x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A cityscape for all walks of life

q&a The landscape architect Robert Egan is now working on a project in Abu Dhabi which involves turning a downtown car park into a mixed-use public space.

The landscape architect Robert Egan believes that Abu Dhabi can be a great pedestrian city.
The landscape architect Robert Egan believes that Abu Dhabi can be a great pedestrian city.

After completing a waterfront development project in China, the landscape architect Robert Egan is now working on a project in Abu Dhabi which involves turning a downtown car park into a mixed-use public space. Also an abstract landscape painter, Egan sees the connection between the natural and built environments as one of the most important elements of design.

They are separate but interlocked ideas. In order to read a landscape, you have to study it. Where landscape architects design looking down on the land from above it, painting requires you to be there, right in it. When you go somewhere and paint the landscape, you remember things, the weather, the smells, kids playing, the atmosphere. With design, it's about texture, layering, edges. I approach design after being there, so in some ways, design begins to seem like painting.

Most cities were originally built on bodies of water. Historically, waterways were used for transportation and played an important part in developing industry. It wasn't originally about people. But we are inherently drawn to water. Now, developments along waterways attract tourists and local residents. But in many cities, Abu Dhabi included, we could do a lot more with water, with the waterfront. Spaces along the water's edge can be very powerful. As an island, Abu Dhabi has a lot of waterfront property, and these spaces could become great communal areas. Food, music, people - all these different elements make these spaces vibrant. It's started on the Corniche, but there needs to be more: more nature, more restaurants, more trees.

The 2030 Plan is a fantastic framework for modernisation, making it real is something else. There is unprecedented opportunity here. It is a unique city with a unique physical and cultural landscape. The region is culturally rich, but all the older areas of the cities here are so much more interesting; they have character, they weren't built quickly, they weren't built around the automobile. Design takes time to evolve. I think that the 2030 Plan takes that into consideration. The most important thing for Abu Dhabi is not to forget the importance of connectivity. When you stop designing around the automobile, building pedestrian walkways, improving connectivity becomes a lot easier. The biggest idea related to this is scale. The pedestrian city is not about the superblock, it is about the spaces between them.

Beijing and Dubai are similar in their scale. Beijing is not a walkable city, and outside of Bur Dubai, neither is Dubai. It's difficult to find the centre of Beijing. The key to walkability is having spaces that change; they should open and close as you move through the city. You can walk through the old parts of Shanghai for several miles and find all different spaces, different uses of land, different landscapes. Abu Dhabi has the potential to become one of the most walkable cities in the world. Even though there is a grid system here, there is unlimited potential in the back alleys to make new connections for pedestrians. Inside the city is where this potential lies. The business district is a good place to start. You need to use private and public space. When they overlap, you get different sized spaces, different connections. This is the fabric of the city.

jhume@thenational.ae