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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. 

A number of new PhD researchers have joined us in the last 12 months, and we’d like to make some introductions.

Name: Noor J. Ragaban

Research Title and Summary: How the Home Works: The lived-in experience | A Case Study of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
The research aims to decentre the position of architects and convention that places architecturally designed elements as the primary components . It considers users as a major element in redefining architecture.
The study focuses on the city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. There is a scarcity of studies in this region that examines the interior domain of the dwelling.

The project seeks to answer the following questions: how do families in Jeddah live? Does the architecture reflect their lifestyle, or is there a conflict or tussle between the built fabric and lifestyle? How do the homes ‘work’; which family members occupy which parts of the house, how are the houses decorated, embellished, and furnished? And why?

The interest in domestic architecture stems from the various tangible and intangible practices that the home enshrines. This is especially important in cities like Jeddah where a broad spectrum of genres de vie are found, and are only observed (and even visible) when one is socially immersed in the community. The existing cultural diversity of Saudis in this city is the result of two major migration phases that occurred due to the city’s strategic geographical location. The first phase took place before the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and was a result of pilgrims visiting the Islamic holy cities of Makkah and al-Madinah, as well as traders from all over the world exploiting the coastal position between Europe and the East. The second wave took place after the unification of the Kingdom (a prolonged process that was only resolved in 1932) and the discovery of oil, which attracted major migration and rapid expansion to the city.
The study investigates two of the most common types of dwellings in Jeddah, namely flats and villas (based on the 2019 Saudi General Authority of Statistics survey). It targets a wide range of participants, 30-90 year old males and females who live with their families. Emphasizing the users’ experience, the research deploys a number of qualitative methods such as semi-structured interviews; observation; auto-photography and mapping, and architectural survey of the domestic properties. Through these methods a number of common and intertwined sociocultural values can be scrutinised to understand notions of family, privacy, and hospitality.

Aims and Objectives:

1-     Explore and describe the various domestic lifestyles of Jeddawis.
2-     Identify the architectural elements of Saudi houses in Jeddah.
3-     Analyse the tangible and intangible effects of the architectural elements on the domestic life of Jeddawis, looking into three intertwined sociocultural aspects: family, hospitality and privacy.
4-     Analyse the physical and non-physical effects of the sociocultural aspects on domestic architecture.
5-     Develop customised qualitative data collection methods to suite the culture and the private researched domain.
6-     Document the diverse users’ lived-in experience.

What did you do before the PhD Research?
After completing my B.A. in Interior Design in 2008 at Dar al-Hekma University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I have worked as an interior designer for 9 months at C1, a workplace specialized architecture firm. In 2009 I decided to go to the UK for further studies and was able to successfully complete an M.A. in Architectural and Urban Studies in 2011 at the University of Brighton, United Kingdom.
From 2011–2018 I have been working as a lecturer in the Architecture department at Dar al-Hekma University, where I have taught several courses ranging from foundation courses to advanced studios, and theoretical courses. In 2015, I have also taught in the Interior Design department for two semesters. From 2018 –2019 I have taught in the Interior Design department at King Abdulaziz University, College of Art and Design in Jeddah, SA.
During summer breaks, since 2011, I have yearly enrolled in architecture and urban studies courses that focuses on culture, all of which took place in Germany and Austria. As my interest grew stronger in culture, I started learning the German language while in Germany. During the summers of 2017-2019 I also took a number of art courses while in Turkey to explore new mediums and experience the culture in an artistic environment.
In parallel with my academic career, and as part of community service that have always complemented my career and personal life, art education was on my agenda. From 2012–2017 I have taught drawing to autistic children in one to one sessions.
Recently in 2019, I have volunteered to work at Verve Studio, SA, in hope to contribute the art scene in Jeddah. For six months, as an art director, I have curated their first exhibition; set up sculpting and drawing course plans; and taught drawing courses.

Why did you pursue a PhD, and what made you choose University of Liverpool?
My graduate studies and the summer courses have exposed me to several culture-related topics that encouraged me to observe spaces and users simultaneously, to find out how they affect each other. My interest developed to observing family activities in different environments, often houses. There I noted a number of dissatisfactory remarks on both the architecture and lifestyle, that were sometimes merged with nostalgic comments. Considering how varied the dwellings types are today, I started reading about traditional dwellings to form a comparison between life in both architectures. That was when I realised that research on Jeddah traditional dwellings have studied the architecture only, excluding the users; also, there was no recent research that discusses inhabitants life within contemporary houses. Thus, I have decided to feed my curiosity and contribute to knowledge through pursuing my PhD, in hope that a close understanding of Jeddawis home use will eventually result in user-friendly homes, besides documenting the unique private environments experience.

Why I chose the University of Liverpool- After carrying out an extensive research into a number of prestigious and top ranking universities, I have selected the University of Liverpool for a number of reasons. Number one, the diversity of international students and the welcoming supportive environment the university provides for them. Its genuine care about academics and interpersonal skills progress and development of its students, as well as their wellbeing rendered a positive environment where I saw an opportunity to grow and succeed.
Number two, the broad spectrum of conducted research subjects and interests, not only collectively across the School of Architecture, but also of each faculty member. Which for me is an important factor as it allows further exploration and investigation of new areas beyond expectations.
Number three, I believe the University of Liverpool will help me achieve my long-term goal in Saudi as a young female. Due to its long history and record of achievement, the university is one of the most reputable universities amongst Saudis, and is acknowledged by the Saudi Ministry of Education, making it highly respected in the industry as well as academia.

What have you found the most fun part of the PhD, and the most challenging?
What I have found truly fun about the PhD is involving participants and acquiring information from them, as opposed to relying solely on  literature. The interviews, focused on the lifestyles within dwellings, allowed a significant number of questions to be asked. Questions that I could not ask in a normal conversation (or otherwise be called nosy and ill-mannered!) Similarly are the observations, where as a researcher I was welcome to scrutinise homes, viewing rooms I might have never seen under any other circumstances.
Equally, that was also one of the most challenging aspects. Even though all participants fall under the umbrella of Saudis living in Jeddah, that did not mean they were all the same, especially in regard to their little private kingdoms. Thus, constantly considering how and when to inquire about an information, without giving the impression of prying, was quite challenging. Another challenge is acquiring data from government sources and architectural offices in Saudi.
The lockdown, I must admit, was quite challenging at first, having lost the work dedicated space -campus office- and the idea of being forced to stay home. However, that soon became yet another part that I have found quite pleasant. It provided me unlimited reading and working dedicated time, especially that I am on my own. Such a joyful productive solitude.

Post-Phd? Any ideas of what you’d like to do next?
I am fortunate enough to have a job to go to back home, teaching at King Abdulaziz University, where I plan to return in order to continue working on my proposal of improvements in the university. Alongside, as a Saudi university faculty member, I plan to become a member of the Saudi Building Code National Committee, in hope to take part in informing policies and decision making. I’d like to achieve this goal before going back home.

Any advice for others interested in doing a PhD?
While the right time and perfect opportunity maybe motivating factors to pursue a PhD, I’d personally recommend to only start once having found the right subject. It needs to be a subject that you’re truly passionate about, and are willing to commit to for a long period of time (rather than only doing PhD for the sake of it). I would also add that the topic, or the interest indeed, should be initially broad. A broad interest will allow endless possibilities of focuses for the researcher to choose from, which certainly requires the student to be fixable and open to explore new spheres within their area of interest.