Urban Design Elements for Cities in the MENA Region
Cities in North Africa, the Saudi Arabian peninsula, and the Levant face unique challenges from the tremendous heat and dusty winds of the surrounding desert and high humidity along coastal areas. These environmental forces along with social and cultural norms have resulted in unique cities created over the past several centuries. Built in the pre-industrial era, these old cities offer many lessons for designing dense urban districts that are environmentally responsive and sustainable. There are many fine examples of modern cities influenced by international planning techniques but adapted to the unique environmental challenges of the MENA region. Unfortunately, recent urban growth has departed from sensible planning in some areas. One reason for this departure is the adoption and use of international engineering criteria for streets and infrastructure without proper consideration of the region’s unique and traditional urban patterns. This short paper attempts to capture some of the design elements that were used in the old and early modern cities.
Learning from Old Cities
Old cities found in the MENA region provide a wealth of clues for creating habitable cities in harsh desert climates. Built after the Prophet Mohammed, these cities were constructed according to design standards that were a part of Islamic law and were refined and enriched over centuries of city building. Dimensional standards were created for streets, placement of doors and windows, and view sheds. Standards were created for health and public safety. These rules were applied to cities throughout Islam.
The pre-industrial city was designed for human beings and domesticated animals and, as a result, was a dense and compact configuration. Streets and public spaces were designed to shield people from the harsh sun and hot desert winds. Narrow streets, courtyards with fountains, privacy screens, landscape and natural ventilation shafts were all techniques used to create comfortable living conditions. To this day, old cities possess a social dimension not found in modern cities. Without the automobile, residents are in contact with one another and far more visible in daily life. Destinations for daily routines are clustered together including the mosque, schools, markets and gardens. These cities are dense inhabitations and because they are so compact they consume far less energy and are far less expensive to build and operate than modern cities.
The Modern Cities
Modern cities of the industrial era in the MENA region are heavily influenced by western cultures from much milder climates. Street and block frameworks are based on international templates and technologies. Public transportation systems and private automobiles enabled cities to expand rapidly over large territories and grow to vastly larger populations. Streets formerly designed for pedestrians, beasts of burden and carts were widened to accommodate motorized vehicles. Uses were separated into distinct zones rather than mixed as in the old cities. Public spaces in the modern city are far more vulnerable to the sun and hot winds of the desert. New streets designed according to western engineering criteria are vastly wider than they need to be, and are exposed to the intense sun, dust and hot desert winds. Larger surface areas must be irrigated and planted or left to sand. One of the primary objectives of any city in the region should be the elimination of sand in the public realm.
The principles articulated in this document argue for tight street dimensions, small squares and parks, and efficient land use. The results of this approach to building compact spaces can be seen in exciting and dynamic early 20th-century cities built around the Mediterranean such as Beirut, Tel Aviv, Tripoli and Tunis. Each of these cities has a remarkable sequence of promenades, public squares, gardens, shopping and entertainment with beautiful and inspiring architecture.
One of the essential qualities of a comfortable city in the MENA region is the presence of shade along the streets, in the parks and squares, in play areas, around mosques, and integrated into building design. Shade allows public spaces in cities to be walkable on hot sunny days. Recent cities often lack shade in many places where it should be provided. Streets are designed based on engineering criteria which can sometimes require more space for underground utilities and roadways than what makes a comfortable environment. Civilized urban streets must be landscaped and shady. New planning criteria for urban streets favoring the comfort of people over the placement of pipes is critical for designing a comfortable city. Public squares should be designed with the intention of providing shade coverage over large areas. Successful public squares have a mixture of tree shade, shade structures, and shade created by buildings. Large public squares are harder to shade and hence more expensive and challenging to occupy comfortably. Several devices are used on building facades that create shade protection for windows and doors to increase comfort inside as well as reduce energy costs.
One requirement that dramatically alters the nature of public space and the design of buildings in Islamic cities is the need for privacy, particularly for comfortable family life. In the old cities, most dwellings were attached with few openings to the public realm. The design of doorways and circulation within the house was carefully managed to keep visitors separate from the family. Windows were required to be placed high above eye level from the street to restrict views. The design of these houses evolved over several centuries, and each design innovation was coded in Islamic law.
Beginning in the 20th century with the advent of the automobile and influence from western planners, residences are now built as independent villas. Walls are used to separate the house and outdoor yards from public view. The design of the wall at the front of the house can have a dramatic effect on the appeal of the neighborhood. Recent houses in some cities built with precast concrete in a repetitive fashion more closely resemble industrial facilities than pleasant residential streets. The intense focus on building walls has further separated the family from the neighborhood and reduced the relevance of streets as attractive, carefully landscaped, pedestrian-friendly public space. Some streets more closely resemble alleys. The best house and wall combinations require a delicate balance between the need for privacy and the collective need for an attractive neighborhood.
The following design elements are grouped into these two categories, shade and privacy. When these are taken to heart by urban designers and architects, new cities will once again be responsive to their environment and sustainable for the long run.