Proteus - New Urbanism Ideas From and For the Middle East

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What could possibly have taken me to Salt Lake City (SLC) in Utah, United States? Shock put to rest: it was the 21st Congress for New Urbanism (CNU 21), which was held there from May 28th till June 1st. Dozens of experts in and even just supporters (like yours truly) of New Urbanism gathered in such a relatively isolated place (not too far from the fun Las Vegas) to attend sessions, “mingle” and, most importantly, take stock of the record and future hopes of CNU the organization.

CNU has been spearheading the new urbanism movement for many decades; through its charter, it is dedicated to promoting compact, walkable cities and towns that provide residents a high quality of life while preserving the natural environment. It is anti “placeless sprawl” and the separation by race and income that real estate developments tend to encourage.  The focus on quality of life is a keystone on which the organization rests. Unlike many specialist organizations, CNU congregates around its charter people from various realms (developers, public sector employees, architects, planners, consultants etc.) - such attribute gives it the ability to be lean and constantly evolving.

CNU 21 tackled a wide array of matters affecting urbanism nowadays: from the general topics of sprawl and connectedness with nature to specifics such as the effects of changing a 2-way street into 1-way on the prosperity of street merchants. It acted as a reminder of the main and essential duty of its members: to abide by the “virus theory”. After all, the new urbanism movement and CNU’s timeless principles depend on and thrive because of the spreading of ideas through other organizations (such as the members’ places of employment) and the constant adaptability to ever changing times. The truly Protean (of, pertaining to, or suggestive of Proteus, a sea god in classical mythology, noted for his ability to assume different forms and to prophecy) attribute of CNU was relentlessly repeated by Andres Duany (one of CNU’s founders who spoke at several sessions) so as not to dare be forgotten.

CNU 21: Some key messages

I have my reservations about the congress, but they are more than made up for by the positives. 


Forget the traffic argument (as important as it is), the issue of sprawl based real estate was looked at from an ethical perspective. The very young and very old cannot drive so what are their choices? We seem to care very much for those depending on wheelchairs by putting in place mini ramps, yet through our building of car dependent communities, we isolate whole age groups. Forget driving to downtown; even if one is to go to the nearby mall, he or she is to drive. This driving despite proximity phenomenon makes it harder to meet people and even “mate” for that matter (as it was bluntly put by none other than Andres Duany himself).

There is also an economic reason to be anti-sprawl: people will spend on the likes of entertainment, for example, instead of cars. The more people walk, the healthier they get and the less costly they become to the overall healthcare system. Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City”, spoke of how a walk needs to have a reason, must be safe and comfortable and be interesting if it is to be taken. I couldn’t help, whilst this topic was discussed at various sessions, think of places like the Arab Gulf where 40 degrees Celsius temperatures are often reached during the summer season. How does that affect urban strategy in such locations? More on that later on…

From expressways to boulevards

“Has it been proven that removing highways from within cities decreases traffic?” I asked the panel arguing for such removals. The answer was shy and too visionary versus practical for my liking: we should be encouraging short distant commutes based on boulevards and public transit. Easier said than done I thought, without finding such afterthought worth communicating. Nevertheless, there is a movement today, mainly in North America, against expressways and the conventional wisdom they stand for; such movement is not only based on aesthetics, but also strives to decrease the demand for car-based commuting. The effects, we were told, have been positive, especially in cases when there was a simultaneous investment in transit and boulevards.  This time my thoughts went to Lebanon where the Fouad Boutros highway (envisioned to cut through the heart of the Achrafieh district in Beirut) is a topic of fierce bickering nowadays.

New Urbanism vs. green

A major theme instigated over and over again, especially by Andres Duany, is that concerning the battle between the new urbanism movement and the American green movement. Duany’s main point against the green movement stems from its exclusion of the “human element”. Too focused on the preservation of nature, environmentalists don’t see human involvement as doing any good. This is in contrast to the movement in Europe where humans have built in nature and often to positive ends. He sheds light on the hilltop in Italy, on which a red tiled village rests, and compares it to one that is barren. “Which is more beautiful?” he asks. Further, he also makes the “Times Square” argument: “there are more people visiting time square in Manhattan than there are people disturbing the bears in Yellowstone”, he sarcastically points out. Add to the fact the mainstream knowledge today that urban centers such as Manhattan are more environmentally friendly compared to rural regions and you have a more or less complete argument. Put succinctly, new urbanism combines the essential elements needed for a high quality of life for humans whilst preserving the environment. “The common currency between us is diversity”, Duany exclaims, but one is focused on the natural and the other on the social.


Being a fan of things more practical than theoretical, I found my favorite of all sessions to be the bike tour in the 4,000 hectares partially completed “Daybreak” development in the lower Salt Lake valley. After a rather boring 45-minute ride in the TRAX (SLC’s light rail), we embarked on a journey between houses and parks, as well as a lake, school, medical center and Mormon temple. Certain lessons from the tour stand out:

  1. The development is spearheaded by one subsidiary of Rio Tinto, a mining giant, which owns the land once acting as a buffer zone between the city and one of its mines. It was then viewed as an “opportunity”, especially given the fast growing city population, and so, together with other stakeholders (state, municipality, local builders etc.), Rio Tinto decided it was time such land gets monetized. Executing the project “has been a dance” one person involved in the project said, referring to the intertwined roles of various stakeholders. This, I thought, is very different compared to the Middle East, where it is often just the Government and its related parties that do it all, from planning to execution.
  2. The development was based on a 100 year model. In reality, the project today continues to evolve, taking into consideration market realities. Though seeming slow and running in stages (compared to developments in, say, Dubai), this long term vision is, undoubtedly, a lesson that must be learnt by those seeking only quick and short term benefits.
  3. The development is based on new urbanism and sustainability principles. “How we grow matters,” stressed another person involved in the project. It must cost more then, I thought, but can’t we afford so in many places in the Middle East? I then wondered.

Nature connectedness – or lack of

One of the plenary sessions was led by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods”, who spoke of nature connectedness or – as a matter of fact - the lack of it nowadays. “Evolution doesn’t happen so fast,” he warned vehemently as he described the recent phenomenon of total disassociation with nature. This is taking place for many reasons such as electronic games and urban design (the latter shedding light on the role of new urbanism and CNU). Louv warned of the effects of such detachment:  “can’t get kids to visualize anymore!” says one study; “When do we still use all 5 senses?” he then asked the audience. Some doctors are telling patients to go spend time in nature (“park prescriptions” as he called them). Thinking of the Levantine Mountains and Arabian Gulf deserts, I couldn’t help but remember my childhood strolls in Lebanese woods and recent safari escapades in the Dubai desert…

What all this means to the Middle East

Some cities in the Middle East, like Beirut and Amman, can be dubbed the “Old World” – they are centuries old and have grown gradually over time. Other cities, like Dubai, could represent the “New World” – the majority of their current form is less than 50 years old. Can urban decay, especially in the Old World, be a serious reason partially contributing to the unfolding of what is now known as the “Arab spring”? Urban care has not been a priority task of Governments in the region, especially the Levant, because of dealing with more “life or death” matters such as political turmoil and unstable security. One only needs to look back 50 years and see how the vanishing of industry in a city like Detroit led to riots and strikes and human despair to not dismiss the idea. Economics, urbanism and politics are all very much intertwined.

Recently, in the Old and New World alike, we are witnessing: sprawl kicking in, highways growing like bushes, car sales increasing year after year, infrastructure decaying (more so in the Old World) and unplanned (and often ugly) buildings leading to block decay. What we fail to keep in mind is that unlike North America, new urbanism has been the model most communities in the Middle East followed for centuries. Just look at any Lebanese village, for example, and you will see a town center and mixed-use developments all around it, from residential to retail to entertainment. Or even just take a panoramic view of Istanbul, one of the oldest cities in the world, and you will realize how “village on steroids” is not too bad a description. We simply have to maintain the tracks and act as examples that new urban centers, especially in the New World, can emulate. The West is now learning and we are going in the opposite direction! We need to gradually build on the chassis we have. Just as critically, we need to be aware of our constraints. The summer heat temperatures in the Arabian Gulf are only one of many constraints. We need to think about how these negative forces affect our lives and “walking potential” and then creatively fetch for solutions.

There are 5 specific initiatives that we must embark on in full throttle in the short term:

  1. Invest in public transport. We must encourage and make available the conditions for walking that Jeff Speck spoke about (safety etc.). However you can only walk for such a distant; in order to cover the whole city, we need to invest in public transport. Forget making way for parking space, which encourages more driving; the focus should be on public transit. Interestingly, public transit can help connect not only locations but also people who otherwise would be confined to just their cars. Allow guitar players and the rides will even be fun!
  2. We must invest in boulevards, not highways. In tandem with step 1 above, this would neutralize, if not mollify, traffic jams.
  3. In many parts of the region, especially the Old World, we were bequeathed with beautiful, invaluable and traditional architecture and gifted with astonishing green landscapes. Our villages have worked well for centuries and we have an obligation to maintain them. This should not come at the expense of modern real estate, which ensures supply keeps up with demand and thus alleviates price pressures; however, the modern should not come at the expense of the old, unless all other possibilities are exhausted.
  4.   Andres Duany blamed modern day sprawl-based developments on snobbism. We need to avoid that and build mixed-use diverse communities. What is wrong with a mansion facing another mansion on a block that also contains not too far away a 3 story middle-class income apartment building with a barber shop on the ground level? We should use architecture to camouflage such mixed-use space and make it appealing.
  5. Most importantly, in order to effectively drive change, we need to encourage grassroots movements, such as “tactical urbanism”, so that the new generation gets to have a say in how our urban centers develop. This should be done in parallel with strengthening our laws and the institutions that ensure their implementation. The point is to come up with “checks and balances” tools, ready to stop, for example, mega corporations from building what brings about nothing but short term profits.

One major theme that came out of the congress is that new urbanism is expensive. However, this is a result not of inappropriate principles, but rather of lack of supply. We need to build communities that are based on new urbanism step by step, just like what they are doing at Daybreak. Considering interim town centers that finish over many years and considering light green technology instead of the expensive topnotch type are only some of the ways. It will prove worthwhile with the generations.


Image: Daybreak Development; taken by Wajdi Ghoussoub


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