Professor Ashraf M. Salama is Chair in Architecture at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK and Head of the School of Architecture (2014-2020). He has published over 170 outputs in the international refereed press; authored and co-edited 14 books. With varied experience in academic research, teaching, design and research-based consultancy, Professor Salama bridges theory and design and pedagogy and practice in his professional activities. His expertise spans across critical topics relevant to emerging cities in the Middle East. He currently leads the cluster for research on architecture and urbanism in the global south at the University of Strathclyde and is the chief editor of the Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research and Open House international. His latest book “Architectural Excellence in Islamic Societies”, Routledge 2020, engages with the wider context of the Islamic world.
Dr Florian Wiedmann is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, specialized in investigating urban transformation from an international and interdisciplinary perspective who has been working in research, practice and teaching since 2006. His involvement in interdisciplinary projects and courses in four different countries made it possible for him to gain in-depth experience in various areas of urban studies, from urban governance to urban economics and the spatial impact of migration. The main focus of his research, practice and teaching are found in the context of urban development tendencies worldwide, particularly in emerging cities, and the resulting challenges, such as environmental concerns (e. g. commuting), new market dynamics (e. g. migrant housing) and the complex role of urban design and architecture in place making.
DM: My name is Diane Mehanna, I am an Architect and Program Coordinator at Sharjah Architecture Triennial. I am pleased to welcome Professor Ashraf Salama and Dr. Florian Wiedmann who are joining us today for the third episode of Series 2: Architecture+ City.
I'll start with a short introduction. Professor Ashraf Salama is Chair in Architecture at University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and Head of the School of Architecture (2014-2020), with extensive experience in academic research, teaching design and research-based consultancy. He bridges theory and design and pedagogy and practice in his professional activities. He currently leads the cluster for research on architecture and urbanism in the Global South at Strathclyde. Dr. Florian Wiedmann is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, specializing in the investigation of urban transformation from an international and interdisciplinary perspective. He has been working in research, practice, and teaching since 2006. The frameworks and methodologies of his research follow an integrated approach and are rooted in space production theories juxtaposed to a contemporary understanding of sustainable urbanism. Professor Salama and Dr. Wiedmann have collaborated on a number of research projects and publications that cover sustainable urbanism in Gulf cities, including two books: the first one entitled Demystifying Doha: On architecture and urbanism in an emerging city, in 2013, and the second one Building Migrant Cities in the Gulf: Urban transformations in the Middle East in 2019.
Ashraf and Florian, it's a pleasure to welcome you today. Thank you both for joining us from Glasgow and Nottingham.
AS: Thank you very much for having us.
FW: Thank you.
DM: Your collaboration has led to an extensive body of work on the city of Doha. Ashraf, could you describe the context of your work and elaborate on what aspects of Doha's urban environment does your research focus on?
AS: Actually, our work is comprehensive as it was part, as you mentioned, of two large-scale research projects funded by Qatar National Research Fund and Qatar Foundation. Generically, our work focuses on knowledge economy and sustainable urbanism that was the first project. And then the second, we placed emphasis on housing typologies in multicultural societies of the Gulf. But, specifically, we focus on human environment interactions, the relationship between people and places, or what is termed as the “lived space and the everyday urban environment”. It also includes the image of the city and how the Gulf city, taking the example of Doha, is struggling to identify itself and generate a contemporary identity and the meaning of this for decision-makers, experts and the public. So, we focus also on perception and behavior of so many different social groups and the underlying examination of place-making and how people attach to places.
FW: I would like to build on this; I think from an international perspective, Gulf cities are just a really very particular phenomenon. So, what we were really interested in is how the kind of urbanism and the kind of cities were transforming since this whole new vision started in the end of the 1990s. So, it was really a kind of very engaging and very exciting research because everything was in the happening--lots of things changing, new strategies, new projects—the city is in a constant kind of reinvention. So, any city, if it's Dubai or Doha (and Doha is of course, also one of these special cases where we can see that the city was kind of re-developed from scratch in the early 2000s) and this really rapid expansion, this huge growth, this like a world records in many ways of foreign migration to one place and this is something of course, to explore and to investigate.
DM: While analyzing such rapid urban growth in Gulf cities, one would be interested in identifying the different entities involved in urban planning. And here I’d like to quote an excerpt from one of your articles about Doha, where you say “In emerging cities three types of users have the most impact on the production of space, namely, companies, employees and investors.” Florian, could you describe how these 3 groups impacted the development of Doha’s urban space? And can you give specific examples?
FW: I think that when you build a city from scratch and that's what we also tried to discover, then it's going back to what Murdock identified in the 1970s as cities became this kind of “growth machines”, this kind of new hubs, being the commodity itself. And, of course, a city from scratch once you initiate it (especially in a very resource-rich, like steel, oil and gas producing region) then there's a lot of interest in developing projects. And once you liberalize the local real estate market, then, of course, investors, but also companies, are starting to see the huge potential of development and of growth. So this was a very particular situation: the geopolitical location right in the middle of everywhere (I mean Asia but also Europe and the West). So, there's a lot of potential here and the kind of development dynamics which were caused and with all this opening real estate markets, companies moving from the West and from all over the world to the Gulf--bringing their employees, but also the investors--picking up on the kind of freehold property market developed this kind of huge growth in a very short timeframe.
But, what it also caused was a certain growth dependency because obviously once you start one big project, one big megaproject, it had to be followed by the next and by the next in order to keep the momentum, in order to keep the employment up, in order to create this huge service sector so that the other economies, which actually need much more time to grow. The knowledge economies and the kind of other more specialized economies, they need time to develop. Like also the infrastructure, the logistics, they need time to develop. So, we have that kind of very special city engineering in the Gulf, when there was not much time for these big visions. So, Ashraf can maybe develop more on the social aspect, on the employee perspective.
AS: Yes, we have a key group which is basically migrants as employees, representing about 85% of the total population in Doha. In other cities in the Gulf, it's even more. So, for this group, we look at new lifestyle preferences, housing choices within the overall urban environment. We look at choices within the public realm of the city for example, waterfront, beaches, areas for cultural gathering and also important shopping destinations. These acquired meaning with the presence of migrant communities including professional expatriates. So we examine areas of the city and the meaning associated with them for different types of migrants and different types of groups with different socio-economic backgrounds. Certain areas within the city, for example the re-construction and restoration of Souq Waqif or the urban regeneration project of Msheireb, the Museum of Islamic Arts in Qatar. The challenge is that, that whole society is transient and temporary. So we have a society which is very difficult to identify, and basically, the city is planned and designed for an unknown society. And this applies to many cities in the Gulf. So, it's a challenge on how these cities will be projected for the future and for future user groups and populations.
DM: I’d like to go back to what Ashraf was saying about urban spaces being designed and planned for a transient society and question where does the decision making happen and whether there are any friction between the interests of companies, employees, and investors and the entities producing urban policies in Gulf cities?
FW: Yes, this is a very good question because, of course, governance in the Gulf has been kind of developing quickly, also adjusting to this new environment and they have tried their best in order to balance all these interests. So, we think that the biggest issue here is of course the timeframe of development. When you have a huge migration of millions of people in one region building these cities and the kind of speculation forces when a freehold property market emerges when real estate can be purchased by foreign investors, then there's so much to it because you have to regulate these markets, but the regulations are not in place yet. So, we had times in the Gulf where properties were bought in the morning and sold in the evening. Of course then prices go up and all kind of things happen. So, on the one side, you have this amazing growth, you have this amazing employment, you have these amazing opportunities, but, at the same time, from a governance's perspective, you have unleashed something really big in your backyard and you have to somehow manage it.
I would say that we have to distinguish three core challenges for governance right now in the Gulf (but the last 10 years they were struggling with it). One is affordable housing: I think the housing supply for these very diverse and very complicated communities because they are exchanging, they are coming and going and you don't really know their cultural context. So, housing preferences and all these kinds of things are just unknown. So, one really big topic in our research, in our academic research was always the housing dynamics in the Gulf region.
And then, another aspect is, of course, transportation: when housing prices go up then you have the issue that more and more expats, but also even native communities have to move outside to the outskirts, move to the suburbs, which means that, of course, you have increased commuting times for all the activities you do, not only going to work place, but also to leisure activities. And this creates this huge traffic congestion and this kind of critical situation in most Gulf cities. And, so again, a huge challenge which is related to the growth and the housing supply, because you can supply houses quickly in low rise compounds in the desert but, the thing is that it means you have increasing traffic. And, at the same time you have the phenomenon of overcrowded inner city districts where a lot of lower income expats or bachelors were sharing apartments, so often housing was completely over occupied, which meant a problem with parking and a problem with other kind of traffic concerns.
And, one issue, which I would like to highlight as well because it's often not really in the focus, is the supply with social infrastructure for governance. I mean, we're talking about schools in particular. In order to really attract a certain middle income, high income, highly experienced but also very educated expat population to build an economy for a long period of time, you want to keep them there in their best age, like the thirties, the forties. So, at the time where they have kids, everybody knows that, who has kids, suddenly the schools matter. You are middle income (you might not be able to afford the best international school) so you are struggling then to find a way to accommodate this very, very special need in your life. And, so this really meant that a lot of expats with kids going to school have been leaving the Gulf once the kids are this age and this of course means a lot of loss, in particular when you build an economy like certain economic sectors.
There's another driving force to actually make people move out of the Gulf region. I mean, the thing is that we can question the model itself. Once you have that kind of huge growth and expansion, cities become commodities. Then it is also a fundamental question: if we can even expect it to perform in all the matters in this first 20, 30 years. Maybe their expectations are sometimes too high, in the sense that it needs a certain period of consolidation, a period of slowing down and then people can actually take over the place because basically you created a place, you attracted people to come, but now the people have to create the place. And so, it is not like the usual urbanization model that people were growing in a place, creating the place in a more bottom up, step-by-step kind of way we see in history when we look at European cities, for example, or even other kind of cities in the Middle East (when you look at Cairo or other places). So, it is not like that, it's really a completely upside down model: you provide a place, you invite people to come, but now the question is how people can actually make this place theirs. And this is beyond governance, to be honest; I think that it's really more about slowing down economy, slowing down development in a certain way, and then making people to create the marketplace.
DM: This leads me to the next question, which is somehow about owning the urban space you, engage with. In your research, you analyze the interdependencies between economic diversification, such as the establishment of knowledge economies, and urban space transformation. Ashraf, could you tell us to what degree are knowledge economies impacting urban livability in Gulf cities?
AS: This is also a really, a very important question in the context of Gulf cities and I would say that a successful knowledge economy, by default, requires quality buildings, quality environments, quality urban settings, and quality services. The key reason is to attract well-paid expertise, to settle for longer periods, and thus the quality of the built environment should really matter. And when we focus on the quality of the urban environment and the quality of buildings, then there would be a demand that could lead to transformations in certain urban developments. As I mentioned earlier, certain areas within the city acquire meaning, or emerge to compete with very well established centers. For example, you can find beach areas, you can find waterfront developments like the West Bay and all these developments are competing with the old center. And now this is why we see transformations within the old center to re-emerge again and regenerate again for economic and of course cultural diversity purposes.
So, these dynamics are really important, but the question or the key question would be: what does livability in the context of the Gulf and the knowledge economy involve? First of all, knowledge economy is really very important to identify. Probably in the urban discourse “knowledge economy” is a very wide term, but in the context of the Gulf, it places emphasis on specific activities like international universities, international banking, international IT services and IT recession development areas, places like Masdar, places like Qatar foundation places like media cities are part of an overall knowledge economy. So where is livability here? Livability can be seen in two different terms and involves a duality basically. Many designers and many architects look at it only in physical terms, where you measure distances between areas and places, you achieve certain parameters in the quality of the urban environment in terms of how it is appealing, in terms of building heights, in terms of character, in terms of all these measured aspects of the urban environment. But, there is always an intangible dimension that many people tend to forget, either within governance or within the design and architecture community and that relates to the relationship between people and the environment; the meaning of all of these forms and all of these spaces to the populations. Feelings, perceptions of people living in these environments would be really important.
Still this can be measured, but it's not easy to measure due to the diversity of population. When we say people, people mean many groups with different educational backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds. So in more concrete terms, the actual impact of knowledge economy can be seen in integrated high rise developments. For example, proximity between residences, work places, consumption spaces, which are shopping centers. In the context of Doha, West Bay, the Pearl development; all these are an outcome of knowledge economy. New public spaces around landmark projects, as I mentioned earlier, the Souq, the Msheireb project, and centers for emerging middle and higher income expatriates communities are becoming important, not just for the local population or for the labor class, but there is a significant body of expatriate communities that are utilizing these spaces.
DM: You mentioned expatriate communities in Doha and I’d like to ask how would you define urban community in the contemporary Gulf city? How does it relate to the concept of “airport societies” that you mention in your work?
AS: I would say urban community is not necessarily a physical thing. It's a construct, it's something that occurs in the mind of people, the idea of community, and it needs time to evolve, and it needs time to get established. Normally communities develop over a period of time within a shared area or a shared physical space and a shared, as I mentioned, time and also a shared value system. All these, when they integrate and they interrelate over a period of time, we can get a sense of community.
The issue with many Gulf cities is the rapid exchange of residents and expatriates; people come stay a few years and leave. So that sense of community is not sustained, and thus basically impacted negatively. The shared experience as expats for a set period of time can lead to social bonding, effective social engagement but not necessarily a sense of community because people are leaving next year. So, that dynamic is really important to observe and it should be seen as part of the entire social sustainability. As a consequence of that, when people of the same background relate effectively over a short period of time, you see that idea of parallel societies or parallel communities. Within the overall society, you see a number of communities functioning together, working together, and what unifies them as a value system is their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. So, you see for example, people who work in universities are a network, and even within that network, you can find people from a certain country are mingling and socially interacting. And that becomes a preference over belonging to the wider community and this is really very clear in the Gulf. But, also it's a phenomenon which is not unique to the Gulf; it exists in many places as one would observe. So, groups of the same cultural or socioeconomic background tend to engage together, and with that we can see that idea of parallel societies. But I would note that the sense of communities develops also virtually: social media, online expatriate platforms can be seen as important places, but not physical places, that demonstrate forms of social organization, social interaction in Gulf cities.
DM: Yes, the virtual platform becomes a virtual sharing space. Florian, would you like to add something?
FW: Yes, I would like to, I mean, I can also share my own experience when I moved to the Gulf and I lived there for three years. I think that despite the fact that somehow a lot of the kind of people you engage with, everyone has this kind of perspective of staying two, three, four years. And you have that kind of intensity in a certain way of social interaction because everyone somehow also shares even that in particular that yes, we are all on a suitcase yes, we might leave. But the thing is, there's still a sense of community, a sense of like, yes, we are all mobile international people and we all kind of share in common that we are now in the Gulf and we are working here and we're engaging with the city. That's why I think a lot of people witness the Gulf cities (often when you are a middle and high income) not as a problem because they actually have a lot of fun, they have a lot of leisure time, they meet a lot of friends. And I would not say that my time you know, it was really a very nice experience in my lifetime and I would really regret not having this time. At the same time, I think from an economic consolidation perspective, from my development perspective, for the city itself, like giving back investment from these people from us specifically; that is where the problem starts, because people are having fun in shopping malls, having fun going out in hotels and doing all these things. That's the consumption industry you supply. But where it really shows them is the kind of long-term supply of quality housing, and the long-term supply of social infrastructure and services. And so I think that one of the kind of interesting research we did then on, by looking at the perception from different cultural backgrounds, we saw that a lot of South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds they had a much more long-term plan to actually stay in the Gulf region.
So, there was not like this thinking too much: "Oh three years and gone anyway." So there was a feeling of like, no, we want to invest, we want to stay but we don't know if we can. So then of course, this changes a little bit, the kind of dedication, because you never know if you get another contract, if you can actually stay. And another kind of interesting investigation is that the highest income people and the lowest income people are the ones who have most frequently exchanged in the Gulf. So meaning when you're an international mobile banker working in the financial industry, you might only stay one year or like even just to build something in a particular area, and you are always between different places; you're not really settled in the Gulf. So the really big decision makers in a lot of private sector concerns the often not really settled in the Gulf so they're really looking at it from a very international perspective.
And then you have the kind of, really big share of the population, which is coming from South Asia, Nepal, Pakistan, India, working on construction sites, low income laborers. And, these people are coming to the Gulf to have that kind of opportunity, to get that kind of little income (but still a much better income, much better situation than from their home countries) often coming from slums and very troubled kind of backgrounds. In one way, they are a big share of the population and I think it's sometimes even under estimated how this kind of majority, when you're talking about 40-50% of this kind of population in each city, how it affects the urban realm and the image of the city, because you can't only look at the place and the spectacles of mega projects and landmarks and big towers. That's the one image you get. The other image you get when you perceive a city, live a city, breathe a city, are the people around you. And, I think it's often a bit underestimated how much these guest laborers with their troubled backgrounds, coming from developing countries; how this actually impacts the image of the city and how much this is actually something that you also acknowledge when you live in the Gulf. That the pain and the suffering of these people being not with their families, having all the worries they have, if maybe a sick child in India; all this is kind of compounds what is experienced and perceived. It's a very particular situation. So this of course creates also a certain kind of interesting community development or social engineering in many ways, and a very complicated place attachment.
DM: I think we unpacked many elements of Gulf cities’ urban environment. I’d like to end by asking you how do you perceive sustainable urbanism in the Gulf region today and in the future?
FW: Yes. I think that the big challenge, which we already touched in a certain way, is this growth dependency and the kind of continuous expansion of cities and reinvention and new mega projects and events, new people coming, new communities. This kind of dependency of course, is actually a bit problematic to develop an efficient supply of the things we need as a society. But also the diversity for our economy, because of course, if you have that kind of fast development, it is easier to develop big holdings, supplying all the kind of different service sectors from car industry to whatever you have. So this is the kind of efficiency you get. And this is actually then very problematic for the individual entrepreneurial incentive. And when we think about cities as a kind of dynamic marketplaces, where people come to develop a market, and this is what a city actually is and that's where we always came to develop these kind of patterns when people started to exchange their goods and services and then culture emerged and then around it, you have that kind of community and social grid.
So, also Gulf cities with the Gulf settlements prior to the boom, prior to the oil production; you had that kind of far-reaching society where they're living in neighborhoods and there was a souq and there was the market and the mosque and that kind of interaction, that kind of very clear logical compound of building a community bottom up in many ways. And so if you take away that entrepreneurial incentive and we saw this particularly in our research, when you look at migrant populations who migrated to the Gulf in the sixties and seventies and were able to build their enterprise, their business, their restaurant or whatever they had, over these years. There were more and more challenged during the last 20 years because of the development pattern, because of the speed, the scale; the rent for the shop went up, the rent for the apartment or housing went up. They had to leave their old neighborhoods, often went to the periphery. And the same also for the native population; they experienced the same problem of growth pattern.
I think that with COVID-19 and the global recession that we can expect, we can also see that there's an opportunity there for the Gulf in particular. Despite the fact that there will be an economic downturn, I think there can be also an opportunity for consolidation; to actually go back to the innovation and the motivation and the kind of dedication of people to develop an economy with what they have. I mean, the infrastructure is there, the city is there and now it needs this kind of bottom up economy again, where people start to trade and sell. How to source trading networks, going back to certain places, to India or wherever, to supply the communities and to develop something.
In many ways, I think the biggest potential in the Gulf is really the geopolitical location: the old trading networks, the kind of cosmopolitan heritage of so many different Middle Eastern cultures coming together. The urban space and the city and the architecture as well can be responsive to this and can develop this kind of neighborhoods again, these communities again, beyond the compound and the shopping mall. And I think this is the biggest challenge and also the biggest opportunity. So architects should be actually seeing this as a force, which could reinvent their place in a way that people are integrated, and that people express the place. In the next years to come, possibly cities would shrink. This is something we often discuss, we often debate, what's the future of the Gulf city. And I think that a shrinking city is not necessarily something bad: we don't need millions of people living in the desert necessarily. You have a lot of economic potential as a hub. But at the same time it can be a smaller community, a smaller society. But then the quality is emerging and the quality is demanded and this means architects are even more requested to deliver what people actually want in places and housing quality. So maybe Ashraf can develop on it further.
AS: Yes. Some of the points raised by Florian are really very critical and important, especially from an economic and environmental perspective, as part of the overall agenda of sustainable urbanism and sustainable cities. But, one important factor of our work was the people factor, and that people factor is so dynamic in the context of the Gulf. When we go to any other city in the world, basically we have like a unified population. In the context of the Gulf, the type of population and the associated social dimensions and social factors, as they relate to the city, buildings, neighborhoods become so critical. So part of our work, in addition to examining the expatriate communities, which is middle to upper income categories, we also examine the spatial practice of migrants and the labor class to try to understand the dynamics of space and these groups.
The interesting thing is that, we can see a duality in Gulf cities where governance is departing from the traditional governance, which was a key characteristic of decision-making in Gulf cities. The idea of a tribal leader who makes decisions about how the area should be shaped; that was replaced by modern planning authorities, ministry of planning, planning, guidance, and all aspects related to the Western model of thinking about governance. We're departing from traditional governance but at the same time, we are calling for adopting heritage values and cultural values and addressing the very needs of the local population; so that kind of duality is basically a struggle. And that happens with any societies and any cities that are in a continuous process of transformation.
As architects and urban designers, we talk about place-making, place-management, place-attachment and the qualities of good architecture and how this should be rooted in the successful relationship between people and place and what are all these images that we see. As Florian was mentioning earlier. It's not just this stunning spectacle; there are areas behind the scene that we need to look at. How they are evolving? how they are accommodating people? how they are meeting their social needs and social aspirations? And this means social sustainability, an important dimension of sustainable urbanism. But the big question is: who is the society we are designing for? And who's going to use these places in the next 20, 30, 50 years? This should be part of the future visions of cities in the Gulf, including the key cities and the key areas within the Gulf.
As mentioned by Florian, that break of COVID-19 is of benefit to the Gulf city in general. In environmental and social terms, it's useful because it's like a pause for reflection and breaking the growth cycle is really very good for the physical development of the city. Many neighborhoods and urban centers can be re-envisaged to accommodate different activities rather than expanded. We don't need new cities; we don't need new developments; why don't we focus on the current developments and the social dynamics that take place within them? So I would say enhancing the spatial experiences at a smaller scale would be the way forward for the Gulf city.
DM: Actually, what initiated this podcast program was the long pause due to COVID-19 lockdown and it seems that many sectors could benefit from it. For instance, it has lead us to realize that architects, urban planners and researchers would benefit from sharing knowledge in a multidisciplinary platform and that is actually our mission here. Thank you very much for your time and for sharing enriching vision of sustainable urbanism in the Gulf.
AS: Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to reflect on our work and also position it within your questions because it's really very useful for researchers and academics and professionals to get the perspective of other people.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Ashraf M. Salama & Florian Wiedmann, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)