x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Oasis plants seeds of new growth

Al Ain's multimillion-dirham facelift intended to beautify its centre and improve traffic flow is due to be completed by next September.

An artists rendering of planned redevelopment in Al Ain's centre, which will feature covered walkways.
An artists rendering of planned redevelopment in Al Ain's centre, which will feature covered walkways.

AL AIN // Al Ain is getting a multi-million-dirham facelift intended to beautify its centre, improve traffic flow and make it easier for people to stroll through the oasis city. The project, launched in May and due for completion by next September, is designed to prepare the city for future expansion as well as make life more pleasant for residents and attract more tourists. Many Emiratis from Abu Dhabi have holiday homes in Al Ain and enjoy summer holidays or weekend retreats in the city.

Even though the city's temperatures are among the highest in the country, the dry desert air is a relief from the coastal humidity of the capital. Many people also escape to the cooler air on Jebel Hafeet mountain. Authorities also hope to increase tourism by getting more foreigners who travel to the country to put the fourth-largest city on their must-visit lists. New pedestrian areas, a shopping plaza, covered walkways, new hotels, a big new mosque and other attractions are intended to transform the city of more than 600,000 inhabitants.

One of the main goals of the redevelopment is to highlight Al Ain's principal attraction, the oasis near the city centre. A new street layout and pedestrian area will improve access to the oasis by linking it to the centre. The project is the brainchild of the Urban Planning Council, which is working with the municipality. The council is overseeing all developments in and around Al Ain planned up to 2030.

The town centre development will cost the municipality Dh312 million (US$85m) according to Dr Mattar al Nuaimi, the city's executive director of infrastructure and assets. It is all going according to plan so far, and will help the city to adapt to future pressures, he said. "Many more tourists are coming to Al Ain, the population is rising and more business is coming to the city," Dr Nuaimi said. "New developments and big projects will of course bring more traffic as will the rising numbers of people living in the city."

Most of the projects under the redevelopment are designed to meet environmental concerns and reduce pollution. At their core is an attempt to manage traffic levels, which in turn will improve air quality. Dr Nuaimi says the redevelopment has been divided into several stages: "The first will be to remove the Al Ain bridge. It's visual pollution in the downtown area. We want to make the town look nicer," he said.

The bridge is a major flyover near the city centre. "Shops around the bridge are suffering. It's as if they're opening their business under a wall. People just can't see them because of the bridge. It also blocks a lot of the city view," Dr Nuaimi said. In addition, six roundabouts will be replaced with traffic signals at crossroads. "They are just not useful anymore. There is too much traffic for them to be effective. The signals will enhance the system and allow the traffic to move better," Dr Nuaimi said.

Al Ain traffic police will try to minimise the disruption in the city centre while the redesign is underway. The worst disruption is expected in the area around the bridge. Dr Nuaimi is aware that no anti-congestion measures can eliminate traffic problems entirely, but he hopes the new system will at least help to ease the problem. "It will help the traffic to move more smoothly," he said. "We expect more traffic in Al Ain in the coming years so we feel it will be more effective. The intersections will serve the roads better than the roundabouts.

"Every year in Al Ain we have around seven per cent more traffic on the roads and with the rapid development going on, we expect it to be much more." The city also hopes to reduce pollution by introducing a bus service that will help reduce the number of cars on the roads. It is trying out buses in the city centre to see whether the Abu Dhabi bus system suits Al Ain. If the service is popular and effective it will be implemented across the city.

"Public transport, we think, is the best solution to reducing congestion and traffic in the city centre, not by building tunnels and bridges," Dr Nuaimi said. However, a series of car parks is under construction to ease the parking space shortage in the city centre. Another 320 spaces will be added with two-storey underground car parks. Architectural features will include new hotels and the Sheikha Salama Mosque which will be Al Ain's largest, capable of holding nearly 4,000 worshippers.

A new plaza with covered walkways and seating will provide a place for residents to relax and existing walkways are being widened. Four have already been widened. The aim is to provide families with a space to relax and socialise outdoors, thus encouraging a greater sense of a healthier outdoor life. "We want to encourage people to be outdoors and walk. It aims to get people out of the malls and indoor spaces. It's much more healthy for them," Dr Nuaimi said.

More pedestrian crossings will be built to increase safety in the city. Main roads and each intersection will have pedestrian crossings. "Pedestrian safety really does need to be addressed. Safety has always been a concern. We need to provide a good environment for pedestrians," said Dr Nuaimi. However, the awareness of pedestrian safety issues also had to be raised among drivers. "Many drivers are still not really aware of the concept of pedestrians. It's not like countries like the UK where the driver has to stop as soon as we put a foot on the crossing."