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Is it True that Qataris Don’t Really Walk?

The Khaleeji approach to city building was one that prioritised people and their needs. But the modernists’ approach altered it to bring motor cars and roads to the forefront. Countering the opinion that Qataris don’t walk much, and emphasising it as a recent change, Abdulrahman Al Mana asks whether it is worth giving up our cultural and architectural identity for the convenience of motorcars.

Busy pedestrian street in historic Souq Waqif with local men wearing keffiyeh headscarves.

 

Cities are the people living in them. A city is so much more than a conglomeration of buildings and streets. They’re so much more than a skyline and impressive pieces of infrastructure. Cities are people. They are the families who live in cozy homes. It’s the old man who runs your neighborhood dhobi – laundry. It’s the dukkan – grocery – you rode your bike to as a kid to buy snacks in the late afternoon. It’s the muezzin – the person who gives the call to prayer at a mosque – you’ve listened to for the last 20 years. We make up the buildings and institutions that make up our cities.

A neighborhood is a collection of people, a collection of memories, a space that changes and evolves constantly and rapidly yet always feels familiar. The built environment is so much more than just the physical structures we see – it is the people who build, inhabit, and bring them to life.

 “Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.”

Lewis Mumford

American Historian, Urbanist.

American historian, sociologist, and urbanist Lewis Mumford once wrote: “Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.”

This one angsty quote brings me so much joy. Not only does it reflect a sentiment that I strongly believe in – to build cities for people, but Mumford’s referral to pedestrians as “lovers and friends” humanises how we think about the interaction between infrastructure and people.

The art of city building long pre-dates the automobile; we have lived in cities since the first Agricultural Revolution in 10,000 BC. The surplus of food meant that people could focus on developing other crafts and trade. Our approach and understanding of cities have dramatically changed over the course of the 20th century; cities before the automobile were shaped by how far a person could comfortably walk. This would decide where people could live, shop, and work.

The adoption of new technologies in mobility allowed our cities to expand in different ways. Tramways and trains expanded our cities radially, creating dense clusters of people wherever there were tracks. The horsecar expanded the radius of where people could comfortably move in a day. And lastly, the automobile, the last revolutionary technology in urban mobility, allowed our cities to expand horizontally, sprawling to wherever one could build.

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The increased focus on the automobile meant that we had to dedicate more space to it. The primary land use in most cities is dedicated to mobility. Think of how much land in our cities is dedicated to roads and parking lots. Our understandings of streets have shifted fundamentally, long gone are the days where streets were the domain of people. Streets today are closer in definition to the road, where more often than not, we build large highways that rip our cities apart to bring the suburbs closer to our downtowns.

This approach to city building has come at the loss of many neighborhoods. Moreover, highways were not a space that was designed with the human in mind. Humans cannot comfortably cross an 8-lane highway where cars are driving at a speed of 80-100 km/h. We force city-dwellers to move by way of the car.

Al Raayan bridge at Doha, Qatar, April 2014

 

The Khaleej was viewed as a vast and empty desert landscape – a playground for architects and engineers to bring “modernist” visions and practices to life without worrying about existing conditions, because in their view: nothing was there to begin with. This pushed the automobile to the forefront in city-building practices in the region.

The perception of Khaleeji cities as something new and fledgling is flawed, while the port cities of the Khaleej were never as large as the Arab metropolises of Baghdad, Cairo, Marrakech, and Mecca, the coastal towns of the Gulf were dense and lively hubs for trade. It is only “new” in the scale that it currently exists in. Their geographic situation on the coast meant that they were not only a part of a regional network of other coastal towns in the region but to the coastal cities of East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

This transnational quality is unique to the Khaleeji urban and shows in the cultural identity of the region which makes it distinct from the greater Arab world. Loan words from Farsi, Hindi, Turkish, and English show the extent of connectivity with the larger world: cultural developments which would not occur had these societies not oriented themselves around urban living.

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The Khaleeji approach to city building was one that prioritised people and their needs. A focus on retaining and protecting the privacy of homes in relation to marketplaces created narrow and winding alleyways and paths that connected the town, known colloquially as sikkak – narrow alleyways between plots. The sikkak created an environment that encouraged people to travel by foot, walls from homes would often cast a shade for pedestrians, and the orientation of streets was around cold northern winds, which would provide people with a nice cool breeze.

Today, a lot of resistance is faced when people talk about limiting spaces for the automobile, whether it is making streets smaller or taking away parking lots. Engineers and planners often remark that: Qataris simply don’t walk. But examining the old urban fabric of Qatar, we see that it is clearly not the case. The new “drive-in” culture developed by modernist developments during the oil boom dramatically altered the local culture. No longer were people walking from the home to the places of commercial activity, we were driving to it.

This focus on the automobile raises an interesting concern: can Doha, which is trying to compete for its title as a global city in the Gulf, show its unique socio-cultural identity when the historic and cultural approach to people-oriented placemaking has been lost, due to building the city for the car?

As residents of the city, we are keen on showing off what it is that makes Doha unique and exciting: Doha, and the Khaleeji urban fabric, is unjustly misunderstood not only by the world but by the larger Arab world as well. The notion that these places are playgrounds for engineers and architects to enact their vision for shiny skyscrapers and hulking structures is simply wrong. For us to put our culture back into the spotlight, we must begin to let go of the automobile and prioritising it in our cities.

We ought to ask ourselves: is it worth it to give up our cultural and architectural identity for the convenience of the car?

AbdulRahman is a city planner based in Doha and a Guest Author for SCALE. He is a graduate of the Urban & Regional Studies program at Cornell University. Born and raised in Doha, watching skyscrapers rise and roads unfold from quiet sandy beaches, contrasted by the narrow and winding neighborhoods of the old downtown, AbdulRahman is infatuated with the urban form. Read more about his passion, here.