x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Community is more than old buildings

Unseen by many residents, the UAE's older neighbourhoods contribute an important element to the fabric of modern urban centres.

Yas island. Burj Khalifa. Sha'biyat Al Shorta. You're unlikely to have heard of that last one, but some believe that in its own way the little-known neighbourhood on the border of Dubai and Sharjah plays as important a part in shaping community in the UAE as its more famous landmarks.

As The National reported yesterday, one of the country's leading experts in urban planning believes that the UAE's older neighbourhoods also contribute to the fabric of modern urban centres.

"If you really want to study sustainable urbanism, you should study it here," said the architect, academic and theorist Yasser Elsheshtawy. "A truly sustainable urban environment," he once wrote, "cannot be nurtured and maintained without letting city inhabitants have a say in how space can be used and modified."

With a population of just 600, the Sha'biyat Al Shorta neighbourhood is a world away from the bustling city centres of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. But it is no less important to the UAE's character. It might have obvious shortcomings, but what it lacks in infrastructure - there are no street lights, for instance, or paved roads - it more than makes up in communal living. Indeed, some residents have lived in the area for longer than the UAE has been a country. To them, Sha'biyat Al Shorta is the only UAE they've ever known.

When older neighbourhoods fall into disrepair they often become targets for re-development. As cities grow and mature, planners instinctively look to modernise. The desire to tear down and start anew is understandable; sometimes it's even necessary. But when urban planners fail to look beyond the rough exteriors of a community, there is a risk that the intangible elements - that corner shop where the owner knows your name, the friends' children you watched grow up - will be lost.

Maintaining old neighbourhoods and communities should be a priority for city planners, but not simply to maintain elements of the past for charm or historic value. Municipalities have a big role to play: supplying ample power for households and street lights; maintaining the conditions of pavements and keeping streets clean; and, above all, ensuring building infrastructure and safety.

But as places like Sha'biyat Al Shorta remind us, modern cities are not only bricks and mortar.