Public space in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has transformed completely in the last five decades. The idea of what public spaces are and their contribution to the urban environment has changed. Spatially, this has reshaped the scale, function and users of these spaces. These changes are illustrated by examining the context of public areas during different development phases in UAE, namely, the foundation era, post-oil era and the urbanization era.
These typologies of spaces have impacted the way people mingle and defined the social structure of the society. Each of these spaces has its individual role in the larger city framework. The change in interrelation of this function over time is the first step to understanding the impact of urban spaces in facilitating social interactions and its contribution to community well-being.
The Foundation Era
Characterized by slow growth from the beginning to middle of the 20th century, communities in the foundation era consisted largely of residences and mosques. Mosques lie at the center of the neighborhood with residences surrounding it. ‘Gathering’ or ‘Interaction’ spaces were of two types: open areas around the mosque and private courtyards within the houses. Figure 1 illustrates the community area at the heart of the neighborhood. Apart from the occasional use as a market place or for festive celebrations, daily interaction after prayers at the mosque kept this space alive. The inner courtyards within each residence is also an important point of social interaction in the daily lives of the community. All the rooms in the houses face the inner courtyard making it the ‘living room’ (fig 2) of the house.
Figure 1 – Typical arrangement of a neighborhood
Figure 2 – Detail at A - Traditional Emarati residence
The economic boom related to the discovery of oil in the early 1960’s largely impacted the trends of neighborhood development. An increase in population and an international interest had an impact on the urban form. Influenced by western designers and the mid-century modern movement, medium rise buildings surrounded community facilities at the center of the neighborhood. The courtyards in individual houses began to shrink to make space for the addition of new rooms. Public spaces didn’t grow as fast as the housing, although the typology of small pocket spaces for interaction spaces still remained. Small neighborhood parks, squares outside mosques and markets were the primary gathering spaces.
Figure 3 – New neighborhood typology
Rapid development starting in the early 1990’s has seen a drastic change in the urban form of cities in the UAE. Mixed use buildings and high rises residences became the norm as housing supply responded to the sudden influx of population. Although denser building typologies are prevalent, development occurred in smaller pockets spread across the city. Public gathering spaces grew larger in scale. Large parks, shopping malls and coastal developments are dominant public spaces at the city scale. Pockets of green spaces and plazas are prevalent at the neighborhood level. Below are pictures of public spaces that exist in UAE today.
Za'abeel Park, Dubai
Photo Credits: guide2dubai.com
Photo credits: youtube.com
Abu Dhabi Corniche
Photo Credits: fortytravels.com
Photo Credits: ncltours.co.uk
The context that contributed to the change and growth of the city over time in the UAE is vital to understanding current patterns and speculating future trends in development of public spaces. Change in lifestyle and demographics has changed the role of public spaces within the urban fabric. Intimate courtyards within homes and small pockets of gathering spaces around mosques addressed the needs to close knit community in the foundation era. Interaction occurred as a consequence of daily life. As the city has expanded over time, large parks, malls and commercial plazas are becoming the norm for gatherings. There is an evident shift in scale of public spaces over time. Undoubtedly, the rise in population, city density and lifestyle choices have impacted this transition.
The ‘busy-ness’ and size of public spaces facilitates interaction among people and impacts their perception of ‘life’ in the city. At the crux of it, we are still designing for human being. This makes one question, how relevant are modern public spaces to the social context and its relation to the human scale?
‘Places’ become ‘spaces’ when individuals interact with their surroundings and make meaningful changes to it. This change is more evident at the level of an individual home or room, but in fact urban spaces are also affected by this. These transformations are visible at a much slower pace as it is built upon by many actors. Although each individual adds their unique and personal preference to the space, the changes reflect the collective vision of the group. This was definitely true in the past when the city grew organically and slowly. Nowadays, decisions within cities are made much more differently. The way we built and perceive cities is also changing. Urban designers and planners are shaping our urban future, especially when it comes to public spaces. Quality and characteristics of urban life are in many ways the building blocks for social interaction within the community. The underlying question to be answered is whether cities nowadays represent the ideals of the collective group of city dwellers? Urban designers face the challenge to create contextually befitting urban spaces that are sensitive to local climate, social context and human scale. After all, cities are a representation of its people want and as designers in the contemporary city system we face the challenge of reflecting these ideals in the modern urban landscape.