In 2013, Canadian urbanist and journalist Charles Montgomery wrote the book Happy City, which stated the case for retrofitting cities to make them, and their inhabitants, happier. According to Montgomery, building healthier, happier places actually save society money in the long run, and it’s no secret that people who are more socially connected show increased productivity, are more resilient, creative and happy.
“As human beings, we need to interact with others and the community as a whole to foster a sense of security and belonging,” says Ahmed Al Ali, chairman of X-Architects, whose diverse portfolio of projects ranges from wildlife centres and a floating houseboat to private villas and the new Dubai Creek masterplan concept. “From economic and social aspects to place making and wellness, if these elements don’t come together in an holistic way, from both an architectural and urban perspective, then a community wont’ work.”
For Sumaya Dabbagh, founder of Dabbagh Architects and chair of the Riba Gulf Chapter, architects have a responsibility to ensure the built environment directly influences health, wellbeing and safety. She says: “The experience created by the spaces we design as architects can allow us to feel a sense of belonging or a sense of separation, a feeling of safety or anxiety. This is a huge responsibility for all those involved in shaping the built environment.”
An eye on the past
Al Ali uses the social structure of smaller communities to illustrate how they contribute to the big picture. He says: “In the UAE, we used to have freej — in essence a mini neighbourhood for a group of families, which was part of a bigger district consisting of clans, which in turn became a tribe, and then a nation. It’s these smaller community elements that build the bigger picture and it’s important that we always have one eye on the past and one on the future to learn and to be inspired. We can learn a lot from the past while still innovating and adopting new technologies.”
He also points to Denmark, and its capital, Copenhagen, as a model for city regeneration with community at the heart of the planning process. “The way [they have] integrated all the essential elements for a well-rounded lifestyle, and are sympathetic to the human scale and everyday needs, plus a progressive mentality, is amazing.”
Adapt to thrive
Dabbagh, meanwhile, is seeing changes on the urban development horizon. “We can now see much more focus with local developers to create places for public and improve the quality of our public spaces,” she says. “This will definitely help in creating a sense of connectedness and belonging for the people in our cities.”
One area that Dabbagh believes has the basic ingredients for a happy community is Bur Dubai. “This was part of the Dubai master plan developed by JR Harris in the 60s-70s. It was based on the street and city structure of the older Bastakiya area and its low-rise buildings, roads and small sikkas [alleyways] are orientated to take advantage of the wind from the Dubai Creek, as well as the shade,” she informs. “The scale is designed in relation to human scale and the experience created is rich as well as remarkably comfortable for walking around, plus there is a feeling of engagement as well as the connection to the Dubai Creek, the original source of life for the city and reason for its prosperity.
“It needs careful, considered and sensitive regeneration in order to enhance it without taking away its charm.”
The Kite Beach in Umm Suqeim resonates with Al Ali. “Not because of the beach per se, but because of the activities on offer and sense of community,” he says. “It’s a wonderful area that allows people to interact, to enjoy nature and to be themselves, with access to everything from coffee shops and shopping to sports.”