x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A tale of two islands is a parable for Abu Dhabi's urban space

A summer visit to an island about the size of Abu Dhabi, but far away from here, sparks some insights and some questions about land use policy.

When this column appears, I will be enjoying a short break on my home island of Jersey, a British dependency off the coast of Normandy. It's roughly the same size as Abu Dhabi island, but bears little similarity to the skyscrapers and beaches of the UAE capital.

What the two islands do have in common, however, is the problem of parking and all the grumbles from residents and visitors about how local government deals with it.

The local council in St Helier, the capital of Jersey, is by no means perfect, and many complaints are fully justified, particularly when someone has to park far outside the town centre. At least when the weather is pleasant it's a nice stroll from my house into town, but that is not much of an option for Abu Dhabi in the summer.

Another way in which St Helier differs from Abu Dhabi is how it tackles parking and other issues of the urban landscape. One example is St Helier's use of derelict plots to provide additional parking spaces. Most of the town centre is built up, but if an old building has been demolished, the plot is often turned into a temporary, profitmaking car park.

In Abu Dhabi, we have plenty of plots of sand where nothing has been built, although presumably more buildings will rise in time. The spaces are ideal for parking and, of course, are used as such. But last month the Department of Transport announced that parking on these plots would be illegal. Why? Because, apparently, cars entering and leaving might cause accidents.

Surely it would be simple enough to work out better access - even to install a booth to sell tickets. Instead the much-needed parking spaces have been made off limits. This is even more difficult to comprehend when some of the areas already have a desperate shortage of parking and as far as I can see little is being done to build more multi-storey car parks.

Surely it would be more logical to build new spaces first before making it illegal to park in unused areas? Perhaps I am missing something. Is it part of a long-term strategy to reduce the number of cars in Abu Dhabi? St Helier's approach, however, using derelict plots and providing public transport seems to me to be better designed.

Another land-use feature of St Helier is the trees planted along the pavements and roads at corners and regular intervals, often with a bench or two where pedestrians can sit and rest. The greenery adds so much to the environment, breaking up the urban canyons of concrete, brick and glass.

Why can't we adopt a similar approach in Abu Dhabi? There are plenty of pavements that are wide enough to accommodate trees. The other day I asked an official from Abu Dhabi Municipality why more trees were not planted - and why some trees that had brightened streets for decades had been cut down. The reason, I was told, was that it was part of the Estidama (Sustainability) policy of the Urban Planning Council.

The council's website says that Estidama "promotes the concept of living in harmony with our culture and environment while conserving our way of life so that future generations can benefit from our wise choices … Built on the four pillars of environment, economy, society and culture, Estidama supports sustainable living and resources".

So what's the problem with a few additional trees that would substantially improve Abu Dhabi's urban landscape? Water use? Choose the right trees, and they will be largely self-sustaining after a while. If we chose trees and plants that were less thirsty for parks and gardens, that would far outweigh water used by trees on pavements.

Surely there's scope for a re-evaluation of Estidama's approach if it is the reason why we don't have a sensible urban tree-planting programme in Abu Dhabi.

In Jersey my father, an experienced gardener, planted many flowers that needed plenty of rain to thrive. In the 1980s, there were several dry years, but he refused to increase watering from our own borehole. If the climate was changing, he said, then those plants that couldn't survive would be sacrificed. Today the garden still looks pretty good and we do barely any watering.

That's not appropriate for Abu Dhabi, but there's plenty of scope to reduce water usage and at the same time introduce a bit more greenery into our urban landscape.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in Emirati culture and heritage