Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

Getting smart to go green: how Dubai is preparing for Expo 2020

Dubai is set to be transformed into a green paradise in time for Expo 2020, but there are challenges ahead to fulfil that aim.
Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Anywhere else in the world, the mere thought of coaxing plants to grow in a hot, dry, desert environment would strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest of gardeners. Yet despite its inhospitable climate, the UAE boasts verdant parks aplenty, grassy golf courses and luxuriant roadside landscaping, while the country’s green-­fingered residents happily busy themselves growing flowers, fruit and vegetables in little more than sand.

As part of its Dubai 2020 vision, Dubai Municipality has earmarked Dh6 billion to develop a further 12,000 hectares of urban greenery, through landscaping and horticultural projects, in a bid to transform the emirate into a “green paradise” in readiness for the Expo in five years’ time.

But how is it possible to nurture and maintain all this greenery given the region’s searing summer temperatures, scarce rainfall and vast amounts of ­direct sunlight, coupled with salty ground and high saline water tables?

While hobby gardeners can glean handy hints from friends, books and Google on how to keep their own foliage looking fresh, the city’s urban planners, developers, environmental specialists and landscape architects will need to employ all the tricks of the trade if they’re to turn Dubai’s green dreams into ­reality.

The answer lies in smart and innovative landscaping, which was the focus of the Middle East Smart Landscape Summit held in Dubai earlier this week. ­Organised by Expotrade and held under the patronage of Hussain Nasser Lootah, the director general of Dubai Municipality, the summit – now in its third year – brings together local and international experts to showcase best practices and the latest in smart, innovative and sustainable landscaping technology, via seminars and discussions.

All manner of topics and solutions were put forth, from the use of smart technology in public spaces and the merits of artificial grass, to using aerial drones for landscape ­architecture.

“Industry-leading conferences do offer an opportunity for experts to share relevant ideas and discuss the practical workability of concepts, but I believe that it is really the collaborative efforts displayed on active and future landscape projects showcased here that make the difference,” says Brad Hariharan, who is the regional director of Expotrade Global.

When it comes to successful urban planning, vast amounts of irrigation water are needed every day to ensure landscapes are kept in tip-top condition. However, in arid regions such as the Middle East, water is an ­extremely precious resource.

“For a modern ‘smart city’ in development, such as Dubai, sustainable ecological landscaping is an important theme,” says Hariharan. “The use of ‘smart’ solutions, including ­innovation within the landscape industry, and the increased use of technology, are making it easier for urban planners and environmental specialists to ­implement sustainable, ecological landscaping initiatives.”

A key part of the Smart Landscape Summit’s agenda had speakers and delegates sharing ideas and best practices for water conservation, irrigation, waste management and soil-­management techniques. Dubai Municipality is on an ambitious programme to transform about 8 per cent of the city’s urban area into green and planted spaces by 2020.

“It’s a really challenging issue because of water demand and also because of the requirement of the soil condition. This exhibition and conference brings a lot of ideas in terms of water saving, and from using these kinds of techniques we can hopefully achieve this target,” says Talib AbdulKarim Julfar, the director of Dubai Municipality’s public parks and horticulture ­department.

The municipality has also announced plans to expand the city’s irrigation network, which will in turn support its landscaping projects, as will the use of materials such as special sand and stones to reduce water consumption and prevent groundwater from filtering up and spoiling plants.

The region’s sandy soils pose a major challenge to environmental specialists and landscape architects, because they have a low water-holding capacity and are poor in nutrients. As a result, plant roots don’t have enough time to utilise irrigation water and fertilisers, which are quickly washed out from the soil.

The importance of addressing irrigation-water requirements was highlighted by Ralf Stahl, a managing partner at Zeoplant, who spoke at the Smart Landscape Summit on the need to find a “sustainable solution for the increased irrigation water shortage in our booming ­environment”.

Zeoplant is a natural, moisture-­retaining soil additive, and halves the necessary quantity of irrigation water. Added to the soil in a one-time application, it improves the soil structure by helping it to hold and retain irrigation water, making it available for plant roots. So effective is the product in the Middle East’s climatic conditions that Zeoplant has been used in sustainable landscaping and agricultural projects in the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.

Elsewhere, schools and sports clubs are increasingly doing their bit to help develop sustainable and environmentally ­sound landscapes – by faking it. Artificial turf is a growing trend in modern landscaping and is gaining ground in extreme climates such as the UAE. More and more sports facilities are trading conventional grass playing fields for synthetic grass, which is durable, low-­maintenance and can be used year-round for multiple sporting activities.

“There is huge potential for these solutions in the Middle East, as our turf systems have unique characteristics that are perfectly suited to the climate,” says Paul Langford, the managing director of TigerTurf UK and another of the speakers at the Smart Landscape ­Summit.

According to Langford, TigerTurf’s landscape range replicates the varied tones, shapes and soft feel of individual blades of grass, making it the most realistic on the market. “We have developed our current range to appeal to the Middle Eastern market,” he adds.

Other innovative solutions for urban spaces include the ingenious idea of “living” or “green” walls. These low-maintenance, vertical gardens covered with vegetation fulfil the primary aims of any landscape gardener: aesthetic appeal combined with environmental friendliness. Using high-tech irrigation systems, these green facades can be grown in almost any urban habitat, and are gaining a reputation as an effective feature of sustainable landscaping. Aside from their striking beauty, living walls bring a variety of benefits, from improving energy efficiency by enhancing insulation and reducing carbon emissions to acting as noise and pollution barriers, as well as climate-­control agents.

The concept of green walls is gradually taking off in Dubai, with the arts-and-culture centre The Pavilion in Downtown Dubai boasting a 10-metre-long vertical interior garden, featuring about 2,500 plants. Elsewhere in the city, the Novotel hotel in Al Barsha has a six-storey green wall containing approximately 27,000 plants.

As Dubai forges ahead with its ambitious plans to go green in time for Expo 2020, it’s clear that conventional modes of landscaping are rapidly evolving. What’s more, to successfully translate sustainable landscaping ideas from the drawing board into reality means having the skill sets to overcome a range of environmental challenges. Closer to home, the concept of creating verdant yet sustainable spaces can easily be translated into one’s own garden, with minimal effort and expense.

By using simple methods such as smart irrigation and native plant landscaping, we can all do our bit to be greener.

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Updated: April 30, 2015 04:00 AM

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