A comprehensive vision for the capital has been hailed around the world, but the global economic crisis has prompted calls for an earlier review.
Abu Dhabi has 2030 in its sights
It was a landmark study into the long-term future of the capital. In 2007, after a year of reviews and analysis, the Abu Dhabi Government released a far-reaching plan to set up future development in the emirate. The historic document received praise from planners throughout the world.
Three years later, some industry experts believe Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, is ready for an update, although a review by the Urban Planning Council (UPC) is scheduled for 2012.
The document was created at a time of unprecedented growth in the capital, a thriving national economy and an upbeat global picture. While the vision was praised for creating a framework for Abu Dhabi's future, it might be time to readdress some of the specific targets and assumptions, observers say.
"It is not unhealthy to have a pause to reassess and re-look," said Gurjit Singh, the chief operating officer of the developer Sorouh Real Estate. "You take a breath and reassess what you need to do."
Plan Abu Dhabi was designed to "filter all planning decisions through environmental, social and economic development criteria". It is not a specific blueprint, but a "vision" statement created to provide benchmarks and guidelines for future development.
But it also offers a broad plan for where to focus new construction, transport patterns and development priorities. The first phase of development scheduled before 2015 included the creation of a business district of office towers on Sowwah Island and an inland Capital District, designed to "channel the enthusiasm of Abu Dhabi's new property development sector".
That enthusiasm has diminished since the crisis in the global economy. Analysts caution that there could be an oversupply of luxury residential homes, hotel rooms and commercial space in the short term. But the market conditions do not change the fundamental principles and priorities of the plan, says Michael White, a senior planning manager for the UPC, which is in charge of developing and implementing the 2030 dream.
"What's changed is the timing," Mr White says. "The master-planned communities are driven by private development."
In the aftermath of the economic downturn, some infrastructure projects have been postponed and many of the master-planned development areas have "become fragmented as developers face cash-flow issues and compete for demand", says David Dudley, the head of Jones Lang LaSalle's Abu Dhabi office.
But there is an upside to the slowdown in the market, Mr Dudley points out. Developers have been "forced to scale back overly ambitious projects, to seek more sustainable means of funding other than pre-sales and to ensure their product is better positioned to end-user requirements".
This will also allow the Government "a pause for breath to put in place regulatory reforms to improve transparency and drive demand ahead of the future upswing" he says.
Detailed regulations on foreign ownership, relaxed policies on residency permits and visas, and clear ownership registration are among the issues the Government needs to address to make the 2030 plan more effective, executives say.
"What we would like to see is [the creation of regulations] speeded up to give clarity for the real estate market," Mr Singh says. "The decisions need to happen faster so we can bring back confidence from the FDI [foreign direct investment] perspective."
William Dewsnap, the head of valuations for Cluttons in Abu Dhabi, calls the 2030 vision "highly laudable" but says periodic reviews and updates "would allow the plan to progress and evolve, adapting to changing circumstances, both locally and further afield, as they occur".
"I think that it is vital that 2030 is not seen as a deadline by which to achieve all of the policies set out in the plan," Mr Dewsnap says. "If necessary the plan should become a 2040 plan or 2050 plan."
But not everyone agrees the plan needs to be updated before the review takes place in 2012.
"The most important pieces are what is coming out of it at the moment," says Parvathi Nampoothiri, an urban designer with the planning and engineering company Otak International. "We haven't seen the results of implementation. Unless we see some of the ground realities, unless we do that, there is no step forward."
In the past year, the UPC has completed framework plans for all the communities in the emirate, Mr White says. It has also released guidelines for middle-class housing and street design.
Development codes are expected early next year, and a guideline plan for public areas is expected a few weeks after that.
"The biggest challenge now is the transition to implementation," Mr White says.
Workshops, surveys and open houses will be part of that process in the 2012 review.
While the market has changed and some developers are scaling back their plans, the importance of the planning process is unchanged, he says. "The low point of an economic cycle is a good time to plan."