Growing up in the Middle East, I recall these special public places that made me feel safe, comfortable, happy, enriched, and connected. These are often places where nature sneaks into the city – light, water, sky, greenery – becoming a part of social gatherings and everyday activities. Places that make me now change my route for the enjoyment of walking through and sharing them with family and friends over the weekend. We call these places “public realm”.
As our cities expand, the needs of urban dwellers for high-quality public realm have grown more pressing. According to UN Habitat, public spaces now comprise just 2% of the area of Middle Eastern cities, compared with 12% in the average European city. Often, the requirement for new infrastructure comes at the expense of green spaces. For example, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the land devoted to parks, squares and other public spaces per person has fallen by 80% in half a century. New, high quality public realm is critically needed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
At Majid Al Futtaim, we have always recognised how incredibly important high-quality public realm is to our Properties business’ mission to deliver quality destinations and compelling experiences that enrich people’s daily lives. In 2015, the UN also recognised public realm as a pressing human need. In response, it launched UN Sustainable Development Goal 11, which aims to provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, senior citizens and people with disabilities by 2030. A goal we supported and integrated in our sustainability strategy and operations.
Majid Al Futtaim committed to creating exemplary public spaces within and around our assets, to improve our ability to deliver our company’s vision to create “Great Moments for Everyone, Everyday”. We have undertaken several studies to develop region-specific characteristics of successful public realm in the MENA context. Establishing the framework around enhancing the public realm presented us with a key business and sustainability opportunity over the last few years. We have spent time developing and adopting a Community Engagement Charter and crystallising our definition of public realm. We’re proud to see all our destinations include internal and exterior public realm spaces, linkages and built-form elements that are physically and/or visually accessible free of charge. In addition, all our communities across the region, including our latest 250+ hectare mixed-use community, Tilal Al Ghaf, have public realm at their core.
For decades, cities around the world have been threatened by the loss of public realm. Real estate developers, governments and world leaders ought to be more conscious of the significant role played by the public realm to the community’s inhabitants. We all must take collective actions to provide public spaces that enhance people’s lives and bring them together.
Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi is Chief Sustainability Officer at Majid Al Futtaim, a member of WorldGBC’s Corporate Advisory Board and a Regional Partner of WorldGBC’s MENA Regional Network.