Public space in the middle east


I am in Abu Dhabi at the moment, researching public space. Wondering if anyone has some thoughts.... (this is a bit from blog

Navigating around the city has been an incredible discovery. Walking around without a map, using the sun and the call to prayer as orientation and time-keeping devices, works fairly well around here. It is an easy city to find your way around in...a grid of superblocks. One direction takes you to the water and the other, well, it doesn't. You are either standing along a major artery (longitudinal roadway) or you are within the confines of a superblock, near slower moving traffic, open space, or parking....or a mosque.

Confusion sets in the moment you begin to try and understand the street signs, sector boundaries, or locate an address. This is amazing: There are no addresses in Abu Dhabi. Try to locate an Abu Dhabi business on Google maps. A zoomed-out image of the states poped up for me. My friends, who live in a residential tower, here have no mailbox in the building. Everyone has a PO Box. Mail is sent to places of employment and then delivered home by other means. The streets are labeled with names on maps and have street signs but no one uses this often long, newish identification system. "Sheikh Rashid Bin Saleed Al Maktoum St" is also "2nd St" on maps and street signs. The locals, they call it Airport Road. As far as I can tell, most people who live here don't even know the new naming system exists. When I arrived, I was instructed to tell the cab driver to take me to a tower behind Marks and Spencer (mall) downtown. I asked my friends if their tower entrance was located at the intersection of 2 and 7 streets. Craig: "Are there a bunch of dudes standing around in pajamas?"

People use landmarks to give directions....and this is what you have to do for a taxi cab driver as well. It's pretty incredible that it works.

Another incredible thing: the bus is free! The bus system is free of charge for all of 2009 as an incentive for a (predominantly) car culture to begin using this recently introduced service. It is clean, crowded, fast, efficient....even more so than the East Bay's AC transit. Here in Abu Dhabi the bus arrives every 5 minutes, passengers can enter and exit from every bus door, and no one is standing at the front waiting in line to pay.

See more at:

Only in new cities, baby!

The open buses and public interesting topic. When asked how I would define "public" on this journey, I was pretty convinced that "it's not public if it's not free." Cafes and bars are hubs of activity and places of major social networking, yet they exclude members of society who can't afford to be there or are not of age/religion to consume. Therefore, a library would be a public space, but a bus would not. Here in the UAE things are flip-floping. Major parks charge a small admission fee and the buses are free. People spend a lot of time in hotels, clubs, and shopping malls. Which public spaces will be the most important to recognize, is it a case-by-case decision I have to make? Your advice is really welcome.

Feb 8, 09 3:13 am

Open buses and public spaces, that's thought provoking outlook, but aren't all transportation "public"? I think what's more important to recognize in a public space is based on interaction between human beings. I think whether it is free or not free, that issue is not important, but rather how successful is the public space in bringing people together. I find open marketplaces to be a good example of public spaces, but supermarkets are not because of the lack of interaction between people. Perhaps hotels are the new public spaces in the UAE? However, in your post on gender issues, you're bringing a cultural aspect of public spaces that can only exists in the Middle East - the separation of man and woman. A rather intriguing topic.

So is it a case-by-case decision? Perhaps, because I don't think a global public space truly exists yet (a global economy-yes) and what may work in one city, may not work in another.

Not sure if I gave you any good advice or may have misdirected you into a different direction but it's an interesting choice of subject nonetheless. And congratulations on winning the fellowship! Took a look at your itinerary and it's pretty comprehensive. Looking forward to your whole trip. Good luck! Also, I noticed you have PutraJaya as one of your supplemental site, that's an interesting choice-why is that?

Feb 8, 09 5:48 pm  · 
chatter of clouds

considering your title, inferring the whole of the middle east, a culturally and ethnically variegated crust of the earth, from abu dhabi is a disenginious fallacy. one might even suspect a generalizing occidentalist sensibility.
have you also been to ankara, tyre, sidon, damascus, nicosia, jerusalem, tel aviv, latikiya, muscat...etc? and can you even ascertain inter-city equivalence?

nonetheless, yes the Abu Dhabi buses are free till 15 February 09.
Or so they say; date-setting can be rather tentative here. And those buses can get so packed that its quite funny. try dealing with B.O and elbows jammed into your sides; if you have money to spare, you get a car or taxi here. with the forthcoming introduction of more buses, they won't be quite so packed...perhaps.

The overlaying of street numbers and traditional street names is interesting and confusing in equal measure. thats true. where the former is an outcome of a typically top-view modernist planning that prioritizes traffic directionality, plot demarcation, the latter reflects cultural venerability towards royalty and tribalism, perhaps now sblimated into a more contemporary nationalism.

as for public space, aside from the small family centred parks and the stretch of corniche seaefront, the real public space here in in the malls. i find your precluding definition of a public space ill justified. firstly, one don't pay money to be in a mall or a shop, you pay money if you choose to take away something away from the shop. secondly, a successful mall is larger than the sum of its parts. this is especially the case in cities that suffer extreme weather conditions for more than 6 months of the year and haven't got a lot of venues for its younger population. also, shopping is its own culture. and shopping is very big here.

Feb 10, 09 9:24 am  · 
chatter of clouds

or rather, one doesn't pay money

Feb 10, 09 9:26 am  · 

Thanks for your insight.

The closest thing to a global public space that I've found so far is Dubai's Global Village - an arabic version of Epcot. It is all about spectacle, events, theme parks, and malls here. The Global Village was interesting because the crowd it attracted was maybe more authentically global than the exhibits themselves.

Thanks for your kind words, I hope you will stay in contact via the blog.

Putrajaya - I originally proposed this city as a 'tabula rasa' case. I was interested in it because of its size - massive city built to house governmental functions for Malaysia, an alternative to Kuala Lumpur. The city is expected to exhibit a public space typology consistent with its political ideology. Still trying to figure out if I'll make it there.

Feb 14, 09 5:45 am  · 

sorry, let me clarify - the title for the archinect post was misleading. I am interested in the public space of new cities (built or reconstructed within the past 30 years). The cities I chose to look at in the middle east (for the time being) are Abu Dhabi and Dubai. What is interesting now, and from the time I wrote the proposal, is that the economic crisis has halted a lot of the development that was going on this having an effect on any public space initiatives or kind of the question I'm asking now.

Thanks for the bus info, the Urban Planning Council confirmed that date as well.
To add to your statements about the roads/planning, John Madden at the UPC said, "This city was engineered, not designed."

I appreciate your thoughts, my definition of public space is a working definition. That is why I am posting, so I welcome the contributions.

Feb 14, 09 5:57 am  · 

noct -
do you live in Abu Dhabi?

PS - the buses, even when crowded, were pleasant for me. I am female, so I was with the women in the front. Smells fine up there...and there were clearly people of sep. classes....I could hold a conversation in english most times.

Feb 14, 09 7:46 am  · 
chatter of clouds

yes, untested_city, i live in abu dhabi.

with regards to the title, i would suggest you change the title, then, to "public space in the u.a.e". yuo do no justice to the extraordinary difference between the u.a.e cities and, say, the levantine cities.

with regards to the economic recession's impact on dubai, i hear that they're continuing with most projects that have already been launched but otherwise much is on hold. many many people have been laid off and its expected to get worse, so i hear.

abu dhabi is in a better position, having a more solid core with its oil money and being less globally 'osmotic' than dubai. from the construction industry standpoint, no projects have been cancelled or on hold, but there is a feeling of unease and expectation, who knows what the future brings. professionals dealing in finance are definitely feeling the impact, however; there have been salary cuts and there's talk of possible forthcoming job losses.

and with regards to the buses, yes, women's section is not as packed.

Feb 14, 09 11:24 am  · 

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