The Bartlett School of Architecture


Olivia Duncan

Image: An Indigenous Model?, 2021, Olivia Duncan



An Indigenous Model? Inclusive and Culturally Sensitive Participatory Practices in Urban Development in UAE

First and second supervisors

  • Dr Clare Melhuish
  • Dr Barbara Lipietz
  • Dr Anke Reichenbach (UAE-based external supervisor)


The aim of this dissertation is to examine how the Indigenous Emirati female population of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have coped with the rapid urbanisation and subsequent restructuring of their lives, lands, and the relationship to their environment, as well as their understanding of their own identity in this changing urban context.

This study focuses on how and where the Emirati women lived in Abu Dhabi, from the discovery of oil in 1958 until the end of the 20th century. While substantial scholarly attention has been given to the rapid ‘rag to riches’ aspect of Abu Dhabi’s urbanisation, their accounts appear to have focus on the glorification of UAE’s prompt adoption of Western infrastructure-building technologies and architectural prototypes.

The contemporary Constitution of the UAE maintains the principle of equal treatment of all citizens; however, it contains references that predominantly identify Emirati women as – first and foremost – wives and mothers.

The key inquiry that guides this dissertation consists of questions around the effects of fast urbanisation, learning from Indigenous women’s wisdom, indigenous belonging, identity and developing responses to constructed postcolonial environments.


Olivia Duncan is an architect and urbanist holding a Sustainable Urban Development MSc from Oxford University, and is now a PhD Candidate at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture on a remote and part-time basis.  She has dedicated the last twelve years of her career to the Abu Dhabi government, serving multiple sectors at the Department of Municipalities and Transport and is currently part of Department of Municipalities and Transport’s Urban Design Studio working on a variety of urban and strategic assignments. Olivia has also been lecturing in parallel to her practice work. Prior to her experience in the UAE, Olivia worked with architects in New Zealand, Australia, and Brazil.

More informatinon

Image: An Indigenous Model?, 2021, Olivia Duncan