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Sat 27 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Common ground

Creating a successful residential community involves responding to a number of different considerations. Commercial Outdoor Design reports.

Creating a successful residential community involves responding to a number of different considerations. Commercial Outdoor Design reports.

Opinion on self-contained or gated communities tends to go one of two ways.

Either people are in favour of their existence seeing them as the ultimate in exclusivity and a place with a strong sense of community, or they deride them as isolating people from the heart of a city and limiting human interaction.

If the design team doesn’t understand the planning process, they are not going to come up with a good design. They will miss opportunities and you will end up with a community that has problems.

Whatever your feelings, they are a concept that is growing in popularity in the GCC. One of the best-known residential communities is Arabian Ranches located on Emirates road in Dubai.

Developed by Emaar Properties, the self-contained community contains a number of villas and town houses, as well as a school, and community centre containing 20 retail outlets. Other examples in Dubai include The Lakes, The Springs and The Meadows.

Under construction in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is Al Khobar Lakes. Developed by Emaar, the community is set to cover 2.6 million square metres and will include nine villages, a mosque, schools, a shopping centre among other amenities.

The development is promoted as the first lakefront gated residential community.

Understanding the planning process is one of the crucial stages in designing a great community, according to Todd Stermer, manager urban and regional planning at international architectural and design practice Atkins.

"An urban planning team needs to understand and do careful analysis of the conditions that are presented at the site, both current and projected," he says.

"You need to understand who you are building for, what is the market. You need to understand the existing site conditions, the opportunities there."

Points that need to be considered at the planning stage, he says, include the topography, the infrastructure and roads in the location, the views, solar orientation, and the existing land use surrounding the area as well as any proposed plans for development or expansion of the area.

Without this basic knowledge of the proposed site, it will be difficult to make the design a success, says Stermer.

"If the design team doesn't understand the planning process, they are not going to come up with a good design to begin with. They will miss opportunities, will miss constraints, you'll end up with a community that has problems," he comments, citing lack of proper road access as an example of the type of problem that can occur. Clear identity

Beyond understanding of the planning process, there are a number of considerations that go towards making a community work, according to Stermer.

One of the main factors is to give the location an identity. "Try to make a community that has a sense of place, an identity. There is something memorable about it," he advises.

Variety is also needed in the architectural theming, he adds, rather than replicating a theme across thousands of homes. Al Khobar Lakes achieves this by using nine villages, for example, while Arabian Ranches has a number of different communities.

Giving a residential development a specific identity is key to its success on a competitive market, says Alex Vacha, deputy director, City of Arabia, which has the residential component Wadi Walk.

"Whether it's a residential development or a project, it should not get lost. Unless you give it an identity with so many projects coming up, it will lose that placing in the market," he says.

Ensuring mixed use is another key consideration, adds Stermer. "One of the things that makes a great community are the uses that are in it," he says.

"What planners are trying to get away from are huge tracts of [land] that are nothing but homes and maybe a few swimming pools but there are no places to work, to shop. You need a mix of uses. So one of the things that goes into community planning is making sure there is a good mix of uses that supports the needs of the community, shops, schools, recreations, places to work, healthcare etc."

"You need to have a mix of uses so that for the people that live in that community their needs are catered to within that community," he adds.

Including mixed use also makes more commercial sense, says Ivar Krasinski, principal at design firm Burt Hill.

"If you want to make your residential development have a higher value serve the needs of your own residents within the values of your development, provide them with convenient spending opportunities, create 24-hour activities zones....[then] people don't have any reason to leave and spend elsewhere," he says.


Sufficient connectivity is another fundamental consideration in community planning, adds Stermer. Increasingly transit oriented development theories are used in current planning practices, he says.This involves planning based around transport considerations so trying to promote walkability and where possible linking to public transport.

"Transit has really become [fundamental] for residential developments," says Krasinski.

"You're not going to be able in the future to sell your residential development long-term unless you have close proximity to mass transit."

The key to good transit oriented development is an understanding that the scale and design of communities should be set by the human foot and the length of the average stride, and the classic five to 10 minute walk, according to design consultants.

Taking into account security products in also important for community planning given that many people are attracted to such locations precisely because they come with the promise of a safe environment.

Incorporation of security measures and requirements at the planning stage is the crucial point here, says John Wigham, director at regional landscape practice Cracknell.

"Security needs to be part of the brief. You need to know what level of security is required," he says.

"Even at the bubble diagram stage, you need to identify where your secure envelope is and work out what the secure elements would be."

Planning a space where upwards of 2,000 people will live, sleep and breathe carries a huge responsibility for the masterplanners and developers working on the project.

While much of the design is inevitably subject to the whims and wonts of the developers and investors behind the communities, in order for a project to be a success, the design team must remember, however, to keep uppermost in mind the needs of the person who matters most in planning of communities - the eventual resident.

"Urban planners have a very important role. We are the leading edge of the development process. Urban planning is the start of the process," says Stermer.

Key considerations in community planning

• Mixed use - area has to have a range of different facilities and uses.

• Strong identity - some form of theme or character is needed to create a sense of community and differentiate it from other community projects.

• Security - planning for security products needs to be incorporated early on.

• Connectivity - links to public transport help connect communities to the wider city.

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