism, these projects provide welcomed cultural attractions and strengthen the local identity of each city.
A revitalization project which has gotten many excited in Boxpark in Dubai. Similar to the original BOXPARK in Shoreditch, London this urban space is designed to be trendy and to focus on retail and food and beverage outlets. While outdoor shopping is the norm in London, it is a relatively new concept in Dubai, and Boxpark has helped demonstrate its attractiveness. It has also added some character to one of older and quieter neighborhoods in Dubai.
What from here?
The above projects are only the beginning. There is yet to be a comprehensive revitalization plan for any city in the region, as most cities are either in the process of developing plans or are focusing on easier greenfield investments.
What should a revitalization plan for a Middle East city look like? It should address the challenge of introducing walkability and effective public transport into existing urban cores, especially since most cities have been developed in the era of cheap oil and fascination with the motor car. This will require addressing both the land use mix and the transport network (e.g. road width, availability of shaded pedestrian walkways, integration of bus lanes and potentially rail). Providing accessible and functional public open spaces is another related challenge which could be a primary goal for revitalization projects. Of course, the spatial dimension will require a strong policy framework to assist in changing norms and behaviours, and generating finance for projects.
Large revitalization projects would also be an opportunity to address broad challenges such as city resilience. Whether it is adapting to climate change (e.g. sea level rise) or promoting a collective social identity, there are many fundamental topics to the long-term prosperity of a city which have been side-stepped by the focus on building new. This cannot go on forever. Creating communities where both citizens and expats of various income levels can live and work is possible, as was the case fifty years ago, in many Gulf cities.
Future revitalization plans also need to consider options for avoiding the full displacement of existing residents. This could perhaps be easier undertaken through smaller-scale infill projects, whereby empty or underutilized areas between existing large developments are developed. These projects could provide some of the much-needed open public space and community-scale facilities. Although not strictly an infill project, the Wadi Hanifah project in Riyadh demonstrates the value of a redeveloped natural public open space within a city.
What is stopping this revitalization from happening? For the larger projects, there are the political difficulties of re-appropriating land from private owners and negotiating land-use changes. The logistical challenges of construction in an existing area, particularly an existing busy downtown area, are also a barrier and can lead to theoretically feasible projects becoming “too difficult”. The biggest drawback is probably the availability of cheap, accessible land for new development.