Urban Diversity under the Microscope: A Brief Examination of Public Open Spaces in the City of Doha

01 Jan 12:55 AM

Sector : Real Estate Country : Qatar

By Dr Ashraf M. Salama

With their socio-physical, socio-economic, socio-cultural, and socio-political presence, cities have always been highly differentiated spaces expressive of heterogeneity, diversity of activities, entertainment, excitement and pleasure. They have been - and still are - melting pots for the formulation of and experimentation with new philosophies and religious and social practices. They produce, reproduce, represent, and convey much of what counts today as culture, knowledge, and politics.


Skyline of Doha: a City with Global Aspirations

Urban spaces within cities are no exception: they are places for the pursuit of freedom, un-oppressed activities and desires, but also ones characterized by systematic power, oppression, domination, exclusion and segregation. In dealing with these polar qualities diversity has become one of the new doctrines of city planners, urban designers, and architects. It continues to be at the center of recent urban debates. Little is known, however, on the questions of how planned public urban spaces produce social diversity and what are the aspects of genuine diversity that can be planned for, and what are the others that can be attained only spontaneously? In this article I examine some of these notions within the context of Doha, the capital of Qatar.

What is Urban Diversity?

In recent rhetoric, diversity denotes a mosaic of people who bring a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, styles, perspectives, values and beliefs as assets to the groups and organizations with which they interact. However, in urban discourses it has been addressed as having multiple meanings that include mixing building types, mixing physical forms, and mixing people of different social classes, racial and ethnic backgrounds. While some theorists attribute diversity to the socio-physical aspects of homogeneity within heterogeneity, social differentiation without exclusion, variety, and publicity, others associate it with socio-political aspects of assimilation, integration, and segregation. Whereas some of these meanings represent a concern for a specific group of professionals they all agree that each meaning or aspect of diversity is linked to the others; they all call for strategies for urban development that stimulate socio-physical heterogeneity.

Contemporary literature suggests that urban space diversity involves a number of dimensions toward the creation of vital urban places while offering functional and behavioral opportunities for different socio-economic groups. It implicates three major dimensions. The first is physical tangible dimension that pertains to the qualities of the material context. The second is the social and emotional intangible dimension that pertains to the way in which the material dimension impacts users of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The third is a dimension that concerns itself with types of activities and the nature of use. Investigating the three dimensions would result in a comprehensive insight into the understanding of urban space diversity. (1,2,3,4)

The City of Doha 

Historically, Doha was a fishing and pearl diving town. Today, the capital is home to more than 90 percent of the country’s 1.9 million people, with over 80 percent professional expatriates from other countries. Up to the mid 1960s, the majority of the buildings were individual traditional houses that presented local responses to the surrounding physical and socio- cultural conditions. During the 1970s Doha was transformed into a modernized city. However, in the 1980s and early 1990s the development process was slow compared to the preceding period due to either the overall political atmosphere and the first Gulf war, or the heavy reliance of the country on the resources and economy of neighboring countries (5).

Current pervasive development of the city of Doha is characterized by a fast track urbanization process, resulting in the creation of new urban nodes that are used by different groups for different purposes. While this unprecedented urban growth of the city continues to be a subject of discussion, little attention has been paid to other growth aspects, including the understanding of the resulting inhabitants’ spatial experience, their attitudes toward emerging urbanized spaces, and whether these emerging spaces are diverse enough to accommodate the multicultural society the city enjoys.

Approach for Investigation

Utilizing a perceptual approach in the form of an attitude survey, an exploration of urban spaces in the city of Doha as perceived and experienced by different groups is undertaken. An investigation of a number of key urban spaces is carried out through the identification of key urban nodes that are identified based on parameters that include density, commercial activity, and public accessibility. Spaces are examined from the perspective of Doha’s inhabitants using 490 responses to a survey questionnaire. The methodology adopted is multi-layered and involves two procedural investigations. The first is an analytical description of eight key spaces within the city that are believed to represent different urban and spatial qualities catered to different groups. The second procedure establishes and implements an attitude survey questionnaire, which aims at exploring ways in which the identified key urban spaces are perceived and experienced. Using the metaphor of ‘city center’ and ‘city peripheries’ two major questions were conceived: a) how does the city’s population perceive the identified key spaces as center(s) or peripheries, and b) how are center(s) and peripheries experienced based on the population’s gender, age, and cultural background? The term ‘center’ is introduced as an urban node that is visited most by the inhabitants, while the term ‘periphery’ is introduced as an urban area that is rarely visited by the inhabitants (6). It is noted that the spaces identified reflect different spatial qualities: 1) Aspire/Villagio Mall 2) Al-Sadd Commercial Strip 3) Musheireb Intersection 4) Ramada Junction 5) Water Front a: Near Sheraton Hotel 6) Water Front b: Near Main Restaurant 7) Water Front c: Near Museum of Islamic Art, and 8) Souq Waqif (traditional marketplace).

Respondents represent the spectrum of population in the city. This is evident in their overall profile, where 260 males and 230 females representing 53 percent and 47 percent of the total number of responses respectively. It is also apparent that age groups are well represented where 12 percent represent age group (15-20), 47 percent represent age group (20-30), 21 percent represent age group (30-45), and 18 percent represent age group (45-60). Considering that the population of the city is young, the over-60 age group also reflects the actual population of the city and represents only 2 percent of the total number of respondents. For the purpose of categorizing different cultural backgrounds, cultural groups were generically classified as Africans, Americans, Arabs, Asians, Europeans, and Qataris. Representation of these groups reflects the figures currently estimated for the city’s population. They include 37 percent Qataris, 28 percent Arabs, 14 percent Asians, 11 percent Africans, 5 percent Europeans, and 5 percent Americans. However, it should be noted that the percentage of Qataris in relation to the overall population of the city does not exceed 20 percent.

Preliminary Findings

Gender, cultural background, and age group differences in reacting to central and peripheral urban spaces. Preliminary findings on the gender, cultural background, and age group are analyzed and discerned. Across the respondents, major differences between males and females are found. For example, while 35 percent of males believe that the city has one center, only 8 percent of the females believe the same. There appears to be an agreement between males and females on perceiving peripheries, where 64 percent of males and 69 percent of females believe that the city has several peripheries. No major differences are found in the reactions to the spaces that represent the center.

Clearly, similarities are found in male (19 percent) and female (22 percent) respondents in perceiving Aspire/ Villagio as a center and in perceiving Souq Waqif (Figure 1) as a center. Some 38 percent of male respondents and 35 percent of female respondents believe that Souq Waqif represents the center. Differences are found in the responses to the spaces that represent peripheries. While 35 percent of female respondents identify Ramada Junction as a periphery, only 10 percent of male respondents identify it as a periphery (Figure 2). Strikingly, while 10 percent of male respondents identify each of the water front spaces near the Sheraton Hotel and nearby restaurants as a periphery, none of the female respondents identify them as peripheral spaces (Figure 3). This is due to the openness, scenic views, and the green and tiled areas available in these spaces while offering multiple opportunities for activities including walking, jogging, biking, sitting and enjoying the scenic views of Doha’s Skyline, and photography.

Dramatic differences across the responses of different age groups are evident. Souq Waqif, as perceived as a center of the city, has received 65 percent of the responses of the age group (20-30), while it has received 100 percent of the responses of the age groups (30-45), (40-60), and over 60. On the other hand, the Musheireb public space, as perceived as a periphery, has received 83 percent of the responses of the age group (15-20), only 26 percent of the responses of the age group (20-30), and 33 percent for each of the groups, (30-45) and (45-60). Notably, the two spaces are geographically in the same vicinity.

Across the respondents from different backgrounds notable differences exist. While 73 percent of Arabs, 75 percent of Qataris, and 85 percent of Asians believe that the city has more than one center, less than 40 percent of each of those of American and European background believes the same. Strikingly, despite these differences in perceiving centers, similarities in perceiving peripheries are found, where 54 percent of Arabs, 50 percent of Americans, and 50 percent of Europeans believe that the city has several peripheries.

The majority of Qataris identified Souq Waqif as a center since it has received 69 percent of the responses received from participants of Qatari background. This can be attributed to the historical significance of the Souq while establishing association with the past in a rapidly growing city. All the respondents of American background and the majority of respondents from Asian (67 percent) and African (60 percent) backgrounds identify Aspire/Villagio urban space as a center (Figure 4). This can be attributed to the dominance of the mall culture in areas representing these backgrounds while at the same time due to the availability of sport facilities. On the other hand, respondents from Arab and Asian backgrounds identify Al Sadd Commercial Strip and Ramada Junction as centers. This reflects the tendency to favor dense urban areas, which are similar to the physical environment they are coming from. Despite their geographical location, the majority of respondents from European and American backgrounds identify Waterfront spaces as centers (Figure 5). This is due to tendency to favor open spaces and the association with natural settings rather than with dense urban fabric.

Reflections and the Way Forward

The results delineate that urban spaces lack key conditions amenable to creating urban diversity. Nevertheless, they corroborate the postulation that urban spaces are perceived and experienced differently by different groups based on their gender, age, and cultural background. However, the lack of empirical studies done before to explore urban spaces in the city of Doha, which this article could have built upon, represents an important limitation. While they are based on the perceptual approach, which is devised in the form of an attitude survey, there are limits to basing the discussion only on the results of a questionnaire where there is always room for subjectivity. Other means of investigation underlying such an approach can be utilized to advance the discourse on urban space diversity, such as focused interviews, systematic observations, and behavioral mapping studies.

Urban spaces mean different things to different communities within the city of Doha and thus are used differently. The juxtaposition of the results with the understanding of urban space diversity delineates the fact that urban spaces within the city of Doha lack one or more of the three important conditions that contribute to the achievement of diversity. The results reflect the dynamic nature of urban spaces identified as centers, invigorating the assumption that urban spaces in the center are not necessarily standing as unique entities. Results, however, indicate that urban spaces on the peripheries are emerging to compete with those in the center. The understanding of what constitutes centers and peripheries in the minds of the city’s inhabitants contributes to the understanding of their spatial experience and their attitudes toward what is perceived as a center, or as periphery or as an emerging center. The perceptual and the spatial experience of inhabitants reflect the needs and wants of different groups according to their gender, age, and cultural background that in the context of Doha varies dramatically.  

While future development plans of the city may seem to address specific groups and cater to specific age groups or cultural backgrounds, a more responsive approach to the design of urban spaces needs to be in place. Urban design as a discipline and a profession focuses on creating built environments that promote opportunities and experiences for all city inhabitants. Therefore, it is crucial that most of the urban space actions and activities are accepted and enjoyed by the majority of the city’s population. The urban development process of the city needs to consider the development of spaces based on the perception and understanding of different groups. This needs to be adopted as one of the key factors in developing successful inclusive urban spaces that involve a wide spectrum of urban and spatial qualities relevant to the diversity characterizing the city of Doha.

Dr Ashraf M. Salama
Head of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Qatar University
Dr Ashraf M. Salama is full Professor in Architecture and currently the Head of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University. He has held permanent, tenured, and visiting positions in Egypt, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and the UK. He has authored and co-edited seven books and is the chief editor of Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, associate editor of Open House International-OHI, and editorial board member of several international academic journals. His current work focuses on architecture and urbanism in emerging regional metropolis. 


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