URBAN SOCIAL SPACES: THE CASE OF TRADITIONAL SWAHILI TOWNS

ABSTRACT

Urban social spaces have been an integral part of cities throughout history. These spaces were major focal points where trade, politics, cultural
performances and socialisation took place. The nature and quality of these spaces is determined by the physical characteristics of their built environment
which is important in creating vibrant and pleasant spaces. In this thesis, the author presents a study on urban social spaces; the case of the streets,
squares and the waterfront found in the Swahili Old towns of Zanzibar, Lamu and Mombasa. The aim of the study was to draw valuable lessons from
these unique urban spaces. A review of the available literature was carried out whereby a brief synopsis of the globally known public/social spaces
throughout the historical times; medieval era, renaissance era and baroque period, was undertaken in order to bring forth the variations and similarities
of the social spaces of different traditional cities. This was followed by a critical examination of literature on how vernacular architecture connects
people to their surroundings in an infinite number of ways, the physical characteristics of these spaces, how they are used and perceived. The study
employed the case study method and made use of multiple research tools that entailed observation, interview, archival information and measurements
to establish the relationship between the physical characteristics and the social dimension of the Swahili old towns. Spatial analysis was employed
to examine the relationship between the urban space’s physical characteristics and the people’s activities; data on social interactions, social activities
and social networks was collected through observations, questionnaire surveys and from secondary data sources. Due to the influence of the Arab-
Islamic planning principles on Swahili architecture, a brief study of the planning principles on the urban social spaces of the Islamic world was carried
out to outline the similarities between the Swahili and Arabic-Islamic cities. It is clear that the urban social spaces of the traditional Swahili towns
have a certain spatial and built environmental characteristics that contribute to the liveliness of the area. The study findings indicate that the social
activities within an area depend on its location, connectivity to the urban fabric, the sense of enclosure, the activities in the surrounding buildings, the
quality of the edges defining the urban space and the micro-climatic parameters that would contribute to a thermally comfortable environment. The
study concludes by emphasizing that the design of these contemporary Swahili towns should consider the lessons learnt from the past at the time of
development or redevelopment. Taking account of inherent values of traditional urban forms will be a compliment to the modern planning and design
techniques and will facilitate creation of communities which are more socially sustainable.

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