Arabic Lines by Canadian Hands

Urban growth is happening in every corner of the world, not just those parts that seem to dominate the headlines. According to the World Bank, the Middle East North Africa Region has one of the world’s most rapidly expanding populations, and urban areas have been the primary locus of this growth, as urban share of total population is expected to exceed 70 per cent by 2015 (against an average of 54 per cent for all developing countries). 

Growth is happening globally, and responses to it are equally global. For example, a joint venture formed by Québec-based multidisciplinary firms Exp and Lemay recently won an international competition launched by the Agence de gestion et de régulation foncière urbaine de la Wilaya de Constantine in Algeria, aimed at the development of a major new growth hub in the city of Constantine, 431 kilometres east of Algiers.

The future area of El-Menia will be a multifunctional and autonomous urban agglomeration on a 47-hectare plateau directly in front of Constantine. With a price tag of approximately $2.4 billion, including $1.57 billion devoted to the residential sector, the mandate involves the planning and development of a new neighbourhood to house more than 20,000 residents in 6,500 to 7,500 housing units. Major infrastructure such as potable water and electricity will be serviced from the main city, and while there will be no major structures like hospitals, local amenities are being designed to all be within a walkable radius. These include schools, daycares, mosques, clinics, a small police station, municipal offices, recreational buildings, and commercial spaces such as a large retail mall and an open-air market along the main thoroughfare.

Blank Slate and New Realities

Defining growth is a tricky thing, but certain characteristics seem to be consistent around the world, and one of them is the rise of a new middle class. And what this class wants has a profound effect on new urban development. “The recurring desire of the new bourgeoisie in Algeria to own cars and to break away from the traditional way of life [is a] phenomenon that translates into new Algerian towns which tend to adopt Western patterns, such as isolated mansions on manicured lawns, mono-functional suburban neighbourhoods deprived of services or amenities, and a strong dependence on the automobile for movement,” observes Michel Lauzon, partner, chief creative officer and director of urban design at Lemay. “This is a heavy trend in North Africa and in most emerging economies of the Middle East where there is a symbolic need of the middle class to adopt a stereotyped Western lifestyle, even if this lifestyle breaks with their own traditions and is a proven ecological disaster.”

The El-Menia proposal addresses the need for cars and modern living through what Lauzon calls a “hybrid solution” that integrates traditional patterns of living with an efficient road system and ample underground parking, “but this network is subdued and is visually treated as secondary to the pedestrian realm and the collective green spaces in our design which are the dominant features of the master plan,” he says. This green mandate has also integrated spaces designed to promote urban agriculture inside the city to reduce the dependence on imported food while supporting a local industry. Also woven into the program is the potential for photovoltaic solar energy, wind turbines and geothermal systems.

El-Menia will be serviced by an electric bus line through four residential quadrants and connected along the main thoroughfare to the public transit system of Constantine. And because of impassable chasms that separate certain parts of the city, a gondola system widely used and understood in Constantine will connect the main plaza at the eastern edge with the valley below and the Old City above.

Modernity and Heritage

Urban growth may be global, but the ways in which people occupy territory is what ultimately makes it unique. “There is a common denominator in all our urban designs in that we try to understand the underlying meaning, to extract the essence of what is important for a specific people in a specific region,” says Lauzon. “We then try to focus on these traits and translate them in new forms and solutions in order to generate new meaning and news ways of answering current needs. We often find that these archetypes are remarkably resilient to new uses, functions and technologies.”

In the case of El-Menia, the design team was inspired by the traditional Maghrebian courtyard. At the centre of the medinas and Arab towns of North Africa for many centuries, the concept reflects the cultural characteristics of the landscapes and integrates a clear hierarchy between dualities such as private and public spaces, openness and privacy, family and community, or the hot climate and cool nights. This duality has become the building block of the plan, mediating between past and present and bringing continuity within the cultural framework, “instead of promoting brutal change,” says Lauzon. Building a modern community around the courtyard typology creates a pattern that is familiar to every Algerian. “However, we have enlarged the scale of the traditional courtyard in order to accommodate modern needs such as vehicular access, security and accessibility, the need for collective and recreational space and the required urban density.”

Grouping the courtyards into four residential quadrants is what comprises the main body of the neighbourhood.  Additionally, by using elevation changes caused by the mountains and dramatic landscape, the design creates zones of variable density. “By applying different mean heights along the site slope we have managed to accommodate increasing density without changing the basic layout of the city,” says Lauzon.

Currently the team of Exp and Lemay are in the detailed master planning stage, starting with the public domain, residential lots and zoning, with a goal of going to tender in 2014 for the residential components. Which means in 10 years the suburbs of Constantine will have been touched by the maple leaf.

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