Across the Middle East, countries have failed to provide proper and safe social housing. Will that change?

Spain has Mirador and Carabanchel, Mexico has Monterrey and Slovenia has the Honeycomb Apartments. Australia has the Pearcedale Parade, while Italy has Elmas and the Netherlands has the Hatert Housing. Each of these are examples of well-designed social housing compounds that have abandoned the stigma of such accommodation.

Across the world, cities are more crowded than ever, making public housing an increasingly important issue for governments; however, in many places – particularly in the Middle East – social housing continues to be a neglected area of development.

In Lebanon, affordable housing is at a shortage and tenant-landlord tensions are rife, while in Kuwait, rising land values and rapid urbanisation continues to redefine what ‘affordable housing’ actually means, and in Morocco, social housing is more or less offered in the form of slums.

In April, Middle East Architect held a roundtable at Cosentino’s showroom in Dubai Design District, and invited four architects who have experience working across the Gulf. The need for social housing in the GCC was a main point of discussion, as the architects felt it hadn’t yet been properly explored in the region. While some countries in the Middle East, like Syria, Iraq and Yemen continue to face political, economic and developmental hardship, others including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, are growing and with growth comes more responsibility.

But are authorities, planners and architects in such countries rising to the challenge or are they pushing forward with the status quo, despite a growing group of people whose basic needs are not being met?

In the UAE, Dubai’s government set forward a vision to focus on and increase affordable housing in 2018. According to Faisal Durrani, head of research at Cluttons, Dubai’s initiative to focus on affordable housing is a “watershed moment for the emirate”, which has long marketed itself as a luxury destination.

“The change will help Dubai avoid some of the lessons learned by more developed cities around the world,” he said, “especially with regards to curtailing the emergence of poorly connected, low-income neighbourhoods that are segregated from the rest of the city, as is the case in many other global metropoles.”

Also, in 2017, it was announced that HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, launched plans to redevelop and revamp housing in the city’s older neighbourhoods. It was reported by multiple news outlets including Construction Week that the programme would incorporate modern planning standards while maintaining the “distinctive character of those areas”.

It remains to be seen how the UAE’s vision will tend to the growing need of more affordable housing, and whether or not this will have a positive influence on neighbouring countries. However, in responding to developmental challenges, one lesson can be learned from the countries mentioned above: social housing can be designed well. It does not need to be a shameful shortcoming hidden in a forgotten part of a city, but rather, an innovative expression of a government’s humility and care, and the vision of its builders.

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