Lulu is a landscape architect and urban designer interested in Arab cities and public spaces in the Gulf. She studied at the American University of Sharjah and Columbia University and currently works in a multinational design & planning firm in London.
Let’s start with a general understanding of urban design and its influence on our lives. How does urban planning and physical design of a space impact community and identity? Why does this matter in the design of our public spaces?
Urban design is like architecture on a city scale. It’s a process of carefully developing the form and function of buildings, the natural elements, and understanding how they come together with streets and public spaces to shape neighborhoods and cities. It also includes the subtle details of how these are all experienced, so it’s a human-centered process.
The quality of the built environment influences our movement and mobility. For example, if an urban designer puts pedestrians in the heart of their public realm, it will turn out very differently than if it was a design focused around vehicles. These are important decisions in the design process as they affect the lifestyle of the community that lives and works there and its public health, obesity rates, sense of identity, safety, etc. The local community must, therefore, be part of the urban design process, as nobody knows what they care about and what problems they have better than they do. The best projects today are ones where designers and developers are really attentive from the start, and observe, listen, and understand the local community before proposing any ideas.
I want to also note that urban design and urban planning are different. They are intertwined but design is spatial and more about the physical details, whereas planning is about the bigger picture, and addresses visions, legislations, economics and policy.
The discovery of oil revolutionized urban development and transformation in the desert peninsula. How did this impact our cities and spaces, and what styles emerged more dominantly and why?
The discovery of oil put the whole process of city-making in the Gulf on an extremely fast-forward mode. Cities are organic ecosystems that tend to grow naturally at their own pace, based on their own needs, but oil revenues accelerated the economy and population.
Before oil, the traditional residential community in the Gulf consisted of a system of housing clusters, and courtyard-style homes that are built to the edge of the plot to maximize the use of land. These houses were separated by narrow alleyways, and connect residents to each other, to nearby community facilities and to souqs. The neighborhoods were structured in an organic pattern that is based on traditional, passive cooling strategies that channel sea breezes into the neighborhood. And houses were built using natural, earthy materials, such as mudbrick, clay, coral stones and timber.
In the 1960s, after oil was discovered, the vision was to provide a higher standard of living through the provision of jobs, education, healthcare and housing. Foreign architects, urban planners and construction companies were consulted — such as Constantinos Doxiadis in Riyadh and John Elliot, Braun and Sackl in the UAE — and the cities expanded outward and roads grew wider.
With economic growth the population increased, and so did initiatives to build more housing. The sizes of the plots of land that were provided increased, and so did the sizes of the cities that they were in. Since many of these housing projects were a means of settling the Bedouins, many of the new residential communities occured in the suburbs closer to where the Bedouins used to live. This created more sprawl. And with the increased availability of cheaper tools of mass production, houses became larger and the focus was on more modern, Western-influenced and car-oriented blocks, often using heat-absorbent materials such as steel and concrete to build centralized homes with AC units to offset the high temperatures.
This urban sprawl developed single-use zones that left little room for walkability and interaction. The denser the city, the higher the interaction rates. And the more mixed-use neighborhoods there are — where you have a bookshop, a clinic, a post office, and a house all on the same street — the more walkable and integrated the community will be, and therefore less private.
So we now have an end result of single-use and low-density neighbourhoods that are far away from each other, and high levels of privacy in our cities. I feel that this is not intentional and is not necessarily how people want to live but, rather, what is available to them. You see millennials sharing most — if not all — of their lives on social media, and privacy can mean very little. I wonder if many of them feel isolated in secluded houses and high fences, and are actually desperate to interact and connect?
You bring up social media and that it’s challenging how we value privacy on many levels. How do you see this impacting how we design our spaces?
The internet totally redefined the ways in which we see and use urban space. The distinction between private and public has become as challenging offline as it is online, and there are more and more networked devices and sensors embedded throughout physical spaces, either through GPS or location tracking technologies. Not to mention Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, where we share a lot of place-specific information that is usually private.
One clear way I notice this impacting city design recently is how some real estate developers, such as Meraas in Dubai, have been designing an “Instagrammable city.” The colors and signs we used to see in tourist attractions slowly became visible now in everyday streets and districts that are designed for social media photography as much as they are designed for the residents. Putting up a hashtag as a sculpture in a public space or organizing colorful street art are all part of this phenomenon. Anywhere that is designed more for photography than for the user’s experience is, to me, a branding strategy that makes public space less public.
So recently, urban design has been dictated more by branding purposes than for living. However, doesn’t doing this improve the perception visitors and residents have of that city, and therefore improve the experience? Living in Dubai, for example, with all its “Instagrammable” and easily-identifiable locations, feels like a higher-quality lifestyle than living in a city that isn’t featured as frequently in social media feeds?
Actually, the branding perception and the experience are not the same at all. What matters to me, as an urban designer, is the real, honest image of the city from the resident’s perspective in their day-to-day lives, and not the image in social media. If both images are aligned and similar then that’s great, but a lot of the time they are not. So, for example, does a resident have to experience a 30 minute traffic jam in order to go to a street that is just 1 KM away that looks nice and pedestrian on Instagram? If that’s the case, then we have a problem. Otherwise I don’t mind that neighbourhoods and districts are being branded on social media, if that image is accurate and is experienced in the same way by its residents.
I also think that a higher-quality lifestyle in the urban sense is a lifestyle that is smooth, comfortable, easy to get to places, brings joy and serendipity, is healthy and allows for social interactions as well as contact with nature. The fact that it is identifiable on social media might make it more glamorous, but glamour does not make it a better place.
We frequently see residential neighborhoods segregated by race and income, with gated compounds for high-income families that are in clear contrast with block buildings for low-income residents. This is true for locals as well. What impact does residential segregation have on cohesion, and how could we plan for more inclusion overall?
Segregation divides the city and doesn’t allow cohesion, and makes each side more extreme. So, if we start with a neighborhood designated for low-income families (based on the availability of low-income housing), the provision of infrastructure and community facilities in that neighborhood, such as schools, will also be low-income and most probably low-quality. In the long-term, this exacerbates the situation of these low-income families, instead of making it easier for them to get out of the cycle of poverty and income inequality.
I’m a big believer in mixed neighborhoods in cities, especially when it comes to race and socioeconomic status. Not only does diversity make neighborhoods more efficient and more equal to other neighborhoods, but it also makes neighbourhoods more attractive for public and private investment, such as public transportation lines or public parks. A wider variety of users attracts these investments. Mixed neighborhoods are also more beneficial and efficient for their users. For example, when a low-income bread baker lives and works alongside a high-income family, both are likely to benefit from this proximity, rather than need to commute to each other.
You’ve also spoken about how public spaces in the GCC are not designed to be inclusive of women because they are “not safe” and “not comfortable for women to walk alone in.” Is this a departure from the past? And what can be done to make our city spaces more “women-friendly”?
I think it varies in each city and in each culture, but in the Arabian Gulf cities I think women have different patterns of movement than men. Their daily schedules might not be divided into two or three clear main blocks of time: “work / family” like men, but rather into many smaller time blocks of: “work / family / work / extended family / shops / family” that are crisscrossed in the span of one typical day. Many of these trips might be in the company of their children or elderly parents as well. So smooth mobility and efficiency in movement is really important for women. The more mixed-use neighborhoods we have — where work, primary school, supermarket and home are all accessible within walking distance or through seamless public transport — then the more comfortable and easy the day-to-day experience would be for women.
Another one of the most important benefits of mixed-use planning is what urbanist Jane Jacobs famously called “eyes on the street.” If an area is used for multiple purposes, there will always be somebody keeping a passive watch, not intentionally, but effectively policing it 24-hours per day. Street vendors, for example, are the most consistent people that monitor any streets, and even police have tapped into this human resource in some cities. So if we allow for more street activity and vendors in our streets, then I think women and families will feel safer to walk. When it comes to basic requirements for safe streets we also will need adequate street lighting, wide sidewalks, ramps for strollers and wheelchairs and clear signage and wayfinding. These are some of the things we could do to make our streets safer, more inclusive, and more comfortable to walk in.
It’s a fact of our history that we experienced the oil boom that has caused our cities to expand rapidly, and now we are undergoing another transformation that includes building more cities “from scratch.” What do we need to do to develop “successful” cities? What, in your opinion, makes a city successful?
City-making is a social process as much as it’s a physical one. It’s as much about having roads and buildings as it is about developing the formal and informal social networks and the practices that solve urban problems. Cities built from scratch that we’ve seen in history so far focus more on the physical aspect, in my opinion, and unfortunately a lot of times aspire to build too broadly and don’t manage to complete that.
For a city to be built from scratch and succeed, I would start with a very small, micro-scale master plan: more like a town with future phases of growth that allow it to turn into a city. Then I would focus on the social development part, make employment centered around a university or a specific sector that brings growth — like a new tech industry or so on.
Then add to that the element of time. There’s a big difference between force and effort. If you put the effort and let things grow organically over time then that’s much stronger and more sustainable than forcing a city to grow overnight. There’s a saying I love which is something along these lines: “If you want to build a great city, build a great university then wait 100 years.” Many new cities seem more like they are built by “force” rather than putting in the effort and letting it grow.
I would also prioritize regenerating instead of building from scratch. There are so many older districts and old cities that have a lot of potential and a strong sense of identity and they are almost neglected. Regenerating these cities kills two birds in one stone and there are many innovative ways of doing that.
And how would you go about regenerating older cities and districts? What are innovative strategies that you believe might work in the Khaleej?
There are tremendous benefits from urban regeneration that the Gulf region has yet to realize and capitalize on, and this is an area I’m personally very interested in. If you think about it in the scale of the residence: How many homes are left vacant after their residents moved to a new place? Think of the house you grew up in, and the houses you visited frequently as a child. Many of these older houses are now under-utilized and, in some cases, completely abandoned. We still don’t have the culture of buying an old property and improving it, and instead we see the majority of new home owners buying newly-built homes or building homes from scratch.
Zooming out and looking at the larger scale, there are old retail centers and old office complexes from the 1970’s that are out of business. We can also go back further, to historic neighbourhoods dating hundreds of years, like Jeddah’s Al Balad. We see that all these old buildings and districts are often demolished or abandoned instead of being regenerated. This pattern leads to a vacant and hollow city center, more urban sprawl, loss of identity and architectural heritage, and older neighbourhoods going into social and physical decline.
This needs to change as soon as possible, and in order to do that we need to develop a smart urban policy that incentivizes people to stay and improve existing neighbourhoods. Neglected old neighbourhoods tend to suffer from an image that is crowded and polluted, so one of the key strategies is to offer people alternative methods of low emission, public transportation, reliable bus lanes and cycle routes, as well as improving the perception of density by lining street trees and designing more green pockets and new typologies of open space, like rooftops and courtyard plazas.
Aside from making older neighbourhoods look and perform better, regeneration is also about the social and economic development layers. So we need strategies that ensure long-term community development and puts local economic growth at the heart of regeneration plans, for example, by seeing what in-demand skills already exist in those areas, and developing business districts around that. Lastly, we need significant advancements in the construction industry and in building the necessary skills among workers for preservation and regeneration projects.