Friday, March 30, 2012


Too artificial is how the staff person at the reception of a Yas Island hotel related his impression of the UAE. He has been here only a couple of months. That reaction is not uncommon but it is still just a matter of perspective. Dubai, for example, is routinely described as something akin to Disneyland or Las Vegas.

As a 12-year resident artificial is not how I would like to describe it--at least not as a sweeping generalization. Granted, the Old City in Dubai, a cluster of apartments, hotels and a shopping arcade beside the base of the Burj Khalifa tower, is a mere 3 or 4 years old. Its buildings and walkways are built in imitation of an ancient Arabic souq. So, OK, this is Disneyland, I'll admit that much.

But take Yas Island (part of Abu Dhabi emirate)--it's got an F-1 racetrack and amusement park, arenas for musical and other sporting events, a cluster of hotels, a golf course, a marina, a giant IKEA, villa and condominium communities and extensive tree-lined cycle and pedestrian paths. This isn't Disneyland. It is simply a manifestation of contemporary urban design. It's new, but it isn't fake. The buildings are real, the designs are modern and contemporary and it is all open to the public for daily use and accommodation.

Most of the new communities across the country--in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah--are like this. They are new, very smartly-designed communities built for residents and tourists. There is really nothing artificial in this, is there?

And the People?

Now, this is a bit of a different story. There is more built and still being built than there are residents or a sufficient number of tourists to use or who can afford to use. Yas Island is an example of this. Despite all the recreational facilities, the residential communities are largely empty. I view this, however, as not a problem of artificial development, but rather poorly planned development with regard to location, scale and price.

The problem with some of the new developments relate to where they are situated and how expansive they are. Yas Island exemplifies this. It is 25 km from the Abu Dhabi city center. The distances between its various attractions and communities are impossible to navigate on foot and often require driving over long, circular routes. Is this the best that urban planners can come up with, especially when everyone is harping about green living?

This represents a huge mistake in urban planning--such that I really doubt the wisdom of planning cities at all rather than allowing them to develop organically. Everyone decries urban chaos in cities around the world with cries of Where was the planning? But ironically, I believe the best urban spaces are those with less advance planning. The planning is most effective when it comes about to address the realities on the ground which have already begun to manifest themselves. People argue that this sort of after-the-fact ad-hoc development is more costly. But I would argue that it is probably far cheaper, and definitely more beneficial, because then you build only what really needs to be built, rather than building facilities that may never actually be used.

I doubt that the beautiful cycling and pedestrian paths on Yas Island will ever be used. City buses (empty city buses) traveling to and from the city center regularly circle the island. The planners decided not to use round-abouts, so commonly used by past urban planners in the UAE. The logic, I suppose, is that traffic circles hinder rather than assist traffic flow in busy urban centers and cost a lot to convert to signaled intersections later on. So, the wide multi-laned avenues laid all about Yas Island regulate with annoying frequency the absent traffic. Driving on the island means stopping at a traffic signal every 15 seconds waiting for all of the ghost traffic to pass. (Believe me it is extremely annoying and I usually enjoy leisurely drives.)

Price too is one of the inhibiting factors than can make or break the cost of any development. By way of comparison, Al Hamra Village is a recreational, resort-style residential and tourists community about 100 kilometers from Dubai, in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. It is expansive, with over 1000 residential villas and townhouses and twice as many apartment units and a shopping mall. It has two existing hotels and more being built and includes an expansive golf course, marina and beaches. Drive through the community any day of the week and on weekends and you'll find over half the development occupied, with a majority of license plates from Dubai. The only reason the other half is yet to be occupied is that it was just completed within the past year. The deciding factor of success here is first of all price, the accommodations are much cheaper to buy and rent than anything in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and secondly scale. While the range of facilities is nearly as wide as that on Yas Island, the scale is miniscule. This is a walkable community. You can reach any part of it on a bicycle within 15 minutes.

And Masdar City?

So, the government of Abu Dhabi has constructed for the world Masdar City, the world's first zero-emission city. It is supposed to be a model of green efficiency. But it defies logic to attempt a green city on the one hand while at the very same time constructing a new Abu Dhabi which is the complete antithesis of this. The original footprint of Abu Dhabi city was on an island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. For most of its short history the only development that existed off-island were the airport, some industrial and automotive services and labor camps--the manual laborers were sadly considered not worthy to reside near the residential and urban communities they serviced.

Now, this was in a sense green planning long before green became a buzz word. In this light any new development for the city should have been restricted to the island or on the immediately adjacent mainland rather than being flung all about neighboring islands and in the surrounding deserts. With a bit of imagination and innovation, the existing city of Abu Dhabi and its adjacent environs could have been developed into an efficient, densely populated space. The key word here is innovative, no less innovative that the artificial city of Masdar. A new, more urban Abu Dhabi, restricted to the island would not have had the problem of an absence of people and it could have resulted in a truly pedestrian and cycle-friendly, energy-efficient urban model.