Sharjah Architecture Triennial sets stage for discussion on GCC urban policy directions

The event is expected to contribute to urban development by highlighting contemporary currents of thought.
Sunday 05/08/2018
A general view of Sharjah city. (Sharjah Architecture Triennial)
Massive sprawl. A general view of Sharjah city. (Sharjah Architecture Triennial)

SHARJAH - Sharjah Architecture Triennial, scheduled for November 2019, is expected to contribute to urban development by highlighting contemporary currents of thought and discussion relevant to MENA and South Asian architecture and its social, economic, environmental and cultural contexts.

Khalid bin Butti al-Muhairi, chairman of Sharjah Directorate of Town Planning and Survey, has stressed the challenges of providing housing for a rising population in a city such as Sharjah.

“To meet the housing challenges in Sharjah city, first of all we should create new housing production models integrated into a sustainable overall urban policy,” Muhairi said.  “We need to collaborate with the private sector and support the entire housing sector in an integrated manner.”

Even though the emirate has kept pace with growth, the demand for housing is rising at a faster rate in Sharjah with urbanisation being driven by the growing service-based economy and the resulting influx of expatriates.

“The limited land available and suitable for housing (residential) sector in Sharjah city is one of the key challenges,” Muhairi said.

He pointed out that “in keeping with its historic policy of incorporating citizens’ welfare in all its planning projects, Sharjah will in future seek to incorporate participatory planning by encouraging the public to play a crucial role in the policy process.”

The need to provide housing is the most evident and perhaps most crucial shared factor between Gulf cities, said Bahraini architect Ali Karimi. “Social housing makes up the lion’s share of the urbanised area of these cities,” he said.

Karimi said that, although there were differences between the countries in how they have dealt with the issue, the result of low-density, single-family detached units is the condition of most Gulf cities.

“In Bahrain, we are still reproducing the 1960s’ model of housing delivery, continuing the trend of constructing dormitory towns made up of single-family units, except that today they are on reclaimed land along the country’s coastline,” Karimi said.

Recent developments have been driven by a 60,000-request backlog at the Ministry of Housing, out of which 40,000 units are expected to be delivered by 2020 in new towns around Bahrain.

Karimi calls it “high-speed city making” and points out the implications in terms of the tremendous ecological price and the detrimental effect it will have in achieving a stable real estate/housing market.

What is perhaps most worrying is that the speed does not allow for iteration, invention or experimentation. The country is reproducing a 50-year-old model at an unprecedented scale with unprecedented speed without taking the opportunity to assess what is going on until it is done, he said.

Karimi called for typological and urban innovations in Gulf cities, including changing the role of the Ministry of Housing from a developer to a regulator of the housing environment.

“We need to completely reconsider our funding mechanisms as well as create platforms for meaningful open discourse on these cities and their issues. This cannot be completely top-down or bottom-up but requires us to produce more flexible institutions that regulate cities and activate multiple scales rather than sit back and reproduce existing models as state-owned developers,” Karimi said.

Looking back over the urban transformations in Gulf cities over five decades, Kuwaiti architect Hamed Bukhamseen said the dominant phenomenon has been that of suburban development.

“Cities across the region have wholeheartedly embraced the single-detached family home as the only acceptable manner of housing offered to them by planning authorities leading to cityscapes that are characterised by massive sprawl,” he said. “This method of sub-urbanisation has pushed for massive infrastructure to sustain and continuously provide for cities that are straining limited resources, be it financial, or geographical.”

Bukhamseen said authorities were beginning to comprehend the ecological and financial effects of such urbanisation practices and were seeking alternatives in developing cities.

Regarding the strategies that Gulf cities should opt for in the postmodern era, Bukhamseen stressed that the primary focus should be “inclusivity and innovation.”  “What we are noticing in our cities across the region is the existence of hyper-segregated ‘lived experiences’ between various communities and strata of society,” he said.

Bukhamseen asked how authorities can use currently available toolsets to create inclusive environments that allow for communal engagement.

“Authorities need to actively seek the dissolution of isolation and it is ultimately through innovation in the provision of housing stock, multi-use zoning and the creation of variant public space that we can begin to foster these moments of interaction among local communities,” he said.