x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

New look for abu Dhabi's green heart

Mushrif's ladies-only park is to undergo a major renovation to include pavilions, a cafe, a performance area, a botanic garden and entry for male family members.

Mushrif's ladies-only park has been a haven for women and children since the early 1980s - but now it is to undergo a major renovation to include pavilions, a cafe, a 1,000-seater performance area, a botanic garden and entry for male family members. Nick Leech reports

In the world of construction, Jean Nouvel and the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) are not the only design and development team looking forward to 2015 with eager anticipation.

Although the date is now firmly set in the popular imagination for the opening of Abu Dhabi's new Louvre museum by TDIC, it will also mark the delivery of one of Abu Dhabi's most important landscape projects, the new Mushrif Central Park developed by Al Ain Properties.

While the projects might seem to have little in common, each, in its own way, has the potential to entertain, educate and influence the lives of local residents and the way that Abu Dhabi sees itself.

For the park's designer, American landscape architect Brent Lloyd, that ambition is both modest and profound.

"There are so many ambitious projects being created across the emirate, but what I'd really like to see is a great destination for the community where they can gather with their families and meet their friends," he says. "I'd like to see Mushrif park become the heart of the community on the island and beyond."

Mushrif Central Park will replace the ladies-only Mushrif Garden between Karama and Airport Road.

The old venue has served the local community well since it opened in 1982. Last year its high walls, genteel amusement rides and wide lawns attracted more than 150,000 women and children.

But the new plans represent a wholesale change that will not only increase predicted visitor numbers to 850,000 by 2020, but will also allow male family members into the park for the first time, although there will still be some times when only women will be admitted.

For Mr Lloyd it was definitely time for a change.

"Parks change and people's needs change," he says. "When Mushrif park was originally created in the early 1980s, people's notions about what park users wanted was very different from today.

"Unless you are interested in the amusement rides, there's probably not that much for you to do in the park as it exists now.

"What we've tried to do is to reorganise the park and look at how we can create a wider range of new opportunities that at the same time blend very well together."

These "new opportunities" include a cafe, pavilions, an exhibition space, a 1,000-seat outdoor performance area, a petting zoo, new playgrounds and informal areas for sport or relaxation.

One of the park's most innovative features is a botanic garden featuring specially grown native plants, including species that have never been used in a public space in Abu Dhabi before.

The idea is to educate the public as well as the local landscape industry and to show them the beauty and the suitability of naturally drought-resistant desert plants.

Wholesale redevelopment of a park such as this is unusual, even in Abu Dhabi, but the site has a unique, mid-island location and for the developer, great potential.

As Mr Lloyd explains, the density of the local population, good transport links and the fact the park already has an enormous car park have all played a key role in the proposed transformation.

"There aren't that many parks right in the centre of the island and a lot of the new parks and open spaces that are being created are on the periphery of the city or on the islands," he says. "Mushrif park provides this great opportunity to provide a community hub.

"The park might not be as big as some of the others but there's a really great potential audience for the park immediately around it."

After four years of planning, development, extensive horticultural research and numerous public consultation exercises - the design team contacted children from more than 70 schools, plus local government and community organisations - the old park has now closed and the first phase of construction is finally about to begin.

One of the first tasks will be to select which of the 250 mature palm and shade trees in the park - some of the oldest in Abu Dhabi - will be kept and protected in their current location or crated, lifted, and transplanted for reuse in the new park.

Another task will be to remove the old park's high wall. This will allow the new Mushrif Central Park to spill beyond its current boundaries and appear to reach out into the city beyond.

For Mr Lloyd, it is this approach, of seeing the park in its broadest possible context, that will be one of the keys to its future success.

"Mushrif Central Park has the potential to operate within a bigger network of green spaces," he says. "Looked at together with the boulevard on Al Saada Street, Mushrif Park and the Corniche could connect [with other parks] to create a city within a park."

Looked at from this perspective, it is landmark projects such as the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi that will make the city a world-class destination, but the grass roots, community-focused landscape projects such as the new Mushrif Central Park that have the potential to offer something that is even more valuable than that.

They promise to make Abu Dhabi a happier, healthier place to live. Watch this (green) space.