x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A city in bloom would be a balm for urban residents

In the UAE, with its intense summer heat and winters that are rarely more than slightly cool, the leaves in their many shades of russet, yellow and brown do not fall from the trees in autumn, to be replaced by new growth in the spring. That's no reason, though, why more effort couldn't be made to make our cities more attractive.

Later this week, if all goes according to plan, I shall be in London for a short break. In the parks, the new leaves will be opening and the spring flowers will be out on the bushes and lawns. Along some of the streets in the residential areas, cherry trees and magnolias will be in blossom, offering a delightful array of delicate colours amid the passing traffic. In parts of the city centre, great trees, some planted over a century ago, break up the outlines of the buildings. As the leaves grow back after winter, they will provide shade for the next six months or more. Much of the same can be seen in cities and towns all over Europe and the rest of the cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere, even in the northern parts of Scandinavia, the United States and Canada. It's one of the most beautiful times of the year, a time when life begins anew.

In the UAE, with its intense summer heat and winters that are rarely more than slightly cool, the leaves in their many shades of russet, yellow and brown do not fall from the trees in autumn, to be replaced by new growth in the spring. One has no choice but to become accustomed to the fact that the year isn't divided so clearly into the four seasons. That's no reason, though, why more effort couldn't be made to make our cities more attractive.

Last weekend, stuck in a traffic jam in Abu Dhabi's Hamdan Street, I noticed that, just to the left of me, there were a few large, well-established trees on the central reservation. Not palm trees, but other species with leaves and flowers, between which two or three types of birds were flitting. What made the sight more noticeable was that, despite the noise of the car engines, I could even hear some of the birds singing. That was quite a surprise on a busy city-centre street.

The lights changed, I edged forward; they changed again, I edged forward again. Eventually, I crossed the intersection to make my way down the great urban canyon of Hamdan Street, tall buildings on either side dwarfing the trees in the middle. At one point, stopped again by the traffic, I looked upwards to my left, and there was a rare modern building with balconies, on some of which residents, proud of their homes, had put a few potted plants. The little splashes of green and the occasional spray of brightly coloured bougainvillaea trailing down the front of the building were a pleasure to see.

I looked but didn't see another building like it until I was out of the city centre and into areas with much smaller buildings, wide pavements, patches of grass and, of course, the inevitable palm trees. How nice it would be if more residents with balconies made such use of them - and how nice it would be, also, if more of the architects and designers working on building the tower blocks of the future actually bothered to include small balconies, to give people the option of putting out a few plants.

I would happily accept a few more untidy lines of washing flapping in the wind if there were more balconies with little trees, displays of flowers and trailing fronds of greenery. The streets of our city centres need a little more greenery, with flowers in season, to break up the outlines of glass and concrete. To some extent, of course, this is always going to be a matter of individual initiative. I fear that it may be somewhat impractical to hope that plant-loving building owners are actually going to encourage their tenants to turn their balconies, if they exist, into little high-rise urban gardens or even - and why not? - plant a few more rooftop gardens.

There is, though, something that could be done by the Abu Dhabi Municipality and the Urban Planning Council and by their equivalents in other large Emirati cities. Even in the busiest downtown streets, where pavement and parking space is at a premium, there's still room to plant a tree or two here and there - though not more palm trees, please. They would need to be protected while they were young, or vandals might destroy them. In the long run, they would grow to a goodly height, a couple of storeys or more, casting shade on the pavements. They would help to reduce, even if only slightly, the glare of the summer sun and look good too.

Perhaps a few more seats could be placed at strategic points, allowing passers-by to sit and chat for a few moments in the course of the day or night. If the right species of trees were chosen, and there are a few of them around already, there would be a few weeks of the year at least when an array of brilliant white, pink, orange and red flowers would decorate our streets. Iridescent purple sunbirds and bulbuls as well as the drabber mynas, laughing doves and house sparrows would make good use of them to further improve the beauty of the cities.

I'm a great fan of the way the Abu Dhabi Corniche and other seafront locations around the country have been planted with trees and gardens and equipped with small cafes. Judging by the good use being made of these areas, other residents welcome them as well. Can we now, please, have some more thought given to what can be done with the high-rise city-centre streets and how little piazzas could be created amid the tower blocks? A little effort would go a long way towards softening the stark architecture that so often appears to prevail, however impressive it may be, especially if we are to be encouraged to walk more and to use cars less. Those who live here 50 or 100 years from now will thank us.

Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage