PhD Profile: Razan Simbawa

Research Title and Summary: From One Slum to Another : A Journey of Understanding and Redefining Informal Districts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

At a time where Saudi Arabia undergoes many mega development plans, Jeddah, located in the western region of Saudi Arabia, continuously aims to adjust the urban development strategies in an attempt to accommodate the future vision of the country. However, it suffers from the increasing numbers of informal districts where it currently adds up to sixty-six documented informal districts. This built environment has been vulnerable to socio-cultural implications and considerable complications. The community in these areas suffer from lack of proper housing, amenities, water supply, safety, and basic accessible healthcare. Living in closed clusters depending on and not limited to ethnicity and affordability. Saudi and non-Saudi people have inhabited informal districts for generations. For many years, policy makers along with governmental officials have put in action strategies to infiltrate these zones and prevent the spread of this architecture scar. Consequently, a bird eye view of the situation with no consideration to the communities needs and struggles have led to two types of people: landowners who refused to move and low-income communities who relocated to other informal low-income areas. 

Previous research investigated the informal districts crises, the root cause, the history and possible solutions. However, this historical crisis still reoccurs today. The oil boom, the mega projects, the rise in population and cost of living all have aided in the process of replacing, reproducing these slums. This research will shed the light on previous reasons of the crisis, However, it aims to investigate the mechanism of the informal districts and characteristics influenced by the behavior of different sociocultural aspects and to identify the variables that define these areas in Jeddah. 

Aims and Objectives:

This research aims to reveal the actual characteristics of Jeddah’s informal districts highlighting the different building and spatial dimensions. It aims to layer the social, economic and space relations to highlight the consistent power of such districts and the growth of this particular economy and space. 

The architecture of these zones in Jeddah can be abstracted into many indicators that differ from one district to another despite the close distance they are from each other. Considerably, the urban fabric and socio-cultural characteristics also differ from one zone to another. This is an understanding on how housing conditions and living challenges implicate the socio-culture nature of inhabitants. The research is an empirical analysis of the factors influencing the social and cultural patterns affected by the built environment that aid in the occurrence and recurrence of informal districts. 

Many descriptions have been mentioned in research and media talking about the problem of slums. The root cause, the history and possible solutions. However, a historical issue still reoccurs today. The oil boom, the mega projects, the rise in population and cost of living all have aided in the process of replacing and reproducing these slums. This research does aim to extensively explore previous reasons of the crisis. It aims to investigate the mechanism of the informal districts and characteristics. The aims are as following: 

  • To research the history of the urban fabric and the development of the built environment of Jeddah.  
  • To research the history of the existence and recurrence of informal districts in Jeddah. 
  • To investigate the different types of informal districts in Jeddah. 
  • To examine the current situation and analyze the relationship between the city and informal districts.
  • To examine the inhibitors socio-cultural background and economic status. 
  • To define the characteristics of the informal districts’ built environment where they differ in terms of culture, architecture, and economy. 
  • To set new indicators that categorizes the districts based on physical and social differences according to the previous definition. 
  • To propose recommendations for new strategies to enhance the built environment to accommodate inhabitants needs 

Why did you pursue a PhD, and what made you choose University of Liverpool?

Honestly, I have never thought I would. In 2013 I finished my master’s degree in Sustainable Architecture from the Catholic University of America. I was very eager to start working in the field. I went back to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and worked at Dar Al-Hekma University as a lecturer, alongside I founded with my husband Vertix Design Studio where I worked as an Architect and Interior Designer. In 2017 I moved to teach at Jeddah University. I taught various subjects during my years at both universities such as design studios, sustainability, and computer aided design. Teaching was a very enriching experience and as a result I have been very enthusiastic about research and exploring new methods of developing the built environment. During COVID-19 lockdown, a worldwide crisis affecting humanity, I realized that the aftermath of this would lay within us for a very long periods of time. I started to research with my colleague Dr. Sherin Sameh, a former chair of the School of Architecture at Dar Al-Hekma University, about pandemic lockdowns and space layout in houses in Jeddah according to new resident’s needs. Research revealed how this pandemic affected the more vulnerable low-income society and how houses and neighborhoods were not equipped to deal with such events.

After exploring many prominent universities, I have chosen University of Liverpool because the School of Architecture is one of the excellent schools across the United Kingdom, and the areas of research I am interested in are compatible with the vision of the wonderful staff. Liverpool is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited in the UK, the very welcoming atmosphere and the beautiful architecture has made the decision much easier. 

What have you found the most fun part of the PhD, and the most challenging?

Exploring my city and meeting people from different backgrounds has been the most rewarding part of the PhD so far. Although I have lived most of my life in Jeddah, I had the chance of visiting areas for the first time. Seeing the city from a different point of view has been an eye-opening experience. 

The most challenging part has been starting my PhD online during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although e-learning has proved to be a revolutionary mechanism managing to bring people together in one room despite the physical distance, it has been challenging to build actual work/study relationships. As a new student, it takes time to be familiar with the new system and new instructors, nevertheless having to do it online made it challenging as there is limited time during online meetings and the importance of using that limited time effectively. However, I have been very fortunate that my supervisors have been very encouraging and supporting throughout time and I have been very motivated to work hard after each online meeting. 

Post-Phd? Any ideas of what you’d like to do next?

Although teaching has been a huge part of my career, I look forward to research further solutions for the constant rise in informal settlements in Saudi Arabia. I would like to effectively implement strategies that deal with such zones with consideration of the society living there. Finding sustainable solutions to eliminate such occurrences in the future for a more resilient country. I aim to influence and implement polices that would help mitigate this situation. 

Any advice for others interested in doing a PhD?

The dilemma I had in the past was constantly asking myself why do I want to do a PhD? Every time I thought about applying, I asked myself that, and only when I was able to answer I knew I was ready with a purpose. Don’t be afraid to be curious – the more you are – the better researcher you become. I have always seen myself since I started as more of an investigator researching for answers in the field. Choose a topic that you feel passionate about and do not be discouraged when you reach dead end, it just means there is an alternative road you need to take. Enjoy the journey. 

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