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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

In landscape design as in journalism, it's best to know your place

Much like its human population, the UAE’s plant palette is made up of migrants, many of whom are unspeakably thirsty

Twofour54. Jaime Puebla / The National
Twofour54. Jaime Puebla / The National

To misquote the artist Richard Hamilton, just what is it that makes today's Abu Dhabi so different?

Since The National moved its newsroom to TwoFour54 I now travel along Al Salam Street to get to work, joining the highway at the point where the Eastern Mangroves Park begins and with it a view that takes me back to my earliest days in the UAE.

On one side of the highway sits the park, a lush lawn where at weekends families pic-nic and football teams compete when the weather allows it. On the other side there is an exercise trail lined with an experimental landscape planted with desert plants that, now they are established, require little or no irrigation.

One side is much- loved but environmentally unsustainable, the other attempts to tackle the issues the UAE faces, but largely goes unnoticed by motorists as they speed past.

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I did so not as a journalist but as a landscape architect, and the ability to discern the defining features of a place was more than a matter of personal interest, it was the stuff of professional pride. My wife told me this made me a crashing bore, but of course I knew better.

Ever since the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope made the consultation of the spirit of a place - its genius loci - the founding principle for landscape design, people in my former profession have been looking for the natural clues that will not only make their creations beautiful, but ideally adapted to their context.

In very basic terms, this means keeping cacti in the sun and and ferns in the shade, but once I started working in the UAE I realised that the normal rules no longer applied.

Much like its human population, the UAE’s plant palette is made up of migrants, many of whom are unspeakably thirsty.

Look closely at any Abu Dhabi park or garden and you’ll find fan palms from Mexico and flame-flowered Geiger trees from Florida, bird of paradise bushes from Barbados and spider-flowered daffodils from Peru, all of which gorge on irrigation water in a country with no rivers and almost as little rain.

Even to somebody straight off the plane, it was clear that this is a problem.

In the 2006, the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report ranked the UAE as the country with the world’s highest per capita ecological footprint and in 2008 the country held the dubious record of having the world's highest water consumption per capita.

Things have improved since then, but 70 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s water is still used for agricultural and landscape irrigation and in a country where less than an estimated 2 per cent of farms are commercially viable, that’s a sum that simply refuses to add up.

Before long I started looking for people who could make sense of the situation, a quest that set my life and career on a very different path.

In Al Ain, there was the plant hunter who discovered that the UAE was too hot for cacti and a nurseryman who saw the future by cultivating desert plants years before the competition.

On Yas, there was a groundsman who revealed just how much his greens and fairways drank - 7 million litres of potable water each day, confirming all my suspicions about the vile game - and then there was the Dutch doctor - Marijke Jongbloed - who spent 20 years recording the UAE’s native flora in her spare time.

Jongbloed's book, The Comprehensive Guide to the Wild Flowers of the UAE, should be considered a national treasure but to find my copy I had to enter the bowels of a Government ministry where I discovered a cache in a filing cabinet, kept safely under lock and key.

Discovering these people and their remarkable stories inspired me to start writing, and in February 2010 my first article, a gardening column, was published in this newspaper.

A transplant from London, I’d found the genius loci I was looking for in Abu Dhabi’s people, their passions and their kindness and in doing so I'd found a new context of my own.