Some light may at last be shed on a new look for some well-established and well-loved areas of Dubai. Artist’s impressions of the Dubai Water Canal Project show scenes of families enjoying picnics, bike rides and pleasant strolls by a sparkling blue canal running through Al Safa Park.
There are waterfront town houses, each with space to moor a yacht or sailing boat, jogging tracks and shops.
A stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road and the Dubai Metro, seems to tower above the canal and surrounding land, with eight lanes running in each direction.
According to Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority the project “is considered a consummate destination for regional and international tourists as well as the residents of the Emirates showcasing ingenuity, leadership and creativity”.
On the strip near the Sheikh Zayed Road bridge, there are sand-coloured flat-fronted buildings with reflective arched windows. A Costa coffee shop sits between a KFC and a Baskin-Robins ice cream shop.
While the drawings are enticing, a walk along the likely route of the new waterway makes it clear this will being substantial longterm change. And some temporary disruption should naturally be expected.
Until recently, most of the plans for the canal, at least as far as the public is concerned, have been something of a mystery.
The original concept was to extend the canal from Business Bay, making it possible to travel by water from the Creek to Jumeirah and effectively turning a large area of Dubai into an island. Some land was cleared in anticipation of this project, which was shelved after the 2008 global financial crisis.
It wasn’t until December last year that the canal plan re-emerged, when the Ruler and Vice President, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, ordered its “immediate implementation”. His official website revealed that there would be a “hanging canal which replaces the previous project based on the ground”. It would, it said, rise above the level of the Dubai Metro and Al Safa Park.
The concept of a hanging canal was not spelled out in detail, but images of the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift in Scotland, were used on the promotional material, indicating that water vehicles (taxis, boats etc) would be lifted onto the raised canal at the Business Bay end, and then dropped back down further towards the sea.
The latest artist’s impressions, made public for the official inauguration of the project last month, suggests a reversion to the initial plans to dig down, rather than build up.
The starting point of the project is the end of the current creek in the shadow of the JW Marriott Hotel Dubai. Currently, the sandy lot that lies between the water’s edge and the slip road running parallel to Sheikh Zayed Road is filled with parked cars, presumably owned by office workers in the surrounding buildings, and an old weeping willow tree.
It is still possible to walk right up to the edge of the water, a potentially lovely, peaceful spot except for the thousands of cars thundering down Sheikh Zayed Road just a few hundred yards away.
On the other side of the busy road is Al Safa Park, one of the emirate’s oldest and most popular green public spaces.
In the latest official description from the Roads and Transport Authority, the park will “be enhanced with the inclusion of an urban public beach with 1.5 kilometre of beachfront and activated programme space for public leisure and sports activity.
“The park [will] boast updated facilities for running and cycling trails that are anchored by a perimeter of 1,642 units of residential developments that cocoons and captures the imagination of a transcendent urban lifestyle park,” the RTA adds.
There will be residential and retail zones bordering the canal, with more than 460,000 square feet of boardwalk retail and restaurants, as well as 855 residential units.
It is not clear how much of the original Al Safa Park will remain, once the project is finished (in 2017, according to the RTA.
Asked about this by The National last week, the RTA said it did not yet have any details on the construction or route of the canal.
Badreya, a retired headmistress living in a large villa on the street running parallel to the North side of the park, said: “I have lived here for maybe 25 years, and my children are older here now. I like the green and the quiet of the park. I was a little sad when I heard about the project, but I hope I will enjoy it once it is finished.”
Her home lies on the same street as the Little Gems International Al Safa school and the Al Maktoum Boys’ School.
Al Safa Park opened in 1975 and has become one of the most popular sites for families. There are public barbecues and plenty of play areas for children to tire themselves out.
Colleen, an American expatriate who lives in Jumeirah 2 and uses the park to exercise, says she hopes the plans won’t affect “the nice metropolitan park, it is a jewel”.
“The more important thing is on the weekend it is such a nice gathering spot for families and so centrally located,” says the mother of three.
On leaving the park, the canal and surrounding retail space appear from current plans to veer slightly to the right, running a few blocks away from the Jumeirah Archeological Site, where 6th century pottery, tools and coins had previously been unearthed.
Following the route on foot, it is difficult to imagine how the canal, which will be between 80 and 120 metres wide, will not change the neighbourhood.
There are a couple of empty sand lots dotted between relatively built-up blocks, but no immediately obvious routes for the water to flow to the sea.
After leaving the residential areas, the water will the cut under both Al Wasl Road and Jumeirah Beach Road before reaching the sea at the Jumeirah Beach Park.
Jumeirah Beach Park is another of the emirate’s best loved spots for families, offering a ladies’ day once a week that usually attracts a large number of local women. It has barbecue areas, volleyball courts, cafes, restaurants and a long strip of beach access.
Australian Jen Collins, who has lived in Dubai for six years, said although the canal project will offer more areas for families, she hopes the disruption will be worth it.
“I know there will be lots of places for families, but I’m really sad that we will be losing some of the park and the beach.”
The RTA estimates that 800 million cubic metres of water will flow through the canal each year, and that the it is “anticipated to have a cooling effect” similar to the Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul, South Korea.
According to the Seoul Municipal Development Institute, the temperature in the areas surrounding the stream is 3.6°C lower than other areas.
When the water reaches the sea it will emerge in a “newly designed Jumeirah Beach Park; with additional public beachfront that cradles the water and shelters the crescent shaped beach.”
According to the RTA, the peninsula at the mouth of the canal will include a marina with moorings for 120 boats, a 925-room hotel, and 1,383 residential units. It will be, in some ways, a smaller version of the Palm Jumeirah.
“If this works I think it will be great,” says visiting tourist Sarah Tan, who was enjoying ladies’ day at the park. “I wouldn’t want the building on my own doorstep but I think it will attract a lot of tourists, which is a good thing.
“We see a lot about Dubai in the UK and I think if anyone can do this properly, Dubai can.”