x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

More to a city than just motorways

Abu Dhabi's Urban Planning Council is emphasising freej, or neighbourhood, in it latest development plans. That's a fine ambitious goal, but getting there will not be easy.

In a country with a strong driving culture like the Emirates, a "walkable neighbourhood" might sound like an oxymoron. But take a stroll down Hamdan Street in the early morning, saunter along the cafes on Jumeirah Beach at lunchtime or explore Sharjah Corniche in the twilight.

Anyone who escapes his car here will find lots of company, not to mention proof that two feet are a viable - and healthier - mode of transport.

Urban planning should reflect this - although we all know that most UAE cities favour the car. But in line with Abu Dhabi's Vision 2030, the Urban Planning Council is working to revitalise older communities that have been linked by little more than ribbons of pavement for too long.

As The National reported yesterday, the most recent outline of Abu Dhabi's revitalisation plans should recreate the community aspect of Arab neighbourhoods, which many feel has been under siege by all the forces and hubbub of modern-day life. The development plan also pays particular attention to outlying areas of the emirate.

The Baniyas-South Wathba Revitalisation plan for communities southeast of Abu Dhabi island covers housing, neighbourhood centres and services. The outcome should be to cluster community spaces, with small streets and common areas to bring people and places together.

There are plenty of reasons behind the urban planning vision for Abu Dhabi. It should bring people together. Motoring down the highway in the hunt for a jug of milk is commonplace for many of us now. But how can true communities arise if our lives are spent behind the wheel?

This is not a concept foreign to the UAE - indeed, the opposite. Amer Al Hammadi, the director of planning and infrastructure at the UPC, said the aim was to restore lost ties of a tight community fabric. "We worked hard to create a connected area, with things close together."

The neighbourhood, or freej, has long been the bedrock of society. But we acknowledge that the bonds between households, and even within families, are challenged in new ways. This is not necessarily bad or good, it is just the way it is.

But if we can strengthen relations between neighbours with something as simple as a park or shaded walkway, it deserves to be done.