Urban transition in the Middle East

A multidisciplinary and multidimensional framework for study of urban transition

Urban areas face global challenges not only due to climate change but also due to the continued immigration and densification of residential areas, infrastructure problems, and socioeconomic upheavals. Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is home to about 357 million people, and the urban population grew four times from 1970 to 2010. By 2050 it will encompass about 400 million people. The urban migration is driven by several processes such as economic development, migration from rural areas, and recently, massive displacement of people due to war and conflict (Serageldin et al., 2014).

Urban areas can generate employments and income, supply education, health care and other services, and present opportunities for social mobilization and women's empowerment. However, they also experience social and environmental problems, especially in times of great migration. At present, poverty is growing faster in urban than in rural areas. UN has estimated the one billion people live in urban slums. These are typically overcrowded, polluted, and dangerous, and lack basic services such as clean water and sanitation (UN Habitat, 2016). They are also ethnically, religiously, and culturally highly diverse and suffer from concentrated poverty, high unemployment rates, and recurring violence. Continuous inflow of refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and migrants exacerbate these conditions, as individuals and groups compete for access to limited urban services and resources. Thus, rising social tensions and decreasing social cohesion threaten the stability, and in turn the sustainability and social cohesion of the cities (Brown and Zahar, 2015; Cox and Sisk 2016).

Urban Transition in the Middle East is a major international research effort to study sustainable city development from a multidisciplinary viewpoint. The objective of the project is to yield not only reliable and relevant information about immigration but also to serve as an instructive model for the engagement of the external research community in policy-research. To our knowledge, no study has focused research on urban processes in the Middle East from a holistic and multidisciplinary viewpoint taking the rapid transition and migratory forces into consideration. This is especially noteworthy since the migratory forces will affect all major urban centers in Europe.

The project formulates a multidisciplinary and multidimensional framework for study of urban transition. The study takes its start in global issues of climate change and sustainable living conditions. Thus, four research questions have been formulated:

- how to improve the overall environment and sustainable development of urban areas in strong transition?

The objective is to put urban/rural land, water, and energy management and effects on the environment in a holistic sustainability perspective considering social and economic development. Linked with these sustainability issues is:

- how social development and democratization can be improved in the urban setting?

This question includes dynamics of transnational democracy promotion, the interplay between religion and democracy, the role of domestic political institutions, the relationship between technology and democratization, the nexus between democratization and healthy societies, and the politics of everyday life. In this context, the question of:

- how to relieve effects of urban migration, safeguard multicultural societies, and minorities in the transition?

includes interdisciplinary studies of ethnic relations and processes in multicultural societies and cultural and societal effects of international migration. Finally, the question:

- how religion forms urban identity?

seeks to link religion, culture, history, and society in the Middle East. The starting point is ordinary people, daily life, religion, and popular culture.

As understood from the above, all four research questions are intimately linked and depend on each other. Thus, even though the research questions are formulated as four items, they are in effect one.

Urban transition in the Middle East will function as an umbrella project to produce knowledge on urban transition. At present, the following research is being carried out within the framework of the above project: Everyday Life in the Middle East: A multidisciplinary study of urban integration and change in two neighbourhoods: Herrgården in Malmö, Sweden and Al-Thawra al-Arabiyya in al-Zarqa, Jordan.

Project coordinators: Stefan Larsson, Vittorio Felci and Darcy Thompson