x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Other cities don't have the guts'

Emirate prepares for population growth with long-term vision, that of a green modern capital city.

ABU DHABI // If all goes according to plan, the future of Abu Dhabi looks bright - and green. Having evolved from a desert settlement to a bustling, modern capital city in a matter of decades, Abu Dhabi has assembled an all-star team of planners, designers and architects to devise what may be the most ambitious development plan in the world.

"Abu Dhabi is a key player in the world. We want the city to be sustainable and we have an advantage over all the others," said Falah al Ahbabi, general manager of the emirate's Urban Planning Council. "Other cities don't have the guts or the resources. We have both." The goal is to bring Abu Dhabi into the 21st Century by shifting the focus from cars to people. Abu Dhabi has followed what is known as the Vancouver Model, used in the design of the Canadian city. Public transport was expanded, and suburban sprawl was avoided through greater density in residential and office development; mixed-use areas were connected by linked parks and green belts, making walking more attractive and improving the beauty and comfort of public areas.

The vision for the capital's future is in Abu Dhabi Plan 2030. Finished late last year, it is intended to be the guiding light for all development. Its policies, guidelines and philosophies should touch every aspect of the city's growth, Mr Ahbabi said. "As the Government, we developed the vision, we regulate, we put the policies in place, then we push out to the private sector," he said. "Once they've grabbed the opportunity, we help them execute the plans."

That way, he added, no new development can deviate from Plan 2030. The impetus for the plan was the emirate's growing population, which is expected to reach 3.1 million by 2030, compared with 930,000 in 2007. The World Wildlife Fund last year designated the UAE as the country whose residents consumed the most resources per capita. As one of the youngest - and richest - countries in the world, the nation is in the unique position, Mr Ahbabi said, to learn the lessons of other cities and design for the future using best practices from around the world.

Larry Beasley, a high-profile Canadian urban planner and the brains behind the Vancouver Model, was lured out of retirement to head the design team for Abu Dhabi. "The Vancouver Model is a manifestation of what people understand as the contemporary approach to the modern, sustainable city," Mr Beasley said. "Abu Dhabi's leadership... want to create a liveable city, and if you leave it to chance, you won't get a liveable city."

The plan deals with each component of the city separately, with relevant professionals contributing to their area of expertise. Making public transit an alternative to private vehicles is one of the most important ways to make Abu Dhabi more people-friendly, Mr Beasley said. The plan envisions a comprehensive public transport network, comprising two high-capacity metro lines, high-speed rail, local trolleys and a ferry route. Its designers hope that the added transportation alternatives would greatly reduce traffic congestion, although there is no estimate yet of how many vehicles the plan would take off the streets.

Making the city more enjoyable means public areas are not only more attractive but also more usable, Mr Beasley said. "Architectural practice has not focused on the public realm," he said. "You have to have policies that drive the shaping and development of the public realm and focus on people. It's called experiential planning." One test of a successful city, Mr Beasley said, was whether young children could play in the streets on their own. "If they can play comfortably on their own, if it works for them, it works for everyone else."

One way to do that, and what worked in Vancouver, is to design parts of the city for mixed primary uses. In a mixed-use area, residential, commercial, offices, schools and small businesses are established close enough to each other to be accessible on foot. Thus the streets would always be busy, Mr Beasley said, making them safe for children. Plan 2030 also calls for creating a park network - ranging from large natural parks, to sand belts, to community parks and gardens.

The idea, Mr Ahbabi said, was to maintain the traditional Emirati identity - based largely on privacy in the home - while developing a world standard for quality of living. Saving energy is another major component of Plan 2030. "It's hot here. Fine," Mr Ahbabi said. "But we shouldn't ignore saving power, water... How much we save is all based on human knowledge. We can design the city in such a way that we save [resources] for the next generation."

All guidelines, policies, documents and methods for the execution of Plan 2030 will be finished by the end of the year. The challenge is to change the behaviour and the attitudes of Abu Dhabi's people, Mr Ahbabi said. @Email:jhume@thenational.ae