Folk Housing Revisited

Life in sha’bi (folk) neighborhoods takes on a different nature from modern residential communities. These neighborhoods are often characterized by qualities of social cohesion and interaction amongst their residents rarely found in newly built residential neighborhoods. Upon examination, one would find that these areas bear traits that were lost in our accelerated pace of life and daily social interactions. Despite the deteriorated conditions of many of these neighborhoods and neglect of public facilities within them, they contain physical characteristics that engender desirable social behaviors and public life.


In recent years, there has been a growing interest by the government of Sharjah to explore possibilities for the revival and regeneration of these areas within the city forming a departure from previous attitudes that often involved removal and re-planning as the only remedy. The interest in re-visiting the strategies of addressing these areas was exacerbated by the growing surge in need of land for Emirati Housing developments and the proven challenges accompanying attempts to compensate and relocate the dwellers of these neighborhoods.


The term Sha’bi house or neighborhood, sha’bi being the Arabic word for “belonging to the people,” refers to housing projects built by the government in the late 70s and early 80s not only as an attempt to house a largely Bedouin population but also as a form or redistribution of oil wealth back to the people. These neighborhoods have largely been the subject of studies by academics and researchers especially in the recent past culminating in publications or exhibitions most notably two consecutive exhibitions that were hosted by the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale curated by Dr. Yasser Al Shishtawi and Dr. Khaled AL Awadi in 2016 and 2018 respectively.


The research unit in Pragma, a non-profit branch within the firm involved in conducting urban research, has developed a proposal for the regeneration of Al Ghubaiba area based on the adaptation, improvement and eventual transformation of these neighborhoods through a gradual process of urban regeneration. The proposal puts forth a scenario visualizing the process and potential outcome of preserving and enhancing some of the qualities already inherent within these areas. The design process involved field research and surveys to document the existing conditions mapping “unregulated” spill out areas outside of the residential units where informal seating, children play areas, or urban farming take place.


Streets, unpaved and varied in shape and scale, constitute the only available open space for the residents. The interface between the house and the street becomes a blank canvas to appropriate resourcefully using vegetation, carpets, and temporary seating. This is the residents only remedy to make up for the lack of open space within their private plots. The outcome is a street filled with life and lush with vegetation. This is where neighbors congregate, the kids play, or crops and livestock are harnessed. The lack of differentiation between what is carriage way and what is sidewalk – counterintuitively – dubs the street safer for pedestrians as cars are forced to slow down in the inner alleys of the neighborhood.

The proposal encompasses the creation of a library of interventions, a kit of parts, inspired by existing activities and spatial patterns. These interventions would regulate landscape “spill outs” and provide enhancements to the existing homes. Reliance on renewable energy, domestic food production, water and waste management systems, and modular construction would contribute to reducing the ecological footprint of the neighborhood while enhancing the overall quality of life. A subsidy and incentive zoning mechanism provided by government agencies would further support the transformation and incremental regeneration of the neighborhood.

The strength of the scheme proposed lies in its ability to visualize the richness already inherent in the streets and open spaces of these neighborhoods should they be augmented through design to provide enhanced living conditions to the existing residents. Strategic architectural and landscape interventions could simulate a better version of what already exists and can take place incrementally as opposed to a wholesale approach to urban regeneration. The scheme puts forth an alternative that may prove more economically, environmentally and socially viable.

Team: Nihal Halimeh, Jafar Abbas, Fayez Najeeb, Mariam Salama, Nathalie Barada, Sherine Raslan, Nawal Saksouk, Alya Al Fahim, Bindya Menon, Shalomi Ninan, Monalyn Gelera

Client: Research

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