Hayi Al Maarifa Project, Part 1: Focus Group Discussion

Image credit: Shaharin Annisa

Author: Rowa Elzain

Since 2018 MCTSpaceLab has been working with the Hayi Al Maarifa community taking it as their pilot case-study. This community belongs to Al-Khoud 6, located in Muscat, Oman. As part of the initial testing phase of Hayi Al Maarifa - Public Space development Project, a focus group discussion (FGD) was carried out aiming to understand the acceptance level of the community towards developing their outdoor space along with identifying potential projects and their locations aimed towards this.

The target group of the focus group discussion (FGD) were women within the community. It took place on the 25th of March 2018 at the Community’s public hall in Al Khoud 6, marking the beginning of the participatory process. Seven participants from the community and three representatives from MCTspaceLab were part of the FGD.

Initial contact with members of the community was carried out during the summer of 2017 as part of the field research of a master thesis. MCTspaceLab thus started this event by presenting an outline of the study conducted on the urban development of the neighborhood along with the growing challenges as an introduction followed by the suggestions of tackling these issues.. The aim of the FGD was to create an awareness of the potential that the public spaces within the community held. Furthermore, it aimed to bring to light several possible means of enhancing and using the public space within their community. Thus, various scenarios of enhanced public space development were outlined by MCTspaceLab to the participants.

(Further information on the tool- Focus group discussion available here)

Image credit: Shaharin Annisa

Introduction to the Research
The presentation began with an overview of the urban development of khoud 6 from 2009 till 2016, followed by a current research (Urban Oman, 2016) that analyzed and documented Muscat’s horizontal urban development. This was followed by presenting the master thesis output conducted by Rowa Elzain in 2017. The master thesis, which acts as the base of MCTSpaceLabs work, considered public spaces within two neighborhoods, Khoud 6 and Al Mouj, covering three main parameters for the analysis of both neighborhoods: Thoughts, movement, and traces. With those three parameters, the outcome of the research concluded that there was a high level of sense of community within Khoud 6 although they lacked the ‘traditional’ formats for public space gatherings such as parks and pedestrian pathways.

Thus using a framework that looked at the various aspects of public space development (considering social, environmental, and economic aspects), the set of proposed project scenarios were outlined in two hierarchy: awareness level and policy level. MCTspaceLab focused on five project scenarios within the awareness level, understanding the limitation hitherto of legislative structures in independent and small research projects.

The Proposal
The aim is to introduce potential participatory planning within a community level by social empowerment through upgrading their urban surroundings. Rather than focusing on the output of new upgraded public spaces, our emphasis was on building an exchange process that would focus on and strive to enhance the urban environment. Hence, the long-term objective is to encourage the community to take up the initiative in upgrading their neighborhood along with activating their role.Our work is aimed at delivering simple but high quality outcomes that are underpinned by a well-thought through development rationale (i.e. development framework).

The project selected for implementation in aim of upgrading the public spaces within neighborhoods assure the following : improvement of qualities of public space, accompanied by the integration and activation of the community and economies within these space, and finally spreading the awareness on public urban space upgrade possibilities and potential within a regional level with diverse stakeholders such decision makers, residents and urban designers. These projects are: A tree/house, supermart on wheels, Al Tareeq, iFurniture, and Hai Al Ma’rifa Bus stop.

Image credit: Rowa Elzain

1- A Tree per House (for a greener neighbourhood): 
Due to the issues of poorly maintained or non-existent pedestrian pathways, currently there are no existing safe pedestrian routes within the neighborhood in Al Khoud 6, in addition to the lack of shade within public spaces. The pedestrian realm is poorly defined due to uneven footpaths that are interrupted by formal and informal parking. Unorganized car parking does not identify segregated areas for pedestrians and cars which is a safety issue. The vision of this project scenario is retaining the urban characteristics as much as possible to safeguard community identity and sense of place through shaded park, shaded pathways and better micro climate. The long term aim is to provide the opportunity to develop high-quality public space in the neighborhood promoting linkages of one space to another. The primary objective of the project is to plant alongside the street which in order creates human scale pedestrian feeling. This provides shaded public spaces within the neighborhoods using local trees. A secondary object is to improve the quality of public space at front doors/threshold, gathering spaces and parks at neighborhood level which creates a legible neighborhood that is safe, connected and relatively private.

2- Supermart on wheels (a pop up market):

The current urban fabric of the new neighborhoods are based on single-use and low density distribution of plots. Hence, housing neighborhoods often offer few commercial facilities in centralized locations which are disconnected from the housing either through fast roads, geographic boundaries, or lack of urban connectivity. This issue is directly influencing the walkability to the commercial centers. Furthermore, it affects the safety of the children, and immigrant labor that work and live on construction sites within the neighborhood, as they have to bear the warm weather that the road surfaces impose on the microclimate and the fast traffic movements. Hence, the vision of the ‘Supermart on wheels’ is to provide decentralized commercial nodes within existing neighborhoods for the permanent and temporary residents. The long term goal of the ‘Supermart on wheels’ focuses on establishing alternative forms of commercial facilities within existing neighborhoods in aim of achieving a decentralized distribution commercial nodes. The targeted group for this project are the women along with business owners living within the neighborhood. The primary objective of this project is to introduce a mobile commercial shop that reflects the gaps of missing facilities within existing neighborhoods. In addition, a secondary objective is to spread the awareness of the possibility available on activating the public spaces through activities that could enhance the daily lives.

3- Al Tareeq (a connection to the Wadi): 
As the housing expansion takes over the buildable land of Muscat, many neighborhoods are allocated within close proximity to natural borders that are neglected and eventually become natural dividers of neighborhoods within the city. In the case of Al Khoud 6, the neighborhood is surrounded from two sides with main roads while the third is defined by natural seasonal wadi that divides Al Khoud 6 and Ma’bilah neighborhood. The main issue is the division which is usually considered as the backyard of the neighborhood where vandalism occurs or attracts external individuals out of the community for doing unfavorable activities. Hence, threating these potential spaces and activating them might lead to reclaiming unfavored land and enhancing the connection between the neighborhoods. Therefore, Al Tareeq’s vision is to establish physical links between neighborhoods which are initiated and constructed by the communities living within. The long term aim of the project is promoting walkability through a network of pathways, playgrounds, and other facilities within the neighborhood and it’s surrounding. The community’s role is a vital aspect hence high level of participation and involvement is required. The targeted group for the Al Tareeq project is families with a focus on the youth as common users of the path. The primary object of the project is to provide a path that connects the neighborhood to the lower bed on the Wadi that borders its northern side. In addition, educating the community on the possibilities of using simple natural materials for upgrading their urban landscapes. A secondary objective is to initiate a discussion with the community on the possibilities of intervening and shaping their neighborhood according to their needs and requirements.

4- iFurniture (UPcycled playground furniture): 
As most of the neighborhoods on the western side of Muscat are considered areas for development, the urban context is often filled with construction material, trucks, garbage bags of used cement. As this describes the issue of the actual norm where children play and families walk, thinking of an upcycling activity to assist the community with improving their urban environment is essential. Hence this project's vision is to assure a clean environment and a child safe environment where the long term aim is to have trash as no longer wasted but upcycling material in the aim of developing the neighborhood. The iFurniture’s primary objective is to use waste material from construction sites and recycling them in the making of playground furniture that could be placed anywhere within the neighborhood. A secondary objective is to spread awareness of the possibilities of upgrading waste material for development purposes.

5- Hai Al Ma’rifa Bus stop (momentary shelter in the heat): 

As the new bus system started operating recently in the year 2016, new lanes of connections grew, thus, Al Khoud 6 is now one of the neighborhoods that has a bus stop that is near the borders of the area. The issue is the lack of shade under the hot and arid climate that makes the waiting period of 20 minutes between every bus, highly unbearable. Therefore, the project's vision is to have a walkable community that is friendly to its pedestrians and waiting passengers. The long term aim is to provide a network of shaded bus stops for the individuals within the community who can only afford the public transportation. The primary objective of the project is to provide shaded spaces for the pedestrian to wait, but also encourage the community to start taking care of their less advantaged individuals or even temporary residents.

The Discussion and Evaluation of Proposals
Does the proposed projects reflect the needs of the neighborhood? ( 1 Strongly agree - 5 strongly disagree)

Is the development of the public space a priority for the neighborhood? ( 1 Strongly agree - 5 strongly disagree)
Are there sufficient play areas for children within the neighborhood? ( 1 Strongly agree - 5 strongly disagree)

Are the streets within the neighborhood safe for pedestrians? ( 1 Strongly agree - 5 strongly disagree)

Although there was a discussion with the presenter and the focus group during the presentation of the proposal, it was crucial to open a discussion with the attending member in an informal manner. Hence, the attending members were invited to rate the proposals independently and exchange thoughts within their groups. With three voting rights, the members rated the five outlined proposals based on highest relevance to the neighborhood current needs. The three selected proposals were Al Tareeq, Playground, and Hayi Al Maarifa Bus stop.

Furthermore, it was also relevant to hear from the individuals out of the focus group discussion in order to triangulate the results from the focus group discussion and presentation. Hence, an online survey was sent to the attending participants to gather further information on needs and priorities.

The conclusion of the online survey exhibits the high level of concerns in regards to public spaces that are suitable for children within the neighborhood and safety of routes within the neighborhood. In addition, a short reflect of the proposed project outlines the relevance and potential these projects have on the development of public space within Khoud 6.

The informal structure of the focus group discussion was successful as a first step in creating a dialogue with a community where feedback and suggestions were encouraged. It supported in building trust with the community and in bringing them closer to MCT spaceLabs' initiative. The quality of the selection of projects raised awareness within few other members of the community and a strategy was outlined to spread the awareness of public space qualities further and gather further information from various other members of the community. This first FGD thus resulted in successfully identifying a project proposal that served the community’s interest. Additionally, it also served a stepping stone to two more workshops that were carried out on the demand/need of the community. The target group of the two preceding workshops were young female and male members of the community.

(further information for design and wood workshop available here).