Friday, 11 January 2008

Conservation Areas in Bahrain

I've just been to Arad Fort lately and the visit got me thinking about some series issues in planning in Bahrain that are worth studying.

A "conservation area" is an area with a special architectural or historic interest. They range from natural spaces such as a park or a beach to urban centers of cities and towns. The goal of such areas is not limited to preserving specific buildings in it, it is intended to preserve and enhance the features of the whole neighborhood area including roads and street furniture.In the UK, the concept of conservation areas began in 1967 and there are around 8000 conservation areas today. Local authorities (which would be the equivalent to municipalities in Bahrain) have the power to designate those areas. They also have controls over demolition, development and greenery. This means that conservation areas are not forbidden from development and by no means are they supposed to be inhabitable for the sake of protecting the area. But controlled development will enhance and improve the area and at the same time preserve its architectural or historic significance thus achieving an equilibrium.

In addition to "conservation areas", there are "listed buildings" which are buildings that shows architectural characteristics which belong to a significant historical period. Even though they come in different categories depending on their value, the local authorities hove control over any change in all listed buildings even if they are privately owned. Any alteration, extension or demolition must be approved by the local authority after ensuring that the changes will not affect the significance of the building. There are some bridges and monuments that are listed as well as buildings, and the list contains around 400,000 entries.

Conservation areas and listed buildings are important planning regulations that are highly regarded in the UK, and visiting Arad Castle made me think how could people who are so attached to their history and cultural traditions allow historic areas and buildings to get destroyed to make way for new developments.

Perhaps a good example of that is the Financial Harbour which completely erased any trace of what used to be one of the main ports in Bahrain also called "El Fortha". Even though the port was gone long before the Financial Harbour came, I would have thought that retracing the original port, enhancing it and creating a landmark out of it that would celebrate and embrace its history could have been a great project. Don't get me wrong I am not totally against the Financial Harbour and do acquire some taste to it. But I think there could have been another option of creating a landmark which is both financially beneficial and culturally significant at the same time.

From what I heard, and I admit that I do lack knowledge in this issue, regulations that were very similar to the concepts of conservation areas do exist. Currently there are three conservation areas which are Tubli Bay, Hawar Islands, and Al-Areen Wildlife park. In addition there is Qal'at al-Bahrain which is included in UNESCO World Heritage List. However, conservation areas should not be limited to natural spaces and archaeological sites but also include old neighborhoods (ferjan) along with other significant sites that have special cultural characteristics. There are individual efforts to preserve some houses but I don't see a clear plan to bring all those important projects together. Besides I remember when the governor of Muharraq (the city which has most traditional houses in Bahrain) wanted to stop building new towers in old Muharraq Neighborhoods to preserve its traditional characteristic, people accused him that he doesn't want Muharraq to be developed like other cities. I guess the idea of being the center of the universe is an idea established in a lot of people's head. Thus they show disregard to the neighborhood and environment and go on doing whatever they want without thinking for a second about the effect and consequences their actions have on others.

I remember this scene in one of the best Arabic TV series that I saw which was Bab Al Hara 2. In this scene there was this man who wanted to build a room in his house for his newly wedded son. He wanted the room to be separate from the house and accessible from the street, so he decided to build a new door. The new door was going to be in front of his neighbor's door. The neighbor is an extremely conservative man and strongly objected on building a new door in front of his. He said that he has many young girls and he doesn't want a stranger accidentally seeing one of his daughters without the hijab or wearing inappropriate clothes, and for this very reason he bought the house because there were no doors or windows in from of his. The man took it personally and was insulted by the neighbor's actions, after all he is an honorable man who respects his neighbors' privacy and so is his son. Yet the neighbor insisted that no door should be built in front of his, and so they got into a fight. After others mediating between the two, the man decided not to build the door respecting his neighbor's wishes even though it is his home and he is free to do whatever he wants with it.

Even though the situation was an extreme one, my point is that neighbors should always consider the consequences of their actions on their neighbors. I doubt that such values would be as common in our society today. I leave you with this picture of Arad Fort, now I have nothing personally against the guy who owns the villa or whatever it is on the left, but the area around the fort should be a conservation area to protect and preserve the view of the fort. I think there should be a continuous line of palm trees and greenery surrounding the fort to isolate it from any modern development, thus creating a sense of going back in time when visiting the site.

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