Dubai/ Invisible Urban Spaces: Exploration of the Invisible
In the passage [INSTANT CITY: SUCCESS OF DUBAI, FROM OIL TO REAL ESTATE] by Nicholas Tai, we have learnt that after the discovery of oil in 1966, the government of Dubai has got the resources and capital to spur infrastructure development which they originally lack of. Schools, hospitals, roads, a modern telecommunications network … the pace of development was frenetic. A new port and terminal building were built at Dubai International Airport. The largest man-made harbor in the world was constructed at Jebel Ali, and a free zone was created around the port. The infrastructure and the master planning was updating every few years because of the failure of the older ones – the development in Dubai was too rapid for the master planning to accommodate the expanding local economy and the people.
We have learnt that in the 1980s and early 1990s, Dubai took a strategic decision to emerge as a major international-quality tourism destination. Investments in tourism infrastructure have paid off handsomely over the years. The decision of diversifying from a trade-based but oil-reliant economy to one that is service and tourism-oriented has made real estate and other development more precious. With the property boom from 2004-2006, large scale construction has turned Dubai into one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. Due to the heavy construction which is taking place in Dubai, 30,000 construction cranes, which are 25% of cranes worldwide, are operating in Dubai. The master planning of these construction thus became extremely significant for the implementation of these urban strategies.
Yet in all these master plans something is hidden.
In a research done by Yasser Elsheshtawy, the author of the book “Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle”, some of the transitory sites are being analysed. These transitory sites are what he called invisible urban spaces which has much richer context in terms of culture and human activities. These spaces are closely associated with low-income users, mostly from the Indian subcontinent. There are commercial establishments which cater to the constantly moving transient users. They include eateries, cafes, and newspaper stands which display mostly Hindi magazines and newspapers. There are also seating areas. Food and drinks which are being served in these places are a reminder for these workers of places back home. In some instances they even are places for illegal consumption of alcohol.
The reason accounting for these urban spaces is clearly and simple explained by the pie chart below.
Dubai has a population structure which is unique in the world. In the absence of any official statistics, the size of the local population as a percentage of the whole are only 10% estimated. Yet in the research done by Yasser Elsheshtawy it says that the real percentage is 4-5%. The male and female ratio which is respectively 75% and 25% is also another evidence to the demographic imbalance. The hidden message behind these data is the distorted society in the city. In the area which authentic human activities are more frequent, which meant to be a more popular public spaces in a regular city, it was the foreigner in Dubai who are dominating the spaces. Certainly the government did not expect to have these area nor these public spaces were planned in the above master plan, because the government is ignorant to these migrant workers, but they are the by-product of the city. These invisible public spaces are transitory spaces, which by definition, spaces that one stays only for a brief period of time. In Yasser Elsheshtawy’s research he compared these spaces with airport lounges, bus stops, railway stations, shopping malls and supermarket; transitory spaces are meant as places to be passed through, discouraging unnecessary lingering and hence attachment. The previous analysis revealed that there are a number of elements contributing to this transience: the anonymous character of the buildings minimizes their recognizability; districts have ‘soft’ boundaries making them easily permeable thus discouraging formation of any strong community; and, most significantly, there is an absence of any planned public space, a gathering point for a community with the exception of public parks which the users are a different target group.
Whilst the government has been doing no catering policy for these poor people but only violating basic human rights by exploiting the workers, the development of the city itself and the implementation of the master plans are dependent on these workers. These migrant workers are distributed all over the country in all area (Area 1-4 shown above). They established uncountable invisible urban spaces which are congested with the mixture of their cultures and character.
The following is an abstract from Elsheshtawy’s study:
“Dubai is frequently described as a city without character, lacking any identity and some have even questioned whether it is a ‚real’ city to begin with (e.g. Parker, 2005).
Yet this analysis showed that meaning and identity can be found in some of the cities public spaces frequented by its low-income population who add character – although most of it is transitory and fleeting. In looking at all these settings a number of commonalities and interesting observations emerge:
- All are dominated by male users (reflecting the cities demographic).
- Absence of locals – except for those using commercial establishments
- Newspapers portray these areas almost like exotic locales; a place where one can find some sort of authentic living (e.g. Landais, 2005; Bharadwaj , 2005).
- Gathering points of labourers occur at the edge of large spaces, empty lots, etc. In other words, incidental spaces which were not planned for such use.
- They are easily accessible and in some instances visible from the main roads. Being in them is not threatening, as there is still a sense of the main city being nearby. However informants have told me that they become haunts for drug users, prostitutes, and other illegal activities in late hours. Crime is high in these areas as well with reports of murder and robbery (AlJandaly, 2006).
- Another level of unplanned, anti-social activity is graffiti. These writings are not along the visible square or spaces, but rather hidden and tucked away in alleyways. They offer an interesting counter point to the carefully groomed image of the city.”
In a study of another scholar John Landis named City Growth and Development Chronicle: Dubai, two worker camps were investigated.
In these camps, labourers seek to make extra cash at the weekends by setting up food stalls and trading with fellow migrants. They invented a game called Carrom, which is similar to billiards but with all the components being built by themselves.The secret vegetable market within the camp is a cheap place for labourers to provide themselves with vegetable and fruits.
Nonetheless these places mentioned above are not invisible urban spaces. These are the hidden secrets mentioned by Raori Ravin. They are extremely similar but they have a fundamental difference: that these places are outside the city but the transitory spaces exist within the city as residue. But of course, they are caused by the same reason because of the same group of people with same background.