Between the buildings

A new appreciation of open space and green design is changing the face of landscaping in the UAE.
By Middle East Architect Staff Writer
Mon 10 May 2010 04:00 AM

A new appreciation of open space and green design is changing the face of landscaping in the UAE.

It is a fact of life that the car is king in many Middle Eastern cities, and while tree-lined highways and public parks do exist, much of the region's landscape architecture has been designed to be viewed through car windows.

It is not only breakneck development that is to blame for the region's lack of well-designed open space, it is the climate too. After all, sitting outside is not very agreeable in 50 degree heat, and it was inevitable that air-conditioned passages would take precedence over open air walkways.

But this situation is changing, and new projects in the United Arab Emirates seem to be paving the way for an increasing awareness of the role of open space. Architects seem to be attempting to join up cities that have so far been orientated around individual structures and roads.

Peter Sheard, senior associate at Gensler London, was one of the landscape architects involved in the Dubai International Finance Centre, a good example of a well-landscaped development in the city. Unlike so many areas of downtown Dubai, pedestrians are able to easily walk between the DIFC's network of offices, retail outlets and restaurants and cafes.

The DIFC is almost eerie for its lack of cars and street noise, and Sheard believes this makes it one of very few developments in the Middle East that is both workable and enjoyable at the same time.

"It works on two different levels. The central spine allows people to get through that whole area during the less tolerable summer months, and during the winter they can walk around outside in a traffic free pedestrian area," Sheard said.

"It is a design that is very much based on the idea of pedestrian connectivity. We wanted to find a way of moving between these structures in a way that is comfortable."

Sheard points out that in so much of the Middle East landscape is not designed to be usable, in fact it plays a very superficial role in urban planning, particularly in the UAE.

"If you look at a lot of the landscape work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai it is of a high quality, but at the end of the day you just wonder what it is all for. It is actually designed to be viewed from a car; it's just eye-wash," he said.

"We could do what we did with the DIFC because the client was convinced that you had to create a workable area or it wouldn't attract people. If you create an environment that is car dependant then you are immediately hamstrung."

This is sentiment that, while new in Dubai, is being embraced in Abu Dhabi, where landscaping and joined up master-planning has formed a major part of the emirate's 2030 redevelopment plan. The recent design brief for the Al Bateen Marina, for example, demanded that designers include pedestrian walkways, shading and even bicycle lanes.

Abu Dhabi seems reluctant to repeat the mistakes of its northern neighbor in its grand designs for the next two decades, and Mushrif Central Park - the pet project of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan - is demonstrative of this. The 25 year old park has embarked on a redevelopment process, featuring some innovative landscape design.

Brent Lloyd, associate at Valley Crest Design, the firm that redesigned the park, explained that their focus was making the park are more pleasurable place for Abu Dhabi residents to spend time, while embracing the emirate's commitment to green design. In order to do so, the designers had to challenge some of the design concepts of the past.

"The park right now is completely covered in turf grass which is enormously water consumptive. We've tried to reduce the amount of turf grass and make the areas that are there more usable," Lloyd said.
Over 70% of the total site has been designed to naturally reduce urban heat buildup, by using canopies of trees as shade and paving materials that are able to reflect the sun in an effort to reduce overall surface heat gain throughout the park. Changing the nature of the vegetation was also important, Lloyd explains.

"We looked at introducing different landscape using types of grass and some shrub material that reduces overall water consumption," he said.

They have also had to take into account the habits of the people who frequent the park. Unlike in the US or Europe, people in the Middle East tend to want to spend time outdoors in the evenings, so trees and football pitches are not enough to create a popular urban space.

This is something that while innovative in the UAE, is more established elsewhere in the Gulf, according to Genslers' Sheard. He says that countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been creating well landscaped open spaces for longer due to the influence of western architects in development projects there.

"There's been a real commitment there to creating landscaping, which is very, very popular with locals in the evenings. That is another difference between locals and expats, expats tend to enjoy outside areas in the evenings, while locals will go out for a walk at 2 am because it is cooler," he said.

In the residential realm architects are also developing new ways of making urban areas more pleasurable places to spend time. At the Galleries site in Jebel Ali, a mixed use development that opened last month, designers have tried to buck the trend of building endless tower blocks and concentrated on open spaces, gardens and community areas.

The offices and residential towers are surrounded by a network of fountains and gardens, and the importation of mature trees from abroad has made the exterior of the buildings ready for use almost immediately. A shade canopy provides protection from the sun when crossing between the two buildings.

"It was always our intention that the space between the towers felt like a complete plaza," explained Lance Lowrey, the project manager on the Jebel Ali site.

"Shade in design is a critical element here and I have learned a lot about it while doing this project. In fact, all the designs that we are working on now try to incorporate it."

Environmental initiatives also play a part in the Jebel Ali development, which is an increasingly important consideration at a time when governments are unwilling - both in moral and financial terms - to pump out vast amounts of water in an effort to keep lawns green. The Galleries uses an irrigation system that recycles water from the air conditioning units from nearby offices, saving up to 4,000 gallons of water a day.

Lowrey, who came to Dubai from the US to lead the Jebel Ali project, said that urban space is likely to become more and more important for developments in the Middle East, especially as it has not been explored significantly so far.

"People do go outside and they want to go outside, developments need to have plazas and parks and urban space. That should be a model for the future," he said.

"The nature of being in a public space is basically like being an actor in a play, and I think people love that. No matter who you are, what culture you come from, or where you are in the world."

Valley Crest's Lloyd's agrees. Just because the UAE has lacked well-landscaped public space in the past, the indications are that the demand will only increase as redevelopment picks up the pace in the emirates. Lloyd believes that both local and expats in the region are screaming out for it.

"I think people really value open spaces here, and that is something that will continue," he said.

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