Cities: Yasser Elsheshtawy, learning from Dubai

It may not look like much, but it’s home. That’s the sentiment of people who live in the community of Sha’biyat Al Shorta on the border between Dubai and Sharjah. A local academic agrees, and says their lives should shape their urban surroundings.

Jaime Puebla /The National

It is a densely populated part of Dubai more commonly associated with salacious stories of murder, rape, and dirty labour camps.

So why does one of the country’s leading experts in urban planning hail this dusty compound of ageing concrete homes as a model for the way our cities should be built?

“If you really want to study sustainable urbanism, you should study it here,” says the architect, academic and theorist Yasser Elsheshtawy.

He is standing in Muhaisnah, an area squeezed between the roaring traffic of Emirates Road and the anonymous, labyrinthine industrial estates that mark Dubai’s border with Sharjah.

Large parts of Muhaisnah used to be a burial ground but now it is one of the most densely populated parts of Dubai. As one of the foremost authorities on urbanism in the Middle East, there is every reason to trust Mr Elsheshtawy’s judgment, but so far the omens are not good.

Elsheshtawy is interested in one neighbourhood in particular – Sha’biyat Al Shorta, or Police Colony 2 as it says on a nearby bus stop. This is a self-contained community for employees of the Dubai Police force, who are housed in around 600 humble, four-room, single-storey concrete dwellings surrounded by a grey concrete wall.

Entering through a gap in the wall, there is fresh graffiti and a man in a galabeya watering the ground outside his home in a vain attempt to combat the dust. Tattered UAE flags fly from many of the rooftops.

To say that Dubai’s recent development has passed Sha’biyat Al Shorta by is an understatement. Local asphalt roads pass but do not enter, and there are no street lamps to light its narrow, sandy lanes.

The scene is immediately reminiscent of old photographs of the UAE from the 1960s, an assessment that is confirmed by Ahmed Ashraf Zaman, the smiling muezzin from the local mosque. Originally from Burma, Ahmed has lived in Dubai for 45 years, 20 of which have been spent in the neighbourhood.

“In Dubai there have been many changes, but here it has stayed the same,” Mr Zaman says.

Suddenly, a man with a stern face, henna-tinged beard and a deep scar on his forehead starts asking questions in Arabic. As news of our arrival spreads, we are joined by a group of skinny youths in baseball caps, middle-aged men with stout arms and barrel chests, and barefooted infants whose eyes are heavily lined with kohl.

There is no threat, but it is clear the visitors are being vetted and if our answers are not satisfactory, our trip will come to an abrupt end. Fortunately, the moment passes, the inquisition ends, the crowd disperses.

“There’s your first lesson. That was ‘eyes on the street’. This is a real community and they know immediately when they’ve been infiltrated,” says Mr Elsheshtawy.

“Eyes on the street” was a concept coined by the community activist and urbanist Jane Jacobs in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs believed the daily lives and experiences of ordinary people should play a vital role in defining how a city looks and works, and as such she stood in direct opposition to the Modernist planning orthodoxy of her time.

Jaime Puebla/The National

Mr Elsheshtawy also focuses on what he describes as “informal urbanism”, or “the everyday practices of ordinary citizens”. This equates to a bottom-up view of urban life as it is actually lived rather than the “top-down” view traditionally associated with city governments, planners, and developers.

As Mr Elsheshtawy writes, “conventional top-down planning approaches do not adequately capture the complexities of everyday life” and “a truly sustainable urban environment cannot be nurtured and maintained without letting city inhabitants have a say in how space can be used and modified”.

This kind of modification is visible everywhere in Sha’biyat Al Shorta. Houses are painted different colours, rooms and even floors are added as families increase in size, and trees are planted for shade.

In the evenings, children play in the street, neighbours help each other with car repairs and families sit outside their homes.

For Mr Elsheshtawy there are important lessons to be learnt if you know how to look.

“There are obvious problems here but this community has qualities that are valuable lessons for urbanism,” he says. “Forget about the dust, this place is different. It’s vibrant, there’s lots of social interaction.

“When you talk to people they obviously love it here but if you look at the newer developments, there is none of that. You just live in your isolated villa and that is that.”

Sha’biyat Al Shorta has been threatened with demolition for the second time in two years and its residents are anxious not to do anything that might hasten its demise.

“I think they feel like they are an anomaly,” says Mr Elsheshtawy, “that their days are numbered.”

The residents are also acutely aware of the bad news and crime that is associated with surrounding neighbourhoods. Ghulam Farouk Gulan is a clerk and, like most of those interviewed, he has lived in the Sha’biyat for more than 20 years.

“This place is like a village and we are all together, like a family,” Mr Gulan said. “We know each other, care for each other, we are all together if there’s a problem. I grew up here, got married here and had my kids here. We do not think they should take this place away. We’d like to stay here.”

There’s an awkward reality to places like Sha’biyat Al Shorta that could not be more at odds with the stage-managed images of modernity presented by planners and developers in brochures and models at events such as Cityscape. But for Mr Elsheshtawy, those images no longer ring true.

“One could also make the argument that the recent financial crisis has put the spotlight on the excesses of spectacular urbanism and that a more down-to-earth approach favouring the everyday and mundane would be more pertinent,” he says.

Walking past a group of children playing football in the street, Mr Elsheshtawy speaks of the need to build in flexibility and to resist the temptation to try to control everything or indulge in too much design.

“I think adaptability is one of the key lessons here. That and informality. Unfortunately, those qualities are being actively fought by officials and planners.”

While Mr Elsheshtawy recognises bodies such as Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council act with the very best intentions, he finds them lacking in the qualities he sees in abundance at Sha’biyat Al Shorta – the qualities most vital to a happy and successful urban life.

“The Abu Dhabi 2030 plan envisions a capital city with many icons,” he says. “Its manuals and guidelines are relentless in advocating a formal order that follows a carefully crafted script.

“Looking at its neatly drawn diagrams it is almost impossible to imagine that any kind of spontaneous activity can occur in these lifeless, generic settings. Yet such informal spaces are absolutely critical to the urban vitality and liveliness we find in the world’s major urban centres.”

In another recent paper, Mr Elsheshtawy quotes the revered sociologist Richard Sennett, who says that “time breeds attachment to place”. This is certainly true of the residents of Sha’biyat Al Shorta.

On the way out, we are greeted by Sajid Murad who has lived with his father, mother, wife and children in the community for more than 15 years.

“We’ve lived here so long we have all our friends here,” Mr Murad says. “It’s very safe for our children and families because everybody knows each other. It is safe for women to go outside.”

When asked what more Sajid would want from his home he appears confused. “Everything we need is here. We have a laundry, a grocery, a bakery, the mosque.”

This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

For more images see: Jaime Puebla, The National

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