By Jeff Roberts
Amid a flurry of official pomp and circumstance, Abu Dhabi's Urban Planning Council (UPC) launched an urban structure framework for the future of Al Ain city.
Amid a flurry of official pomp and circumstance, Abu Dhabi's Urban Planning Council (UPC) launched an urban structure framework for the future of Al Ain city.What is being called ‘Plan Al Ain 2030', the initiative is the second phase of the overarching Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, which was launched in November 2007.
Plan Al Ain aims to present an intelligent and achievable framework for expanding Al Ain into an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable city. To achieve this second of two major milestones-the first being Abu Dhabi 2030-the Al Ain Municipality is working with Masdar and Abu Dhabi's Departments of Transportation, Education, Tourism and Culture & Heritage.
"Through a balance of conservation and development, Plan Al Ain 2030 will foster the authentic Arabic identity of Al Ain whilst supporting a continuously evolving modern culture," explained HE Falah Al Ahbabi, general manager of UPC.
To that end, Plan Al Ain will focus on five specific initiatives: First, using available land intelligently; Second, increasing density within the buildings and city centre; Third, preserving surrounding agricultural areas; Fourth, creating a surface tram system; Fifth, protecting designated environmental zones.
Asked if Plan Al Ain has learned any lessons from any of the region's failed or cancelled large-scale urban masterplans, Dr Matar Al Nuaimi, executive director of infrastructure & assets at Al Ain Municipality explained, "Abu Dhabi always studies outside projects very carefully and tries to learn from their mistakes."
"We're moving forward very carefully right now. The one thing we don't want is to build a bunch of buildings just to see them lay empty for years and years," continued Al Nuaimi.
According to officials in UPC and the Al Ain Municipality, in order to sidestep any future recession-based pitfalls, Plan Al Ain project goals will be defined in five-year increments and initiatives will be analysed, refined and adjusted accordingly.
Characterised by lush vegetation and fertile urban farms, Al Ain has long been considered the ‘garden city' of the UAE. In an effort to protect the city's natural green spaces, Phase I of Plan Al Ain will focus on the issue of intelligent land use.
"Plan Al Ain 2030 strikes a delicate and much-needed balance between conservation and development," said Al Ahbabi. "It explores the need to conserve ground water resources, protects natural habitats and reverses damaging trends such as the contamination of the city's oases with pesticides from local farms."Phase II will focus on the structural components of the Gateway Transit Corridor and, with it, the city's surface tram system. Implementation of Phase III will include development of high-density accommodation and further infrastructure to make the city accessible to the one million residents projected to be there by 2030.
Meanwhile, all of this development comes with what seems to be a strict and genuine adherence to preserving Emirati culture, heritage and history. "Al Ain is the soul of Abu Dhabi," said Saif Ghubash, planning professional for UPC. "It exemplifies the culture and heritage of the emirate."
Impressive package. Now for the important questions...
While the UPC seems intent on protecting agriculture lands and surrounding eco-systems, it has instituted a G+4 limit for the height of buildings, which means the UAE's fourth largest city will continue to sprawl outward rather than grow upward.
Furthermore, Plan Al Ain outlines policies for myriad facilities including mosques, gathering places, recreation areas and shopping precincts - all of which are important components for a city but none of which encourage the level of density the UPC is seeking with this project.
Officials from the UPC also outlined an initiative to "maximise efficient land use" by expanding the city toward Jebel Hafeet by way of a large-scale residential, leisure and retail development, which seems to contradict the idea of creating density in the city centre. Not only that, but by expanding toward Jebel Hafeet, officials seem intent on encroaching on the eco-systems of what Ghubash called the "natural habitat of 89% of the city's wildlife."
Furthermore, neither the UPC nor Al Ain Municipality would even hazard a guess as to the scale of investment needed to put Plan Al Ain into action. Yet, both government bodies remain unwilling to commit to any foreign ownership of land and unprepared to discuss free zones for foreign companies.
And, while HE Al Ahbabi insisted that officials would use the world's best urban planning architects and consultants to implement the strategy and preserve the architectural heritage of the region, no names were provided and no architectural styles were mentioned. In fact, Al Ahbabi was unable to say even when the UPC would start accepting bids for any of the projects related to Plan Al Ain.
While Plan Al Ain is a step in the right direction for Abu Dhabi and the UAE, these and several other questions remain as to how this project will be delivered in this timeframe under these guidelines.
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