x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

It's a gruelling road to run when a city lacks public spaces

As public amenities go, beaches require relatively little effort and resources ¿ plant some trees, build some shades and create spaces for the natural flow of people. City planners and hardened politicians take note.

For years the beach near my home was almost abandoned, except for the hard-core football enthusiasts who were happy to monopolise such a beautiful public space in the best hours before the end of the day. The reason for such limited use was a one-metre high hedge that blocked the natural, gleaming blue from our sight.

Then one day I saw the beach had become alive with couples, families and athletes. In a simple stroke, a decade overdue in my reckoning, the municipal authorities had uprooted all the vermin-infested hedges and created a landscaped beach, on one level a lovely expanse of grass overlooking the length of the sand.

That change coincided with a change in my sport of choice - or may have hastened it. For years I had told my friends and relatives that there was no shortcut to exercise and that you really have to sweat if you want to maintain good form or reduce your weight. I managed to swim a few times a week, play an occasional game of tennis, and could be seen playing football with the children on the beach.

That level of activity, however, only reminded me of how stubborn my body had become. So I decided to start running, and what better environment to do that on than a lively beach where you can see and be seen.

As public amenities go, beaches require relatively little effort and resources - plant some trees, build some shades and create spaces for the natural flow of people. Half the work is done by nature and the other half by not doing anything silly or irreversible, which sadly seems to be the natural inclination of human nature.

But think of the benefits - city planners and hardened politicians take note. The sea is arguably the cheapest possible recreation feature available. It's the definition of 24-hour service and only goes "out of order" a few times a year. We are called Gulf states for a reason. In Oman alone there are 1,700 kilometres of unspoilt coastline. So where are the other beaches with amenities?

Cities go out of their way to create public spaces for residents to breathe and interact outside of their conflict-riddled workplaces and cluttered homes. Even though we often have to contend with 40°C heat even after 6pm, people still go to the beach.

In many cities around the world old ports are transformed into waterfront developments for their entertainment value, and streets heading towards the beach are lined with businesses that benefit from the crowd.

These public spaces are a tacit agreement between city planners and people: "Look after us and we'll look after you."

This is very different from shopping malls. Malls fail in two respects. First, shops are the attraction, where in open public areas, it is people themselves who are the attraction.

Malls also fail many people because they are simply too expensive. Who wants to spend a small fortune on a cup of coffee just so you can find a place to sit. Most people just want to take a walk and let their children play. The alternative in many cities that don't offer public amenities is to sit at home and absorb life's lessons from the television. No wonder so many people age into grumpy and overweight drones.

But back on my peaceful beach, I just finished my jog and rest on the moist grass, watching fishermen pull in their catch. The thought springs to mind that I should advise policy makers to keep these beaches public forever, and ignore the pointy-head consultants who plan great developments that would ruin them.

And as long as I'm on the subject, it also occurs to me to advise you to start running before you turn 40.


Anees Sultan is a businessman based in Oman