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Identities and urban space

What impact does the appearance of urban space have on the identity of a city?

This can appear as we are looking around us. We can look at the names of streets and wonder which figures the city’s authorities have decided to put forward or look at the statues that intend to glorify certain historic characters and project a certain vision of the past.

The urban layout can also tell a lot about what a city wants to tell to the world. The urban plans of Ildefons Cerda in Barcelona and of Lucio Cerda in Brasilia reflect the modernist ideal. Conversely, cities like Dubai and Doha, famous for their glass skyscrapers, are developing conservation projects that attest to a nostalgia toward lost traditions.

Because of the very rapid pace of urban development in Doha and the thrust for modernisation, old dwellings have been systematically destroyed during the second half of the 20th century to give way to high-rise buildings. The boom started in the mid 1950s with the first oil exports. By the 1960s, new streets were opened, hotels were established to accommodate expatriates. The rapid modernisation during the 1970s led to the destruction of vernacular architecture and radical changes in way of life. Historic buildings were torn down. As car ownership grew, large motorways were built and local populations moved away from old neighbourhoods to newly-established peripheral districts.

It was not until 1980 that legal mechanisms were introduced to preserve archaeological sites and historic buildings. The progressive interest for local heritage led the authorities to launch rehabilitation schemes, such as that of the Souq Waqif from 2004 to 2008 or the Msheireb project launched in 2008 in the historic centre of Doha.

Who decides what appears in the urban space is the result of tensions and negotiations. It is a sum of contradictory processes: governments using public space to tell their own story, property developers trying to raise land values, and citizens claiming their right to the city.

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How does the urban environment around you reflect the identity of your city?

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This article is from the free online course:

Cultural Diversity and the City

European University Institute (EUI)

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