Socially sustainable neighbourhoods in Algiers
: the reinterpretation of El Houma as an alternative to neighbourhood models of globalisation

  • Mohamed Yazid Khemri

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


At a time of uncontrolled urbanisation and globalisation, cities are rapidly expanding to accommodate the increasing number of people and infrastructures, often neglecting human scale and leaving little or no place for community life to thrive. This has been facilitated by the Modern Movement which has inspired mass housing and gated communities and caused spaces to be empty and lifeless. The determinist interpretation of the Modern Movement has impoverished the relationships with past urban spaces, which were based on traditions and social interactions, and promoted urban models that have often disrupted the local lifestyle, character and spirit of culturally rooted spaces.
The city of Algiers represents a significant example of the clash between the Modern Movement and the organicity of urban spaces designed according to local socio-cultural values. Therefore, the present thesis aims to explore the potential contribution of El Houma to achieve socially sustainable neighbourhoods in Algiers, through studying the relationship between social behaviour and the built environment.
El Houma is a term used in Algeria, and in the Maghreb, to indicate a neighbourhood or urban area characterised by the strong social sustainability and organic urban life that emerge from frequent and sustainable social use of the urban landscape. This thesis relies on understanding and reinterpreting the underlying principles of El Houma to inspire solutions to the shortcomings of current planning approaches that have led to lifeless urban spaces and social and spatial segregation within the city of Algiers.
The current thesis follows a compilation style. Thus, in addition to the introduction and general conclusion, the thesis consists of five papers that explain and provide evidence of the complex and versatile nature of El Houma in regard to different dimensions and facets of the urban landscape, and its potential contribution to the resilience of neighbourhoods.
The thesis will explore the symbiotic relationship between El Houma and
sustainability, informality, urban resilience, inclusiveness, socio-cultural way of life
and social behaviour, and architecture and urban forms.
The study of El Houma will systemise the existing literature review and emphasise findings of previous key planners and researchers regarding the significant contribution of social use of urban space and urban life in achieving resilient urban environments. This thesis argues that the resilience of urban forms is achieved and evaluated by their capabilities to promote and maintain a social use of urban space while producing organic urban life in different spaces of the neighbourhood. The thesis focuses on three selected neighbourhoods in Algiers that represent three influential urban models, which are the medieval medina, the 19th century bourgeois city and the Modern Movement, represented in the Casbah, Bab El Oued and Cité Belle Vue Ain Benian, respectively. The selection of three different neighbourhoods will allow the analysis of the relationship between the physical design and social behaviour in three different urban settings.
From the outset of this thesis, the investigation will be based on a people-centric approach through studying and observing people’s behaviour in urban spaces, in order to understand people’s way of life, needs and aspirations which form the basis of recommendations for the design of future responsive and socially sustainable neighbourhoods. The thesis relies on mixed methods and various strategies, which include literature review (historic, systematic and thematic), case study analysis, activity mapping (snapshot observations), and urban morphological analysis.
The first paper of the thesis (Chapter 2) focuses on Algiers as a paradigmatic case study and sets out the overall aims and objectives of the research. It demonstrates how social use of urban space is an indicator of social sustainability and resilience and uses El Houma as a measurement dimension of the resilience of urban forms in the three selected neighbourhoods. Next, a more in-depth investigation on the failures of globalisation and modernism is provided in the second paper (Chapter 3), which explores the negative repercussions of globalisation and determinism of the modernisation and identifies their recurrent failures, which led to empty and lifeless urban spaces in developing countries.
Away from the inertia of conformist urbanism, the third paper (Chapter 4) explores the heuristic potential of transdisciplinary researches on biology of evolution, architecture and urban planning, aiming to provide a new and creative way of reading the city, by considering the different facets of the urban landscape like informality, social sustainability and urban resilience.
The fourth paper (Chapter 5) deepens the research into urban informality and explores the relationship between informal urban practices and community resilience, by investigating how social use of space promotes individuals’ feeling of social cohesion, sense of belonging, trust and solidarity, which, in turn, allows residents to collaborate and react to their daily challenges.
The fifth paper (Chapter 6) provides further review of the literature regarding social use of urban space and its contribution to liveliness and urban social sustainability, while demonstrating how placemaking contributes to social sustainability and community resilience.
The findings of the research outline the different design features of the neighbourhoods that promote El Houma with the aim to reinvent such concept to design socially sustainable neighbourhoods. Additionally, they highlight the creative and unexpected pattern of social use of urban space and how it is influenced by the quality of the built environment. The thesis adds further arguments to the existing knowledge regarding the unsuitability of modernist neighbourhoods to local socio-cultural way of life in comparison with the traditional medieval and 19th century urban planning models. The findings also demonstrate the importance of social use of urban space in achieving urban resilience, through exploring the potential synergies between informality, urban social sustainability and urban forms.
Date of AwardNov 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorAlessandro Melis (Supervisor), Fabiano Lemes De Oliveira (Supervisor) & Silvio Caputo (Supervisor)

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