x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A natural question: is there space for green in the plan?

The Urban Planning Council's programme lays stress on public transport but there is a need for the protection of, and enhancement of, the open spaces that exist in the capital.

Last Thursday, pressure of work obliged me to forgo my usual trip to the supermarket for the weekly shop and to stay in the office until well after midnight. Not the ideal way to start the weekend, of course, but needs must. When I emerged, the temperature was pleasantly cool and the large private car park at the back of the office was crowded with 50 or so people playing and watching a couple of games of informal cricket. Ducking to avoid a well-hit cover drive, I got into my car and drove home.

I am rarely around to see them in the middle of the night, but such games are not an unusual sight of an evening, even in summer, as long as there aren't large coaches taking up most of the parking area, which now happens less rarely than it did a few months ago. The same car park is also used after school and office hours by groups of boys for impromptu football matches. It's good to see the multiple use.

The sight prompted me to think of the policies for the urban landscape of the future now being developed by Abu Dhabi's Urban Planning Council. We can expect, or so we are told, a greater emphasis on the use of public transport, facilities to encourage residents to walk or to ride bicycles - something that the new cycleways and wide pavements on the Corniche are certainly achieving. It may not be practical for people to enjoy themselves and to take exercise in the open air during the summer, but it certainly makes sense to try to promote the practice during cooler parts of the year.

For such a programme to be properly successful, however, there is a need for the protection of, and further enhancement of, the open spaces that do exist in the capital. As one can see along the Corniche or between the Hilton and Intercontinental Hotels, for example, such spaces are used for barbecues, as somewhere for the children to play or even just as a place to lie down under a tree and go to sleep.

I wish that more people would also develop a sense of social responsibility so that it becomes a matter of course for everyone to pick up their rubbish when they leave and either place it in the bins provided or take it home. I would also like to see some on-the-spot fines being handed out for those that don't, but that's another issue. It's all very well having gardens and parks - but surely there is more scope for something in the way of unstructured sports facilities. A patch set aside here for impromptu games of cricket, or another patch somewhere else for children to play football without being told that ball games are not allowed. Many children attend schools with no sports facilities at all and many come from families that simply can't afford the high membership fees of the various sport and leisure clubs around town. How on earth are they going to get the opportunity to take some exercise and burn off some of their energy?

As I drive around, I see little patches of undeveloped open space here and there that would be ideal for the creation - even temporarily - of a little cricket, basketball or football pitch that could be used by residents of the neighbourhood. They don't need to be fancy; they don't even need to have grass. What they do need, however, is some encouragement for them to be used in this way, without officialdom interfering. Some of the world's greatest sportsmen have begun their careers this way - as children enjoying themselves in the open air, chasing a ball (round or oval - take your pick) around or knocking it with a bat or racket. If the opportunities aren't there for the talent to emerge, we'll never know what's been lost.

It's not easy, of course, for the planners to cope with independent, unregulated initiatives. But, if within a particular neighbourhood, some residents, whether children or adults, turn a piece of open ground into a play-space, does it matter that this may not fit with long-term plans for a small garden there? Let it be used until the long-term plans are ready to be implemented. In similar vein, I find it sad that there's little left on Abu Dhabi island that can be termed "wilderness". There used to be little pockets of woods here and there, overgrown and unkempt, where you had to duck under branches when walking along paths between the undergrowth. Most are no longer what they were. If they survive at all, the trees have been clipped back, the undergrowth has been cleared and they are all becoming neat and tidy, no longer places where children can hide and explore or where wildlife, butterflies and other insects, birds and more, can make their home. In this International Year of Biodiversity, it's a pity to see the biodiversity of the country's capital being gradually eroded.

I welcome the introduction of more people-friendly planning, but I hope that it will allow space for some independent initiatives. And where there are rules and regulations, it would be nice to see them being implemented in a more flexible manner. In a city that is more pedestrian-friendly, we should be encouraging pavement cafes, where conditions are right. Yet one that I used to use near Sheikh Khalifa Street, surrounded by potted trees and covered by awnings, that was created by the adjacent bakery as a place where people could sit and eat a sandwich, has now been removed, though it wasn't blocking the pavement and didn't impinge on any parking spaces. At the same time, next to the building in which I live, a third takeaway food outlet has been permitted to open up, adding to what are already severe problems for residents caused by visitors in their cars blocking access as they wait for their takeaway. That doesn't seem to make much sense.

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