New Book // Abu Dhabi Public Spaces: Urban Encounters, Social Diversity and (In)Formality
Published in April 2021 with the support of Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (SUAD), this book is the result of a two-year multidisciplinary research project on urbanity and the behavioral mapping of the inhabitants’ daily practices. In 2018, Dr. Hadrien Dubucs, geographer (SUAD), Dr. Apostolos Kyriazis, architect (Abu Dhabi University), and Dr. Clio Chaveneau, sociologist (SUAD), worked together on a research program entitled Redefining Abu Dhabi’s Public Spaces: Urban Classification and Social Interaction which received the ADEK Award for Research Excellence (2018-2020). As the project aimed at training students to do research, four research assistants participated in data collection: Israa Mahgoub and Hanu Dilip, two postgraduate students from SUAD and, Shafaq Qamar and Ayesha Zahid, two undergraduate students at ADU.
The program developed an interdisciplinary approach to study daily urban practices, socio-urban context and urban design taking place among an urban population with unique social-demographic characteristics. Abu Dhabi city is indeed characterized by an important social and cultural diversity (nationalities, cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic power) that creates a need for multi-functional and adaptable public spaces. In a regular Abu Dhabi public park, on a Friday afternoon, you can find Levantine Arab and Asians families doing barbecues on lawns while children are playing nearby, South Asians men playing cricket or sharing a meal and rest, and Filipino mixed youths playing badminton or basketball. This diversity of activities and users of public spaces is a perfect opportunity to explore Gulf cities “beyond the skyline” and present an accurate portrayal of daily city life and grasp Abu Dhabi’s urban vibe.
The social and cultural diversity leads to a variety of social interactions and encounters that were studied to give a better understanding of the urban and social life of Abu Dhabi. To do so, an innovative methodology was developed: ethnographic observation (72 sessions of 3 hours), mapping (urban morphology and spatial behaviors were mapped) and photography (both descriptive and analytical data).
After dividing the city in seven zones with distinct characteristics of urban morphology and social distribution, we selected two spaces in each zone: a formal and an informal one. In our research, the distinction between formal and informal public spaces is a key analytical feature of Abu Dhabi’s public spaces. The city is effectively composed of public spaces set up, maintained, and monitored by the municipality and corporates (commercial malls) we call “formal spaces”. However, the urban landscape is not limited to such settings. We found open spaces used as public spaces for leisure and sociabilities, even though it may not be their primary function. Examples include a parking lot, an undeveloped plot of land, waterfront edges, or large sidewalk. Informality being not connected to illegality, we used it to describe multifaceted urban spaces, used differently according to the time of the day, moment of the week and the population using it.
Based on representativeness and the comparability criteria, we systematically observed the fourteen public spaces (seven formal, seven informal) throughout Abu Dhabi (islands and mainland; center and suburbs). The observation covered two years, from January 2018 to December 2019, and was conducted by the research team members, all following a precise observation grid aiming at collecting information on spaces’ users (social, cultural, and demographical patterns) and the activities as well as the interactions taking place.
As a result of this research program, the book was designed with the intention to popularize our research findings to a wider audience, “a push for exploration and discovery”, and thus, emphasize the importance of common spaces used by the diverse parts of the population and highlight the vibrancy of Abu Dhabi urban life, in the constant process of reshaping itself (newly created, massively renovated or repurpose places). After contextualizing Abu Dhabi urban settings and development and introducing the research program, the first part of the book is dedicated to the architectural, geographical, and visual presentation of each space.
The second half of the book is divided in eight sections, based on our empirical material and exploring several themes and transversal issues regarding the urban and social roles of public spaces in Abu Dhabi such as sport activities, food consumption or norms and regulations of these places. We also highlight the private nature of public spaces, which function as « third places » (Oldenburg, 1989) as in most major cities, but also provide what we call an “extension of the living room”, especially for the inhabitants deprived of private spaces (most of the labor class is living in shared accommodations). Finally, two sections are dedicated to informality, which makes a city a city, that meets the needs of its inhabitants and represents an opportunity to improve the urban governance model.
Abu Dhabi Public Spaces, with its small format and accessible writing style, acts as an alternative city guide to discover – or rediscover – the capital city of the UAE and understand the city’s cultural diversity, its daily manifestations and the interaction between formality and informality in public spaces.
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 BEDIRIAN R., “New book on Abu Dhabi’s public spaces is a ‘push for exploration and discovery’”, The National, July 2021. https://www.thenationalnews.com/artsandculture/2021/07/03/new-book-on-abu-dhabis-public-spaces-is-a-push-for-exploration-and-discovery/
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