"'Townhouse or villa' was one of the mantras school mums used to bark at me - and turn up their noses when I told them 'apartment'," recalls Sarah Daniels, a TV researcher-writer who has lived on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road with her husband and two sons since moving to the UAE three years ago.
Having spent much of that time longing to move to a villa in order to have some outside space, Daniels has since reconsidered. "You pay a premium when renting a villa. Apartments generally provide free air con, while a villa means having to pay for it. In a villa you can wait months for the landlord to fix any problems, more often at your own expense; in our apartment we just fill out a little form and whatever problem it may be, the Handy Andy team has it fixed in no time!"
In most countries apartment towers are a feature of inner-city living, while houses tend to be found only in outlying residential neighbourhoods - and thus the villa-apartment debate is simply one of downtown versus suburbs. In the UAE, however, abundant land and piecemeal planning have resulted in towers, townhouses and villas popping up all over the place. Our inner-city neighbourhoods mimic the urbanism of Miami, Cairo and Mumbai. Unconstrained by preservation battles, zoning codes or community activism, they are a jumble of high-rises and houses, commercial spaces and homes.
In a further breaking of the usual urban rules here, high-density, high-rise enclaves have appeared in places that, geographically at least, count as the suburbs: cue Jumeirah Lake Towers and Dubai Marina. In between the rising skylines and the coast, older, centrally located residential neighbourhoods, such as Khalidiya and Al Hosn in the capital and, in Dubai, Jumeirah and parts of Bur Dubai, can certainly not be classed as the 'burbs. And the denizens of these neighbourhoods are a microcosm of the UAE's population.
"We have neighbours who have lived in the same villa for 30 years or more," says Clare Pattle, a resident of Al Safa in Dubai. "It's a wonderfully diverse mix of cultures and nationalities and most certainly a cross-section of income brackets - one neighbour owns a national chain of bakeries, others own multiple properties but choose to rent here simply because this is where they have raised their families and are settled."
In contrast, the new Orange County-style enclaves on the fringes of all the UAE's cities have been designed to provide artificially green slices of suburbia. Tucked inside their gated developments, people in these privatised hubs aren't forced to (indeed, scarcely get a chance to) mix with people who are different from themselves. "To be frank, living in a sanitised community in a street full of identikit houses wouldn't have been my ideal choice," says Jonathan Klein, an Australian expatriate who has lived in Arabian Ranches since 2006. "However, within hours of moving in I realised that, to my children, it's nirvana. They have a level of freedom here that was unheard-of in our old Mirdiff neighbourhood, let alone the apartment complex in Melbourne where we lived when my eldest was born. For me, that factor alone makes the slightly forced perfection of these villa communities totally bearable."
Despite the UAE's odd development pattern, the case in favour of towers remains, for some, all about location: Sean McAllister, a PR consultant, lives in a villa in the Muroor area of Abu Dhabi island. It's by no means an outlying suburb, yet he's impatient to live somewhere more central. "My villa is provided by my employer, but I'd rather be living in an apartment. For me, the key criterion is location. I'm keen to live in downtown Abu Dhabi, where I can actually walk to the shops, restaurants and gym. Instead, to go anywhere I have to jump in a car or hunt down a taxi."
High-rise housing has a rich history, paradoxically serving both the top and bottom of the social pile, as the preserve of the super-rich in their glamorous skyscrapers and the poor in their tenements. It's a form that continues to fascinate and seduce planners, developers, designers and the people who live in them through choice. "Apartment living here is all about feeling the urban buzz - for me it's critical to have a view, so that you feel part of the network," explains Mark Marin, an interior designer who lives in Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai.
"Somehow living in an apartment feels safer," adds Daniels. "There is always security on hand and the chances of being burgled are very slim. And apartments are generally in denser areas so there is more life around them." Villas, on the other hand, are an integral part of the expat dream for many who have come from colder climates or more densely packed cities. British expatriates Simon and Suzie McCrum spent 10 years in an apartment in Hong Kong before moving to their present home, a single-storey villa in Al Bada'a, a central Dubai neighbourhood, eight years ago: "While our harbour views in Hong Kong were spectacular and apartment living was fine because that's how the majority lived, there was no question that we would look for anything but a villa when we came here," says Suzie McCrum. "The change in quality of life was immediate - not least because I think there's a tendency to relax more into your villa space and personalise it." The location certainly helps: "I really don't think we could better it by apartment living - plus all our amenities are just steps from the front gate rather than down several floors in an elevator and through a communal lobby."
However, for many people villas simply aren't an option, due to their cost and size - and, for some, being forced to live in an apartment has been a pleasant surprise. "We really wanted a villa in Abu Dhabi," says Yunib Siddiqui, the managing director of the capital's popular cafe-deli, Jones The Grocer, "but many things led us to apartment living instead. We couldn't get our boys into the school we wanted in Abu Dhabi and the rents were astronomical: I remember looking at villas in poor condition for Dh350,000 a year. So we began looking in Dubai Marina and found large apartments with every possible amenity - gym, spa, pool, garden, play area, parking - for almost half the price of the same in Abu Dhabi. Having now lived in an apartment for six months, I feel it was a smart move, giving us the best of both worlds." For Siddiqi, that even outweighs his 250-kilometre round-trip commute to work.
Others, used to living in apartments, say they're delighted to have moved to houses. "After 12 years of apartment rentals in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai I was fed up with the service charges, the noise, the general inconvenience," says a Canadian expatriate in her thirties, who recently set up her own company in Dubai. "I had three friends who felt the same so, together, we rented a luxurious five-bedroom villa in Umm Suqeim. It has really given my life a boost. For the same rent I was paying for a one-bedroom apartment in Dubai Marina I now have access to a garden, a pool and far more space than I did previously; it's heaven." Does it not feel like a step backwards though, hooking up with housemates after years living alone? "It was a huge consideration - but nothing could ever be as irritating as the constant complaints I used to get from my downstairs apartment neighbours because I dared walk around my own home in high heels."
Leaving aside the entirely valid arguments in favour of higher-density urban planning, the villa-tower debate is, for most, a question of lifestyle and life stage. While many are devoted to villas, it's also clear that you don't necessarily need a house to enjoy a home. Tower or villa? Join our forum at www.thenational.ae/yourview