How do you help an entire nation build happier communities?

There’s one sure way to avoid the negative effects of stressful, dangerous and disconnected communities: start using evidence to guide urban design. We’re helping the United Arab Emirates do just that. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Photo by Happy City: All rights reserved.

In January 2019, the United Arab Emirates unveiled an international first: a national design policy for building happier, healthier communities. Our team at Happy City led the development of this policy, and for us, it represents values we hope will shape the future of urban design.

The UAE government has one of the most ambitious national housing programs in the world. All Emirati families are allocated land, finished homes or interest-free loans to build and maintain their homes, with priority given to orphans, widows, senior citizens and people with disabilities. To do this, the government builds communities in bulk to meet its housing targets.

In 2016, the UAE appointed a Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing with the ambitious goal of becoming “amongst the happiest countries in the world.” As a design consultancy called Happy City, that was a goal we wanted to help with.

The pursuit of happiness

We reached out with a simple question. How, we asked, can all these new Emirati communities be designed to foster happiness? Ensuring that residents are healthy and fulfilled is easier to achieve in wonderful places, and harder to achieve in difficult places. To generate widespread happiness, the physical communities people live in must be designed from the start to support it.

UAE officials agreed. We set out to work with them and co-create a manual of guidelines that, if followed, would ensure their new communities are great places — where it is easy to see friends, be active, eat well, get around without stress, and feel a strong sense of local belonging.

If we succeed in this challenge, we can positively influence Emirati communities for generations. Even the most generous housing programs can’t overcome the negative impacts of stressful, anger-inducing commutes, isolated homes, scanty greenspace and loud, dangerous streets.

Adapting the best and worst of Western design

In order to diagnose the problems and recommend solutions, we sought to understand the context and background of community planning in the UAE. What we learned was fascinating.

When the UAE experienced its economic boom in the ’70s, there was an influx of Western professionals and consultants. Their influence transformed the country. The changes were in many ways positive: the UAE dwarfs its neighbours in the quality of its civic infrastructure and services.

But the new architects and planners also brushed away centuries of local design knowledge without realizing what they were losing. Western communities reflect cultural norms and climate conditions that are drastically different from those in the Middle East.

One resident told us how isolating the new subdivisions could be:

“My mother lived most of her life in a traditional Emirati community. She was independent and also socially connected with everyone in her neighbourhood. As she got older, she moved into one of the newer communities,” said the resident. “That is when she lost all her friends. In the new community, she rarely leaves the house, knows none of her neighbours and needs regular support for her daily needs.”
Front yards and balconies don’t address the need for privacy in Middle Eastern countries. Photo by Happy City: All Rights reserved.

We heard many similar stories — stories that are all too familiar in Western communities. Parents who remember the joy of walking to school but would not dare let their children do it today. Neighbours that only see each other in passing moments through their car windows. Kids and seniors who are entirely dependent on others to drive them around.

One thing we’ve learned as we work around the world is that poorly designed communities affect everyone, regardless of culture or wealth. Community design can do better.

We saw other clear signs of how Western design failed to address Emirati needs. A traditional UAE household type is the “courtyard house,” in which a group of homes from a single extended family face inwards towards a semi-private space. It’s a design excellently adapted for its climate and culture. The courtyards stay cool, blocking out hot wind and sun, and help people maintain close, daily connections between generations.

The traditional courtyard house is a staple of Arab Architecture that is seldom found in new developments today. Photo by Happy City: All Rights Reserved.

In many new developments since the 1970s, these courtyard houses were replaced with typical North American single-family homes. In the West, the front yards and balconies on these houses can support social connections, but in the UAE, these features backfired.

“It is considered offensive and rude to hang out in a balcony that sees into your neighbour’s yard,” one resident told us. “It’s an invasion of privacy.”
The street-facing balconies are seldom used and are often walled up a few years later as extra living space. Photo by Happy City: All Rights Reserved.

The ambition of providing housing for all citizens is noble and worthwhile. Drawing insights from Western experts is also a wise move — there is much we can all learn from one another. But importing the car-dependent model of planning that results in more dangerous streets, increasing social disconnection and poor mobility options for seniors and children is not the right move. Emiratis have to also look towards their own history and culture to build happier, healthier communities.

We had work to do.

Rising to the challenge

We faced an immediate dilemma. On the one hand, we wanted the guidelines to be specific. After all, if someone could build a community that technically followed our guidelines but still made people miserable, it would be a failure on our part.

And yet, we didn’t want to force all new developments to look the same. Monotonous, cookie-cutter communities do not support a feeling of local pride.

The guidelines in the manual, therefore, had to allow diverse designs, sizes, and contexts. Just as critically, the rules had to accommodate both modern and traditional Arabic urban forms.

To balance specificity with flexibility, we aimed to distill our wellbeing principles to their most elemental components — health, sociability, resilience, belonging and more — and encourage developers to foster those via good design.

To support belonging, for example, every community should have a recognizable central place. As a resident, it’s much easier to attach strong emotions to your community when it contains a meaningful focal point, like the Sacre-Coeur in Parisian neighbourhood of Montmartre, or the Al Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo.

Sacre-Coeur basilica is always in the background in Montmartre. Photo by Happy City: All Rights Reserved
Al Hussein Mosque in Cairo. CC BY 2.0

But how do you write a guideline requiring a community to build a recognizable place? Should it require a statue? A fountain? Or a certain quantity of art? Exactly how big should it be?

We stuck with the fundamental goal: “Create a focal point of civic pride and identity.” We also offered ideas for how to do so that are compatible with traditional Emirati public spaces, such as town squares or mosque courtyards. But what matters most is that designers know they need to create such a place.

What’s in the future?

The UAE’s new guidelines encompass all aspects of building great, livable communities: where to put them, how to design them, what to put in them, and how to connect all the places within them. In addition, the design manual offers best practices for encouraging volunteerism, supporting events, and using technology to bring residents together and boost local pride.

The next step — soon to be released — is an assessment tool that will measure communities’ success in achieving these guidelines. Ideally it will foster healthy competition amongst public and private developers and incentivize them in building happier, more resilient communities.

We believe that the guidelines and their customized assessment tool represent the start of something critical: a list of everything communities should have to support human wellbeing. There are too few global examples of new communities that effectively support happiness and health. If more countries follow the UAE’s lead in designing for wellbeing, it will be good news for everyone.

We can’t wait to see how builders in the UAE make use of these tools. And we can’t wait to apply what we’ve learned in other countries, to create the happier, healthier and more inclusive places that everyone deserves.

Happy City is an international urban planning, design and architecture consultancy that uses an evidence-based approach to create happier, healthier and more inclusive communities. Email us: info@thehappycity.com