As Gulf Cities Grow, There Is an Opportunity to Export Expertise in Urban Planning

The Arab Spring protests in 2011 marked the moment when contemporary urbanism became a field of intense interest in the Middle East. To be sure, the Middle East is home to some of the world’s greatest and oldest cities, but drawing a connection between urbanism and society has long been relegated to the domain of academics. Then the Arab Spring broke out on the streets of the region’s great cities and the world woke up to the connection between cities and people’s happiness.

Cairo was the backdrop for social transformation as protestors used city squares as rallying points and people took advantage of the chaos to bring about immediate changes to their urban environment. I visited one Cairo neighborhood in 2012 where residents built their own highway onramp to gain better access to the center of the city, while authorities were preoccupied with the chaos of the protests.

While the Arab Spring highlighted the connection between urbanism and protest, a new form of urbanism is taking root around the region. Human-centric urbanism, or the concept that cities can be constructed with the needs and happiness of residents taking precedence over other considerations, is now a popular concept in the field. While it might be easy to write off the trend – after all, isn’t all urbanism human-centric? – the fact is that most cities are still constructed with defense and commerce in mind.

Urbanists have long devised ways to increase the economic efficiency of the city through planning. Robert Moses, the famed “master builder” of mid-century New York notably tussled with the journalist and neighborhood activist Jane Jacobs over his plans to destroy small neighborhoods to make way for massive infrastructure projects such as highways, tunnels and bridges that would strengthen the economy. Jacobs went on to become an early advocate of human-centric urbanism. She argued persuasively that cities were best when they preserved their quirky neighborhoods, encouraged civic participation and embraced their vibrancy.

What does this mean for cities in the Middle East that continue to grapple with decisions over the best approach to urban design, city governance and city planning? For one thing, we are collectively more isolated than ever. The rise of smartphones and the internet has led to a spike in social isolation. This has notable knock-on effects regarding health, psychological development and even suicide rates. In the prosperous cities of the Gulf, lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes have become a major concern. New research suggests that over-reliance on smartphones and too much screen time could be a major culprit in propagating these diseases.

The region’s young population is at risk, forcing some cities to look at human-centric urbanism as a way to combat these modern challenges. Dubai, in particular, has invested substantial resources to this end. Through the creation of new parks, walkable districts and city-wide campaigns aimed at getting people together and away from screens, Dubai is trying to lead the campaign in the region to incorporate human-centric urbanism. There is still a long road ahead as well as many challenges, but the direction of travel is clear: human-centric urban planning that encourages active community participation through design can combat the dangers of our contemporary moment.

While it might be a world away, the city of Tel Aviv has taken a similar approach. The physical construction of the city encourages residents to get outdoors. Long boulevards snake between small neighborhood parks, which encourage community engagement and, well, walking. Despite the humidity and summer heat, residents can be found walking the streets at all hours of the day. Additionally, the municipality organizes several fitness events that encourage people to run, cycle and get moving.

These facets of human-centric urbanism might sound obvious and even silly, but the reality is that several cities around the world simply don’t see the link between the productivity of residents and the design of the city. This is all the more pressing when you consider the rapid urban growth we see today. Cities are home to the majority of the world’s population, generate the majority of global wealth, and are forecast by the UN to explode in growth over the next two decades. By the year 2050, two out of three people in the world will live in cities.

Can human-centric urbanism help the world deal with population explosions in cities? There is no clear answer but it is a step in the right direction. By placing residents and their needs at the center of urbanism, cities can improve society, make people happier and organize humanity in our increasingly urban world.

Moreover, while the field of urbanism was shaped in the West and Western cities continue to make invaluable contributions to the field, the emerging world is fast becoming the space of real innovation. It is where growth is happening and problems need immediate attention. Gulf cities have an opportunity to perfect human-centric urbanism and export their knowledge to fast-growing cities in emerging markets.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.