By James Boley
As Abu Dhabi's Plan 2030 begins to take shape, there is an increasing focus on public developments.
Working a 10-lane highway and a residential site into a narrow stretch of land produced no end of challenges, says KEO. James Boley investigates.
As Abu Dhabi's Plan 2030 begins to take shape, there is an increasing focus on the development of the public realm. Instead of focusing on iconic buildings, Abu Dhabi is putting its attention on the creation of attractive outdoor areas that can be enjoyed by pedestrians.
At the same time, sites have to be practical and have a commercial value, however. It is this dichotomy of form and function that international design firm KEO has explored in Emerald Gateway, the under development new entrance for Abu Dhabi.
We take with us a greater sense of the potential that landscape design should play within a masterplan design, no matter what the scale.
Masterplanned by KEO, Emerald Gateway was created to provide a dramatic, green entrance to Abu Dhabi, transforming the dusty highway that links Abu Dhabi International Airport to the island capital city into an impressive spectacle in its own right.
Perhaps the most vivid manifestation of Emerald Gateway will be the sculpture at the beginning of the Mussaffah Bridge leading into Abu Dhabi. The design of the sculpture is based on a falcon's wings, one of the national symbols of the UAE.
As well as being a 10-lane highway leading in to Abu Dhabi, however, the site will also be a residential location with homes for up to 50,000 people, as well as retail and leisure facilities.
One of the major design challenges of the project was creating a development appropriately scaled to both pedestrians and commuters, says Uwe Nienstedt, project manager of KEO.
"On the grand scale, we wanted to create a visible entrance to the city of Abu Dhabi, something that works on a 120km/hour scale," he says.
"On the smaller scale, the 50,000 inhabitants needed an environment that is conducive to walking and human scale, quite opposite to what you experience from a car."
Isolating the residential area from the noise of passing traffic was a particular headache, says Nienstedt.
The design got round the problem by including berms, landscaped sandbanks that absorb noise and help conceal the road from the pedestrian perspective, he explains.
"We were concerned with the noise of the highways and the impact this would have on the outdoor spaces so we experimented with the normal two-dimensional plane of the landscape and introduced the third dimension by creating berms.
These will not only break the long visual corridor of the highway, but will also absorb some of the noise of the traffic," he says.
Another challenge was the relatively narrow space of the site. The basic site is three kilometres in length but just 500 metres in width, which placed limitations in supporting the dual requirements of the site.
To make matters more difficult, KEO needed to maximise as much as possible the ‘walkability' of the space, in line with the Abu Dhabi Plan 2030 to encourage more areas for pedestrians, and to make the area surrounding the towers a pleasant place to live.
"While this is an urban development in the sense of density and urbanity, there is a strong move in Abu Dhabi now to pedestrianise the city," says Nienstedt.
"Unlike some of the lighting features and fountains in Abu Dhabi which are in the middle of traffic circles, here we are actually trying to put them in the pedestrian environment."
A canal located on the northern side of the site helped in this respect by enabling the creation of a waterfront area. The vision is that the area will become a multi-purpose site with walking, jogging and cycling some of the activities anticipated, and restaurants and shops some of the amenities.
Providing an attractive site on the other side of the development was more tricky, as there is no equivalent canal on which to anchor the design. The focus there will be on creating attractive parks, says Nienstedt.We tried to squeeze as much space out of it to create some parks that are more than just roadside greenery, that have some life," he says.
The masterplanners also had to deal with limitations on the placing of some landscaping elements, such as berms and trees. Under present planning regulations in Abu Dhabi, such features cannot be located over utility service corridors.
It was a battle, Nienstedt says, to obtain the needed space for landscape.
Another consideration was that as its name suggests, a key feature of Emerald Gateway was that it had to be a green development, not just visually but also as a sustainable project. Reconciling these two disparate goals can sometimes cause conflicts, since green plants tend to call for large amounts of water - which isn't necessarily sustainable.
KEO's response to this was to take a pragmatic approach to providing greenery. "We don't want to create a Florida in the desert," comments Nienstedt.
The method KEO took was to carefully study the different perspectives of the sites' two users - a resident walking behind the towers in the landscaped areas will have a very different perspective of what appears green to someone driving through the site at 120km/hour.
In the areas that will be seen primarily by drivers, the landscape design has been studied to create the illusion of greenery, without using vast amounts of grass.
"The trick will be to give it a green feel. There will be some shrubs and trees, but there is a strong push with the Urban Planning Council coming on board to keep a green feel but make it ‘green' in the sense of sustainability," says Nienstedt.
Despite the various challenges, working on the Emerald Gateway project has been a fascinating experience, says Nienstedt.
"After recognising and addressing the real issues which resulted from working on such a narrow and intense site, I think we take away with us a greater sense of the enormous potential that landscape design should play within a masterplan design, no matter what the scale," he says.
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