x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Al Ain plan foresees trebling of population

Development will focus on attracting residents and tourists through quality of life and a unique cultural heritage.

ABU DHABI // Officials have unveiled a master plan to preserve Al Ain's unique character while sustaining a nearly three-fold increase in population over the next 20 years. The Plan Al Ain 2030, a set of guidelines for the development of the UAE's fourth largest city, was released by the Urban Planning Council yesterday.

The blueprint projects the city's population to grow by 21 per cent over the next five years alone, from the current 374,000 residents to 476,000. Among the priorities outlined by the plan are conserving the city's oases, natural landscapes and heritage sites while introducing rail and tram systems and building new housing and business centres. "Plan Al Ain 2030 strikes a delicate and much-needed balance between conservation and development," said Falah al Ahbabi, the general manager of the UPC.

"Rather than competing with the heavy industry, skyscrapers and shopping malls of our coastal cities, Al Ain will focus on attracting residents and tourists based on its unique cultural heritage and the quality of the lifestyle it offers." The plan, which describes Al Ain as the "soul" of the emirate, emphasises that growth will be "measured rather than uncontrolled", maintaining the city's low-built scale, spaciousness, greenery and traditions.

Continuously inhabited for more than 5,000 years because of its natural springs, the area has traditionally provided a summer retreat for Emiratis wanting to escape the high humidity of the coast. It is known as the "garden city" of the UAE because of its oases, parks and agricultural land and the UPC wants to preserve the quality of life the city's residents currently enjoy. The city will be developed along axes extending from the downtown centre and surrounded by a conservation belt.

The farms that dot the city will also be protected. A network of boulevards, streets and passages will allow pedestrians to walk easily through the city on wide pavements, protected from the sun and dust by plants and shades. A tram system, buses and intercity train links will cut congestion. Housing developments will be built in the traditional "fareej" style, with a group of dwellings around a central, shaded courtyard allowing extended Emirati families to live in close proximity.

The current ban on buildings above a height of 20 metres, excluding mosques, will be maintained. The rule has forced Al Ain to expand horizontally rather than vertically, and the challenge for planners will be to avoid further urban sprawl as the city grows. To make the city economically sustainable, the existing manufacturing, healthcare and service sectors will be supported, while the expansion of hi-tech and media-based industries will be encouraged. More jobs will also be created in the tourism sector.

The plan projects that more than a million tourists will visit the city annually by 2030. The current level of 200,000 visitors a year is expected to double by 2013. It envisages the city's significant archaeological sites and historic buildings, including the Eastern Fort, the ancestral home of the ruling family, and the recently renovated Al Jahili Fort, as a major draw for tourists. Mr al Ahbabi said special attention would be paid to preserving the "identity" of Al Ain, where Emiratis make up 33 per cent of the population, a far higher proportion than in any of the UAE's bigger cities.

The plan projects that this ratio will stay roughly the same over the next 20 years. Dr Matar al Nuaimi, executive director of infrastructure and assets at Al Ain Municipality, said this would be achieved by developing opportunities for young Emiratis in the city, many of whom currently leave for Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Jebel Hafeet will be made into a national park. Mr al Ahbabi said plans for an indoor ski slope on the mountain, which would have a massive ecological impact, had not been scrapped. "We are studying the possibilities of how to do it in the right way," he said.

The development of the city has been divided into three phases, the first of which has already begun with the construction of Emirati housing projects. This stage includes expanding Al Ain Zoo to around three times its current size and development of the Jebel Hafeet tourist resort areas. The second phase will see the introduction of a tram system and redevelopment of "inner" neighbourhoods, while phase three covers the redevelopment of older areas, such as Al Khrair and Sanaiya, for Emirati housing.

lmorris@thenational.ae