UAEU research has designs on shaping the sustainable, community-driven neighborhoods of the future

A potential blueprint for the future of social housing in urban areas across the UAE has been produced by a researcher at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) – who says sustainability, connectivity, flexibility, and community participation must go hand-in-hand.

Findings in a recently-published paper produced at UAEU claim that despite ambitious attempts to move away from traditional neighborhood templates – some of which have been successful – planners are still facing challenges because housing density is not compact enough, services and facilities are too far away from homes to encourage walking and cycling, and more innovative thinking needs to be applied to the way houses are designed.

Dr Khaled Galal Ahmed, Associate Professor of Architectural and Urban Design at UAEU’s College of Engineering, also say communities should be more involved in shaping the design and character of their neighborhoods and ensuring they reflect the unique culture of the area where they live. His discoveries and suggestions have been outlined in a paper entitled ‘Designing Sustainable Urban Social Housing in the United Arab Emirates’.

The study focused on two social housing areas in Al Ain – seen as a model for green and sustainable UAE cities - one which followed a “conventional urban form”, the other adopting the “new sustainable design” which the UAE is looking to implement more widely. The aim was to identify obstacles to sustainability and how they can be addressed.

“In the last few years, the UAE has witnessed growing interest in sustainable development, as the country has adopted an agenda calling for achieving sustainability in all its development plans, including social housing,” said Dr Ahmed.

“This policy of adopting a sustainable future agenda is currently reflected in social housing neighborhood design. Some limited pioneering projects have emerged lately, in which conventional neighborhood planning and urban design principles are being replaced by what are perceived to be more sustainable ones.”

To explore and compare both areas of Al Ain, Dr Ahmed used a “conceptual matrix” covering 12 key principles of effective neighborhood design: density, accessibility, choice, mobility, mixed-use provision, social mix, adaptability and resilience, local autonomy, environmental quality, safety and security, privacy, and “imageability” – an area’s sense of place and identity that distinguishes it from others.

The results of the analysis, according to Dr Ahmed, showed that the “sustainable neighborhood” only showed a clear improvement on its conventional counterpart in two of these categories – mobility and environmental quality – with a “better but insufficient” improvement in six more, and “inadequate” improvement in the remaining four principles. “The four major challenges facing the turn towards sustainable urban design in sustainability-oriented projects in the UAE are low density, lack of mixed use, lack of social mix, and lack of community participation,” he said.

His study suggests:

  • Neighborhood density could be increased by introducing “multi-storey, medium-rise apartment blocks”, which would support better public transport. Dr Ahmed said he believed acceptance of this type of housing is growing, and that “sustainable urban design will be difficult to realize” without it”.
  • “Standard catchment areas” should be created, allowing services and facilities to be easily reached through all forms of travel, including walking and cycling. Dr Ahmed explained that providing “pleasant and safe” pathways and cycle routes was not enough if these facilities are too far from homes.
  • Housing types should be “diversified” and social activities should be organized at local level, within shared urban spaces and community facilities, to encourage residents to meet. “There is a need for innovative design solutions that allow for various scenarios of expansion and adaptability according to the changing needs of the community,” Dr Ahmed said.
  • Communities can develop and maintain their individual identity by “developing architectural styles that are linked to their culture and through paying more attention to natural assets”, according to Dr Ahmed, who added: “More citizen involvement would lead to a greater sense of belonging and help produce a unique character for the local community, shaped by the laypeople and not imposed on them.”

Dr Ahmed also suggested more models of neighborhood design should be studied to “pave the way for a futuristic urban design scenario that, if adopted, will lead to a more sustainable urban form of social housing in the UAE and other GCC, Arab, and Middle Eastern countries.” 


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Aug 8, 2018