x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Modernisation, but not too much

An extensive and ambitious vision for the city's growth, Plan Al Ain 2030 is founded on the overarching principle of sustainable and considered development that will not compromise the city's character.

A photograph of Al Ain in the 1960s.
A photograph of Al Ain in the 1960s.

An extensive and ambitious vision for the city's growth, Plan Al Ain 2030 is founded on the overarching principle of sustainable and considered development that will not compromise the city's character. Loveday Morris summarises the report's main conclusions.

The city will be shaped by the surrounding natural environment and developed while taking into account the increasing scarcity of water. A protected desert and mountain belt around the city, including Jebel Hafeet, will be given national park status and prevent urban sprawl. Some existing development may be removed in the process. Al Ain's oases, the report says, are "not in an ecologically healthy condition" because of the loss of traditional agricultural practices, contamination by pesticides and the encroachment of development, and will be restored and protected. The traditional "falaj" water delivery system and organic farming will be reintroduced.

A public trust will be formed to maintain groundwater supplies as the city attempts to replenish its diminished aquifer and protect it from contamination. The trust will also be charged with maintaining the oases. Drought tolerant trees, plants and landscaping will be used in the city to conserve water and water re-use, and recycling will be encouraged, particularly for irrigation. Designated park land will be protected from development.

The plan outlines a layered network to meet transportation needs. A tram line, expected to be completed in the next five to seven years, will connect residential areas to the centres of employment, and a high-speed rail link will connect Al Ain's downtown with the capital and Dubai. The rail terminus will be the "centrepiece" of the transit network. Two 300m platforms will accommodate the trains, and the station will be complete with underground parking. The station, which will be built near the open square now called Al Ain Town Centre, will also house shops, restaurants and a hotel. A shuttle bus network will provide another alternative to driving.

The current grid of boulevards will be preserved as they are judged to distribute traffic effectively. Blocks will be interspersed with a grid of smaller streets that will relieve traffic pressure on the larger roads. The street network will be reorganised to a certain extent. The flyover between downtown and the main oasis will be removed. Roundabouts on the outskirts of the city will be retained, but those in the centre will be replaced with traffic lights to improve traffic flow and make the roads safer for pedestrians. Walking will be encouraged in the city centre through shading devices, wide pavements and improved crossings. Cycle lanes will also be introduced on all major boulevards.

Allocating Emirati housing is identified as one of the key challenges as the city expands, and there will be developments, including affordable housing options, reserved for nationals. Brownfield sites will be redeveloped for this purpose along with some undeveloped land, chosen for its proximity to the city centre.

Communities will be developed to support traditional "Bedouin living" and extended families living together in "fareej" - groups of dwellings around a central courtyard, which will be the "building blocks" of the city. Fareej will be grouped into "local clusters" around a small central park, large enough to support a kindergarten, mosque and outdoor play area. Clusters will be aggregated into neighbourhoods of eight to 10 thousand residents.

The Central District is where most of Al Ain's population lives, but by 2030 the Al Maqa, Asharej and Al Muwaiji areas will house most of the city's residents. For expatriates, location and size of development will take into account workers' and employers' needs. Where possible, housing for service workers will be located near their place of employment. Housing for construction workers must have no more than 10,000 residents, though a population of 5,000 is preferred, and should be located near or on the sites where possible. They should also have access to services and amenities.

Economic opportunities should be leveraged to make the city sustainable but without harming its character. Al Ain should develop as a "dynamic hub of knowledge in the modern global economy" rather than compete with the coastal cities' big businesses and heavy industry. The city will focus on the education, healthcare and tourism sectors, and media-related businesses will also be encouraged.

Universities will be expanded and focus on retaining Emirati students and attracting others from across the GCC. Health care will be "aggressively" expanded to support the growing population, creating further jobs. An increase in the population and tourism will lead to more demand for shops and the ratio of people to retail space will remain high. The existing Main Souk will be developed into a "downtown destination" with underground parking and "greatly improved" facilities. Wind towers, water features and shading devices will be used to provide natural cooling. A continuous shaded zone will link the souk with the main retail district in the downtown area. Large malls will be kept to a minimum. The central business district will be revitalised and underused land redeveloped.

Industry will be moved away from Sanaiya to a new industrial district along the Truck Road. A new high-tech business park, focused on "clean light" manufacturing, such as computer software and hardware development, will be located at the airport. New hotels will be opened, with 4,000 rooms likely to be needed by 2030 to support business and tourism, which the plan describes as on "the low side" for an emerging economy.

lmorris@thenational.ae