"When you travel, you walk a city to get to know it," says Nasreen al Tamimi, an Emirati architect and the co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation Tasmena. It's a good point. As every self-respecting traveller knows, to truly familiarise yourself with a city you have to get down to ground level. You have to walk its streets, smell its smells and soak in its sounds.
And yet, while we are more than willing to pull on our trainers and pound the pavements when we are visiting somewhere new, as residents of the UAE we rarely extend the same courtesy to the cities we live in. Admittedly, soaring temperatures make strolling nigh on impossible for some parts of the year. And for the remaining months we are happy to blame bad urban design and insufficient infrastructure for our reluctance to venture out onto the streets.
Tasmena has set out to challenge this status quo. A recent initiative called Cutting Through the City has demonstrated that although Dubai may not be the most pedestrian-friendly place on Earth, there are still walks to be had. "The only place we ever walk is in malls, but then you are completely missing out on experiencing the city," says Adina Hempel, a German architect and Tasmena co-founder. "Obesity levels are so high in this part of the world and just by walking more you could contribute in creating a healthier life. It also goes back to how you relate to your city. By walking, you see it differently and then you feel more attached to it. You build a relationship with it."
"Own your city" is the Tasmena mantra and it stems from the belief that people who live in a city should have a vested interest in what it looks like, how it operates and how it evolves. Urban planning has traditionally been a very top-down discipline, with architects, government bodies and urban planners making decisions based on social, economic and political considerations. The specific needs of the individual are seldom considered. Tasmena was envisaged as a platform that would give members of the community a say in how their city develops. "Cities are made up of people, not just buildings," says Hempel. And those people should feel a sense of ownership when it comes to the place they call home.
Generating that sense of belonging is even more important in a city such as Dubai, which has long been defined by its transience. People often live in large-scale, identikit residential developments where row upon row of Stepford-style villas do very little to instil a sense of permanence or create a connection between the city and its inhabitants.
But personalising your little corner of Dubai can be as easy as painting your villa a different colour than the one next door, says Hempel. With this most simple of acts you are already making your mark and contributing to the wider cityscape. Beyond that, Hempel believes, every individual "should take on the responsibility, propose things and initiate ideas" that will make urban centres more resident friendly.
Cutting Through the City forms part of the wider Mena Lab initiative, an interdisciplinary workshop format that Tasmena launched in 2010. "Mena Lab is about having a positive effect on society through design - but design in its very broadest sense," explains Yunsun Chung Shin, an educator and graphic designer, and the third member of the Tasmena founding team.
Held every Friday between April 8 and 29, Tasmena's walking tours started from Downtown Dubai and ended by the beach in Jumeirah. Each walk was led by tutors from various cultural and professional backgrounds, including the Emirati photographer Saif bin Adhad, the local artist Khawla Darwish, the architect Bakhti More, the filmmaker Sabir Haque, the interior designer Indira Barve, and Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian, the founders of the Land Art Generator Initiative. After every walk, the group would reconvene to reflect on their experiences and create a communal work of art based on their findings. The creations from each workshop will be showcased at an exhibition at the Jam Jar gallery in Dubai from May 21 to June 25.
"We all live in a city that is composed of these little islands, and we concentrate on those islands. I, for example, live in The Greens. I usually do my shopping there and I usually meet my friends there," says Hempel. "We might go to other islands, but we never really cut across the city. The idea of the walks is to connect people to their city. It is about cutting through the city and tasting each layer, with its different flavours, sounds and stories."
Which is why, on a sweltering day in mid-April, I find myself about to embark on a three-hour Dubai walkabout. A motley crew meets at the ultra-hip Pavilion Downtown Dubai, a recently opened community and arts centre directly across from the Burj Khalifa. The walk is being led by Sonia Morillo, a vivacious graphic designer and photographer from Colombia who encourages her group to take pictures of people, nature and urban scenes, and Rami Kayyili and Neel Patkar, avid musicians who are fascinated by the city's soundscape.
The starting point is no coincidence. Tasmena's chosen route is designed to present the city's many different facets and "extreme localities", and dispel any rumours that Dubai is one-dimensional. Burj Khalifa is the ultimate symbol of new Dubai and presents an interesting point of reference for the rest of the walk.
From the Pavilion, we make our way along Emaar Boulevard towards the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall Metro station, which we use to cross Sheikh Zayed Road. From the get-go, I'm struck by all the things I fail to notice on a daily basis: the statue of an Emirati couple that towers over the pavement on Emaar Boulevard; metal protrusions on the floor of the Metro station that act as a way-finding tool for the blind, and the ramshackle neighbourhood that sits two streets away from Sheikh Zayed Road but feels like it belongs a million miles away. This is Shaabiyat Al Difa'a, or Defence neighbourhood, a collection of dusty streets and rundown, graffiti-emblazoned concrete shacks (with the odd Hummer parked out back). Children wave and pose for photos as we meander by.
Across another road and there's a further surprise in store. What was formerly an extension of Defence neighbourhood is now a sandy expanse or "ghaf majlis" smack bang in the centre of the city. The area was cleared with a view to redeveloping it, a plan that was eventually abandoned presumably because of the financial crisis. The result is a pocket of greenery, fresh air and birdsong only a few hundred metres from Sheikh Zayed Road.
After an extended pit stop, we make our way through Al Wasl, where rows of not-very-old villas are being torn down, only to be rebuilt. Crossing over Jumeirah Beach Road, we eventually find ourselves at a fisherman's enclave on the beach, where fishing nets of all shapes and sizes are produced. "The thing about this walk is that you are almost cutting back through time, starting at the Burj Khalifa and going back through history, ending up by the sea," says Hempel.
By the time we reach our final destination, we have experienced an entire cross section of the city, from the glitz of Burj Khalifa to ramshackle Shaabiyat Al Difa'a and the charm of the fisherman's enclave. And I, for one, will never call Dubai one-dimensional again.
The Cutting Through the City exhibition is at the Jam Jar gallery from May 21 to June 25.