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Toward a more conscious approach to urban development

Author: Anonym/Sunday, January 8, 2012/Categories: QNRF Funded Research, Issue 8 - January 2012

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Professor Ashraf Salama
Qatar is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. At the heart of the vision for the country's development is a decreased dependence on natural resources and an increased reliance on a knowledge economy. This vision demands much in terms of aligning infrastructure to support education and research. But more than that, it demands the right people to bring, create and transfer knowledge. Attracting them is one thing, retaining them is another. For the first time, a researcher in Qatar is putting Doha under the microscope to make suggestions about its development.

“What do we mean by knowledge economy?” asked Professor Ashraf Salama, Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University. “That’s an important question. If you have international universities, international businesses or what is called APS, advanced producer services, international high tech and IT, then you have a knowledge economy. But the urban environment should be able to accommodate these practices. Does it? That’s what we are studying in Doha, its potential to support the knowledge economy.”

Dr. Salama described three key angles to studying the development of urban spaces—conceived, perceived and lived. He explained that conceived space is based on decisions by the public sector. Perceived space is explored through the interactions between people and companies, and the networks that develop. Lived space is the way people actually live and interact with their environment. His approach is largely based on work by Henri Lefebvre, a French sociologist.

“I’m an architect but to really know about architecture and the context within which it is developed, one needs to study sociology, anthropology, human behavior, cultural attributes, socio-economic concerns, and all related concepts,” Dr. Salama said. “Architecture is not about the pretty rendering you see in the office, it’s beyond that. It is interdisciplinary in nature, and is created in a field of tension between reason, emotion, and intuition.”

To gain a sense of the conceived environment, Dr. Salama and his colleague Dr. Alain Thierstein, an Urban Economist and Planning Professor at the Munich University of Technology, interviewed planners and conducted an analysis of city evolution based on maps, governance models and the way that urban regulations influence the development of urban structure. The team’s conceived environment work was also supported by Qatar University-based postdoctoral researcher Florian Wiedmann.

Three key angles of urban development

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Three key angles on researching urban development
“To understand the perceived environment,” Dr. Salama said. “We’re looking at the number of flights coming to and from Doha. How companies make decisions about coming here, instead of Dubai or Abu Dhabi for example. We’re conducting interviews with companies and we’re looking now at company databases to get a sense of locations, the branches and the intra-networking of these companies.

“We’re looking also at investment patterns,” he continued. “Say a series of companies decide to come to Doha. Where in Doha? Al Sadd, West Bay, or where, and why? How do these areas support a knowledge-based economy?”

Dr. Salama said that the third component, lived, is his favorite, involving observation studies, behavioral mapping and surveying the different interpretations of Doha.

“Findings I’ve presented on this recently received considerable attention,” he said. “I was trying to investigate how people understand the idea of a city center and periphery. We found that Europeans and Americans tend to perceive waterfront areas as the center of a city, despite their geographical location. Arabs and Asians tend to see more dense urban places as city centers, such as Doha’s Ramada junction or Al Sadd area. Qataris tend to see Souq Waqif as the center of the city, because it has cultural significance and it retains memories for Qataris.

“This tells us about the spatial experience of inhabitants based on their cultural backgrounds, and it elucidates the need to consider the development of spaces with the perception and understanding of different groups in mind so that successful, inclusive urban spaces can be created," Dr. Salama said.

The three approaches function as parts of a cycle, Dr. Salama explained. The results of study into the lived (individual experiences of environment) and perceived (business networks) should feed back into the conceived (policy) again. He said that what he observed in Doha is that the lived and the perceived are an outcome of a non-responsive conceived, and the cycle will do well with some work so that a sustainable knowledge economy can take root.

“To understand a hybrid condition, you need hybrid modes of thinking, hybrid methodologies,” Dr. Salama said. “You need multiple methodologies to understand what’s going on in Doha. This is why we started processing it in these three ways.”

Due to its geo-strategic position in the world, Doha is what Dr. Salama calls “an emerging global city.” He said Doha could increasingly be seen as a hub of connection for the economies of Western Europe and the rising economies of Asia as it becomes more connected and attractive.

Future city center zones in Doha according to Qatar National Master Plan

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Projected city centers according to Qatar National Master Plan (click image to enlarge)
“With the three approaches I believe that our research results are amenable to establishing links between the knowledge economy and the qualities of the urban environment as a foundation for the future prosperity of the country," he said. "In terms of contributing to the international community, I would say our research speaks to very recent phenomena and ideas,” Dr. Salama said. “We’re trying to help people see globalization in positive terms. Everybody is trying to analyze and criticize globalization, but we’re already living in a global condition and it’s better if we learn to live with it, and capitalize on its perceived merits.”
Dr. Salama said QNRF is a very important mechanism for several reasons. “In terms of generating knowledge for different fields, particularly young fields within Qatar, QNRF is an essential support mechanism. In my field, there is not much written about Qatar, so this is an excellent opportunity to try to position the city where you work and where you live to the international academic community.
“In terms of the funding itself, I’ve worked in five countries—Saudi Arabia, America, UK, Egypt, and now in Qatar. I’ve never seen such a great interest and support in research in the fields of architecture and urbanism.”

NPRP: 09-1083-6-023
Investigating the Qualities of the Urban Environment in Emerging Regional Metropolis: The Case of Doha, Qatar
LPI Name: Prof. Ashraf Salama, Qatar University
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