Maybe All Sharjah Needed Was More Cafés In The Neighborhoods?

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Maybe all we needed for Urban happiness is a little bit more of lenient urbanization, less strictly residential areas, and the growth of cafes and gyms within ten minutes driving distance from homes. It’s a wonder what it can do to a citizen’s level of happiness to be able to meet a friend for specialty coffee five minutes from where they live or work.

Ray Oldenburg introduced the significance of Third Places, where the first place is the place of residence, second place being the place of work or education, and third place being public arenas where members of the community come together for the sake of leisure and entertainment. According to Dr. Oldenburg, Third Places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Making them a break from the mundanity of everyday life. Dr. Oldenburg pressed on the importance of its existence concerning social vitality, social equity, where the grassroots enjoy the same accessibility to entertainment and vitality.

When Sharjah started bringing together residents of all classes in “third places”, it focused around art and leisure, starting with Al Majaz waterfront, launched in 2010 by Shurooq, one of the most prominent urban successes that brought people from all backgrounds for outdoor leisure. Overlooking the lagoon and developments that include children parks, restaurants, an iconic Mosque, and top of the range infrastructure.

Another example of a third place hub in Sharjah is the Heart of Sharjah and the Sharjah Art Foundation galleries. This unique gem of development turned what used to be a derelict neighborhood to a hub of history, culture, and art. Where the ruler’s old house and the old souk are now restored pristine replicas of what they signify. The area now represents a model of Sharjah’s old neighborhoods that were made of stone and coral built houses and courtyards. It now includes old and modern shops, cafes, restaurants, and an outstanding luxury hotel built out of some of the prominent families’ old homes in Sharjah. Now residents and tourists enjoy the easy access and walkability of a self-explanatory tour of what Sharjah always stood for: culture, honor, and education.

Then we have the accidental birth of little Brooklyn, AKA Muwailih. Due to excellent demographics and lenient legislation in Muwailih as opposed to other areas in Sharjah, enthusiastic SME owners found a haven to pursue their dreams to start a restaurant or a café. Starting with the opening of Paperfig, the owner Nawal Al Nuaimi finally found a place close to her home where she can launch her restaurant that used to be a thriving home business for a few years. The majority found this step quite courageous, given that the ecosystem in Sharjah back then didn’t encourage footfall at a lone restaurant in a new neighborhood. But like all successful businesswomen, Paperfig’s owner saw the potential other myopic vision people didn’t; the convenience of accessibility and reachability, which then started the trend of Muwailih district. A district filled with multiple cafes, restaurants, and shops serving the demographics surrounding the area of residential suburbs, a university city, and Al Zahia, an exclusive residential compound.

Simply stated, people need spaces where they can come together without the social decorum of work nor the routine of the home environment. It can come up as a park, a string of cafes, community malls, or even a walking/ running track that fits into the urban fabric of the city. The main ingredient of its success is its organic integration rather than the copy-paste masterplans of other countries that do not match our weather conditions nor social values. We are still at the tip of the iceberg in forming legislations that fosters an ecosystem that serves a busy economy.

Though there are many entities that were formed to support and equip SMEs to launch, but when it comes to setting up, there are still gaps in the environment that create hurdles in the form of permits and requirements, creating bureaucratic and financial challenges for the newly business owners. There are independent developments in Sharjah like Zawaya Walk, 06 Mall, and the many mini-malls, and Matajer chain, where places were being built that created spaces for people to start their businesses. This served the community in a massive way where the availability of third places multiplied and became within reachable distance, instead of a commute to neighboring emirates for this much-needed experience. However, it’s not yet possible to launch a business outside these specified independent developments in Sharjah. There is still extreme zoning codes that forbid businesses from opening in or near most suburban areas.

The local grocery store in my neighborhood has been asked to close down due to the new regulations that forbid groceries to function outside of retails spaces next to mosques. This very small simple example stands for what urban happiness needs, a glowing light in the middle of suburbia that sells basic goods that a household needs that can be walked to or have them delivered in three minutes instead of starting the car and driving ten minutes to the supermarket, find a parking, pick out the simple requirements, pay at the cashier then drive back. Imagine it being a café, printing shop, stationery store, or a bakery. How much easier would it be if these businesses could open in a suburb where there’s a high demand by big households on almost a daily basis.

All I am saying is that more leniencies should be implemented to serve urban happiness. I am a firm believer in a compact radius around one’s home that serves your daily needs and that can include a whole spectrum of life requirements. While that cannot be always controlled in terms of work and schooling, there’s no reason for it not to be enabled for third places.

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