A new urban consciousness in the Arab world?

Deen Sharp writes: New York’s built environment is continuously being made and remade. The 1950s and 1960s was a particularly dramatic period for construction in the big apple, and a single man, Robert Moses was responsible for much of the reconstruction. For twenty years, Moses constructed huge highway infrastructure projects and urban renewal projects that dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. In 1961, Jane Jacobs published the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and led activist campaigns to fight against Moses grandiose projects.

The rise of Jacobs and the activist groups that supported her vision of preserving historic building and the preference for low-rise housing changed the way people and policy planners thought about cities. Good cities, Jacobs argued, encouraged: social interaction at the street level, public transport, pedestrianization and mix development. Jacobs also noted the criticality to the social life a city of old, as well as architecturally significant, buildings.

In the Arab region, the ghost of Robert Moses has cast a large shadow. In the streets of Beirut, Lebanon the evidence of his legacy is evident in the reconstruction process following the civil war. The parallels between Robert Moses and Rafik Hariri are startling. In Cairo, Moses’ legacy is seen through the creation of the multiple desert cities and highways, in addition to the – attempted – dislocation of hundreds of thousands of urban poor. Indeed, if Moses had not died in 1981 it would not be hard to imagine he personally wrote the grandiose Cairo 2050 proposal for the future redevelopment of Cairo.

Activists, architects, social planners and residents of Arab cities have not been quiescent to the onslaught of these large-scale projects. Indeed, some have argued that the Egyptian uprising was fuelled by government attempts to remove the urban poor from downtown Cairo to the desert cities.

In addition to large-scale projects there have also been piecemeal reconstructions by developers and speculators to reshape the urban fabric. Whole districts have been transformed building by building through the tearing down – often illegally – of low-scale buildings and replacing them with high-rises. The economic benefit is simple to understand, but the cost to the social fabric of the city and its inhabitants devastating and complex.

In response, social movements across the Middle East are calling for a new urban consciousness among citizens. [Continue reading…]

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