x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Al Ain life to get better, planners say

As part of Plan Al Ain City 2030, staff will assess the individual needs of each neighbourhood.

ABU DHABI //Urban planners will descend on Al Ain's neighbourhoods this year to evaluate their needs and flesh out the Government's master plan for the city.

Staff from the emirate's Urban Planning Council began the process a few weeks ago in Al Jahili, one of 29 urban districts in the oasis city.

They plan to visit each district, mapping the area and talking to residents to identify challenges.

They will assess whether the communities have sufficient amenities such as schools, parks, grocery shops, transport and more, said Eric Wilson, planning manager for the UPC's Al Ain team.

"Do people have basic access to community facilities, and are they able to walk to those facilities?" Mr Wilson said. "We will come up with a series of prioritised recommendations that we then present to leadership."

The UPC released Plan Al Ain City 2030, a general strategy for sustainable growth, in 2009. This year's planning process will address implementation and details.

The team spent the past two years on a similar in-depth assessment of Al Ain's city centre. Their draft, called Wasat Medinat Al Ain, is awaiting approval from leadership.

Mr Wilson said the planners will apply what they learnt from that process to the city's other districts.

"I think there's a lot of possibilities," said Robert Arthur, an assistant professor in the geography department at United Arab Emirates University. "I can see a lot of growth."

One development challenge will be a rule restricting building heights to 20 metres, said Mr Arthur, an Al Ain resident for seven years.

"That causes the city to be very large, and that of course causes ever-increasing expenses in infrastructure," he said. "That's something they have to work with.

"The positive thing about the height restriction is it does give the city more of a human scale than the huge glass and steel of Dubai."

The 2009 master plan described Al Ain as the "soul" of the emirate, and said growth should be "measured rather than uncontrolled" to preserve the city's scale, greenery and traditions.

Some residents have expressed worries that, with development, rents will increase. Others are concerned about Al Ain losing its character.

"We residents of Al Ain, we don't want it to develop fast like Dubai," said Ahmed Saleh, 21, who has lived there all his life. "We like it this way. We like the quiet city that doesn't have a lot of traffic and a lot of headaches. It's a place to relax."

Mr Saleh called Al Ain "the best place in the UAE to build a family".

Asked what could make the city better, he said he would like to see more family entertainment venues, such as the newly opened water park.

One issue the UPC planners discovered in Al Jahili and expect to see elsewhere is a lack of neighbourhood green space.

"There's some gorgeous, gigantic parks in Al Ain," Mr Wilson said. "But what we're finding is that inside, embedded in the neighbourhoods, there's not a lot of opportunities for … playgrounds, etc."

Another issue they expect is an abundance of empty utility corridors where cables and pipes are buried.

"One of our main recommendations, I think, is going to be better use of these utility corridors to enhance recreational space," Mr Wilson said.

Mr Arthur cautioned that more green space would need more irrigation. "Sooner or later it becomes quite a burden on the water system," he said.

The planners have not decided whether they will hold large public forums, but they will engage residents, Mr Wilson said.

"We're going to be moving along at a pretty reasonable clip," he said.

vnereim@thenational.ae