x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Community centres bring life to urban development projects

Rapid urban development in Abu Dhabi is leaving out community centres, so vital in building neighbourhoods and in social cohesion.

Abu Dhabi spent Dh7.2 billion on housing and urban development in 2011 alone, according to an IMF estimate. And yet the city and the emirate are still sadly short of community centres that could bring different groups together.

In new residential areas such as Khalifa City A and B, for example, a large array of new housing will create substantial communities. But there are few, if any, public places where neighbours can gather for social activities, children can play sports and interest groups can gather to hold monthly meetings or special events.

In established areas such as the Tourist Club, meanwhile, facilities are so scarce that you may come back to your car and find children using it as a goalpost in an impromptu pavement football match. Both old and new areas need better social centres.

Abu Dhabi's 2030 urban-structure framework implicitly supports the idea of more community centres: an overarching principle is to support the values, social arrangements, culture, mores and traditions of the Emirati community. While U-turn lanes and efficient sewers are necessary in a modern city, a sense of community is vital, too.

Without proper community centres, individuals don't have the opportunity to express themselves and interact with others; this leads to socially detrimental or even dangerous phenomena such as graffiti, not to mention football matches on roads and pavements. A shortage of even simple exercise facilities contributes to obesity and poor health.

A well-planned, well-administered community centre can offer residents amenities such as art and dance studios, multi-use games areas, libraries, a stage and a range of programmes for people of all ages, all of it tailored to the demographics of the neighbourhood.

Internationally, community centres are common and well-established. Well-planned development involves centres with various configurations to serve urban, suburban or rural needs, and of varying sizes, depending on the population.

A good working rule is that 0.16 square metres of centre space are required per person in the area served.

In many countries the public has a chance, through public consultation sessions, to advise municipal or other planning authorities on the ways they hope to use planned facilities. In the UK, to name one example, community centres are now widely considered essential, so much so that objections can be expected if local authorities decide to remove one or fail to create one as expected.

In Abu Dhabi at present there are numerous places where new community centres would be very welcome, especially in still-uncompleted communities such as Khalifa City B. This site is meant to be home to 70,000 people by 2030, and is already more than 50 per cent complete and occupied.

However, it lacks both prepared open spaces and recreational centres. Adding one community centre, or more, would be a quick opportunity for a pilot project, lighting the way to more such sites later on.

There are good opportunities for the private sector as well, in fully-privatised areas such as Saadiyat Island and Yas Island.

On the social level, residents would have a place to gather for group activities and mutual social support. This would be a perfect opportunity to promote an understanding of Emirati culture. Also, hobbyists - model airplane enthusiasts, for example - could use indoor and outdoor areas.

Another benefit is that a centre refines the skills and talents of youth in a way that is positive to society. For example, it can turn graffiti - considered vandalism when it appears in the wrong places - into an art form. If young people find the right place to unleash their talents and skills, they will be less likely to use other people's walls.

Planners and other city authorities should consider the importance of community centres, and be aware of how much they can contribute.

I, for one, certainly hope for the day when I can park my car without being afraid of children using it as a goalpost.


Abdulla Ahmed Balalaa is a UAE-based urban planning analyst