x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Town planning: the next generation

Home-grown Emirati urban planners are designing the UAE's future.

Yaser Al Nuaimi, Yousif Al Fahim, Talal Al Ansari and Ibrahim Al Hmoudi are among the ‘next generation’ town planners.
Yaser Al Nuaimi, Yousif Al Fahim, Talal Al Ansari and Ibrahim Al Hmoudi are among the ‘next generation’ town planners.

ABU DHABI //At the offices of the Urban Planning Council, a team of young Emiratis dream of walkable streets, family-friendly neighbourhoods and a thriving business area.

Working side-by-side with internationally recognised and award-winning professionals, these so-called next-generation planners collaborate on projects ranging from sustainability initiatives and urban design to road planning and community-building.

Across departments and specialities, these Emiratis are single-minded about why they signed up to be part of the council - to help shape the future of the emirate.

Yaser Al Nuaimi, a 31-year-old senior associate working on the Emirati Family Housing Programme, joined the Urban Planning Council (UPC) three years ago after studying for a civil engineering degree in Scotland.

After initially working on the Corniche redevelopment project, Mr Al Nuaimi now works with a project management team aiming to deliver 13,000 homes for Emiratis in the next four years.

"When I first heard about Vision 2030, I really liked the content of the vision, because we're making Abu Dhabi better for the next generation," Mr Al Nuaimi said. "I wanted to be part of this change."

Ibrahim Al Hmoudi, a 32-year-old senior transport planner who works on street design and an upcoming 1,200km railway project, said his work was an opportunity "to give back to my country".

"Our leaders have laid out a vision for the city to be among the top five around the world, and that's a challenge. And to be among a team working to do that is an honour," Mr Al Hmoudi said.

"We can do it. This is the place. We can make Abu Dhabi the place in 2030 that people want to come to and live in."

About 40 per cent of UPC planners are considered "next generation", having been selected and groomed for positions at the council while still students. They come from backgrounds in architecture, civil engineering, environmental science and geographic information systems.

"We're attracting top-tier students, telling them what the UPC is and what the vision for the future is, and we're encouraging students to get into this field because of its importance," said Yousef Al Junaibi, the human resources manager at the UPC.

Attracting people to the field was easy, Mr Al Junaibi said.

"Our planners are attracted to this work because it allows them to be creative and innovative," he said. "Everyone has a say in the projects. There is a respect here, a pride. We have an environment in this organisation not available in others.

"These elements are what attracts locals to this job."

These Emiratis bring two vital perspectives to the UPC - that of traditional culture and that of the younger population.

"We will follow the international standards while also keeping the Emirati identity and culture intact," said Talal Al Ansari, 27, who has worked at the UPC for two years as a senior urban designer.

Yousif Al Fahim, a 26-year-old associate planner who works on revitalisation master plans, said keeping a connection to tradition was a priority, even as the city builds for the future.

"We have to maintain the unique identity of the city; one that reflects the history and tradition of the residents," Mr Al Fahim said. "We know the culture, so it is very important to have Emiratis involved in these projects."

With workers from more than 25 different countries on staff at the UPC, the next-generation planners said they were happy to have the chance to share ideas.

"You have the whole world here," said Mr Al Hmoudi. "You learn from Japan, you learn from Canada, you learn from England. And they learn from us."

But the greatest conversations were those that involved the community, the planners said. During regular public meetings, called charrettes, UPC staffers meet with stakeholders and community members for brainstorming and working sessions.

"The younger generation is not as involved," said Aysha Abu Shahab, a 29-year-old associate planner who works in community outreach for Estidama, the emirate's sustainability initiative.

"So by having charrettes, this is a way for everyone to be involved, whether they're educated or not, whether they're young or old. It's a chance for everyone to have a voice," she said.

For Mr Al Hmoudi, the greatest job rewards are knowing that the work will pay dividends for decades to come.

"One of the targets is to create a city that's walkable and liveable," he said, as his colleagues nodded in agreement.

"We want to create a city that can compete with the rest of the world."

jthomas@thenational.ae