x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

World watches to see if Abu Dhabi can define sustainability

Capital's first town planner loathes this western concept, saying Abu Dhabi must 'define it ourselves'.

Abu Dhabi // "Sustainability" is the heart and goal of Abu Dhabi Plan 2030. What it means is not settled. Abdel Rahman Makhlouf was Abu Dhabi's first town planner. He was intimately involved in the emirate's transformation from small desert settlement to big Arab city. To him, the biggest problem in the city's plan for the future is its use of the word "sustainability".

"I hate this word, 'sustainability'," said Mr Makhlouf, who is 84. "Sustainability is a western concept. In Abu Dhabi, the term is misleading. What does it mean? We need to either define it ourselves or stop using it." The Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council is slowly realising that the whole world is watching to see if the emirate reaches its ambitious goal of becoming an international example of sustainable growth.

Larry Beasley, the Canadian urban planner behind the Abu Dhabi Plan 2030, said the capital needed to change after growing the way it has for the past 40 years. While it was easy to be critical and sceptical of the plan, Mr Beasley said once the city's people experience the new way of life it proposes, the idea would really "take off". Getting people out of their cars and on to public transport, for example, is something almost everyone involved in the plans has acknowledged will be a big hurdle in Plan 2030's success.

Becoming a more pedestrian-friendly city, as well, poses something of a challenge considering the weather. "You can make it easier to get around, transit can be developed," he said. "But in general, there are things specific to this location that make that difficult, and weather is one of those things. Say what you want about Paris, walking around Paris, but you just can't do the same thing here. People will always drive."

Falah al Ahbabi, general manager of the Urban Planning Council, said: "If you sit with any consultant or architect, they all dream about sustainability, but the problem is that it comes at a cost. Of course, it pays off in the long term, but investors see only the first five to 10 years. We in Government here want to turn this into a green city. We are taking solid steps and we will do this." While few would deny that "sustainability" has become a buzzword, even fewer would argue that designing cities with the natural environment and people in mind is a bad idea.

Many involved in Abu Dhabi Plan 2030 say the idea is to make the city more liveable, less resource-intensive, more about people and less about cars, more connected and less sprawling. Mr Beasley said there was reason to doubt that Abu Dhabi would succeed, and admitted that he was more than reluctant to be lured out of retirement to help the city figure out its future. "I started out saying, 'if the leadership isn't serious, I won't stay'," he said.

But people all over North America are desperately seeking examples of successful green cities, he said, and in this regard, Abu Dhabi is uniquely positioned. One would be hard-pressed to name another city in the world at such an early stage of development that it could sit down and design its future. "This is a huge opportunity for Abu Dhabi and people are excited to watch. Rome wasn't built in a day."

@Email:jhume@thenational.ae