Dubai's secret gardens

Feature Concealed behind flyovers and in the midst of seemingly endless roadworks are splashes of colour and nature that are making your day better, though you may not know it. M discovers Dubai's highway horticulture and the team helping it grow.

All photographs: Randi Sokoloff / The National

It's a hot May afternoon in Dubai. The lush green lawn is thick and springy. It is bordered by a dense growth of waist-high Fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum); pale-purple flower spikes, feather-soft to the touch, waving in the barely perceptible breeze.

Standing to attention nearby are twin plantations of Indian Shot (Canna indica). This tall plant is so named because of the legend that, during the Indian Mutiny, sepoys loyal to Britain loaded their guns with its tough seeds when they ran out of lead shot. Now in flower, its thick green leaves are topped by scarlet muzzle flashes. Beyond is a neatly spaced regiment of poinciana trees, with their fern-like leaves and dangling seed pods. They are on the verge of bursting into flower, a twice-yearly event that will see the streets and parks of the city aflame with red flowers. It's a dramatic transformation that earns Delonix regia its alternative name: Flame of the Desert.

Sparrows bicker and chase each other from tree to tree. In the distance a pair of little egrets, vividly white against the green backdrop, pick their way delicately across a grass embankment, feeding with quick stabs of their long beaks. They ignore the rumble of the metro overhead and the constant roar of the cars, lorries and buses rushing by on all sides, just metres away. Welcome to the secret gardens of Dubai - or, more accurately, to the spaghetti junction of the Marina-Emirates Hills interchange on Sheikh Zayed Road, one of an increasing number of beautiful yet inaccessible parks created by Dubai Municipality's Public Parks and Horticulture Department.

Some are formal, others wilder in outlook, but all are transforming the experience of driving through the city. Tucked away under flyovers, squeezed between diverging off-ramps and encircled in the "dead" spaces created by roads looping their way in wide circles to and from the highway, these sanctuaries are designed not to be visited, but to be glimpsed - to be sensed, almost, as a subconscious blur on the driver's side - by the thousands of motorists who rush past them daily.

Beyond those who designed, built and planted them, and those who maintain them, few human feet will ever fall there. This is vivacious municipal gardening at its best, executed with broad brush strokes; undulating patterned lawns, curving terraces of stone and neatly manicured bushes, bright colours and vivid contrasts between dark reds, greens, pinks and whites, etched in geometrical patterns. And it's not just about giving Dubai a pretty face. It is also, says Dr Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai Knowledge Village, an application of the tenets of the school of ecological psychology writ large.

The thousands of drivers who pass these gardens every day might not realise it, he says - frequently, the impact of surroundings upon one's mood and stress levels is subconscious - but "people can be easily influenced by environment. It used to be said that music could calm the savage beast; well, beautiful scenery can do the same". For a start, he says, "There are fewer car accidents on roads that are beautified. Researchers have found a calming effect on drivers who drive next to areas that have been beautified with greenery or flowers. It gives a sense of well-being. Drivers have a more relaxed approach to their environment and are more careful and alert."

Between Jebel Ali and the junction with the E77 at one end - a giant cloverleaf-shaped dustbowl of intersecting roads where today lorries are parked but where gardens will soon be blossoming - and Garhoud Bridge at the other, there are 14 major interchanges on the Sheikh Zayed Road alone. When complete, a journey from one end of Dubai to the other will resemble a trip through a linear park. Some of these secret gardens are tiny, such as the pocket-sized circular paradise nestling in the elbow of Sheikh Zayed Road and the off-ramp leading to Al Hadiqa Street west. Here, all that can be glimpsed from the highway are the tantalising tops of the few palms and bushes rising above the tall surrounding walls. However, this perfect little garden has been landscaped and planted as thoughtfully as the nearby Safa Park, to which many of the drivers who circle it, unseeing, will be heading.

Others are vast and long-established. One of the largest, where the E11 becomes the Sheikh Rashid Road, is the Garhoud interchange, a 35-hectare riot of Creekside greenery and colour that greets travellers as they enter Dubai shortly after leaving the airport. That's about 86 acres (an acre is about the size of a football pitch) or 35 hectares. The really good news is that the seemingly unhealing wound that is Interchange One, a sprawling, 25-hectare mega-junction leading to Al Safa Street in one direction and Doha Street and Dubai Mall in the other, which has tormented Dubai's motorists for what seems like years, is poised to become an intriguing, calming garden of delights.

Its green spaces were conceived and planned in detail months ago and the flowers, hedges, grasses and trees destined to fill every nook and cranny of this space are even now being grown and nurtured in municipal nurseries. As soon as the last bulldozer has gone, the landscaping and planting will begin. The junctions are only part of Dubai's stress-busting roadside beautification. Formal strip gardens - grass, box hedges and flower beds, kept low to avoid obscuring street signs - run alongside much of the Sheikh Zayed Road.

Ironically, it has been the contrast of the destruction of the gardens along almost the entire eastern side of the road, swept aside by the building of the metro's Red Line, that has brought the charms of the untouched west side into focus. The team responsible - and for every one of the city's many parks and open spaces - is the Public Parks and Horticulture Department, based by the main gate of Creek Park. Founded in the early Eighties, the department that has helped to transform the city is now rising to its biggest challenge.

In 2004, Dubai's government set an ambitious target for eight per cent of the city to be green by 2020. As the urban area continues to expand, this is, of course, also a moving target. Though welcome, the pace of change can be difficult, says Hana al Zarooni, head of the nurseries unit of the horticulture department. She says that in the past two years, with the upheaval caused by the building of the Metro and the re-routing of many roads, have been especially frustrating.

By the end of 1982, about 1.2 per cent of the city was given over to public landscaping, a percentage that rose steadily through the years until 2005, when it peaked at 3.54 per cent. The following year, however, was one of huge development and for the first time since the early Eighties the department quite literally lost ground, slipping back to 1.52 per cent; 2007 saw even more backsliding, to 1.41 per cent, but by last year it was on its way back, at 1.56 per cent.

Reaching eight per cent will be a challenge, admits Medhat Sharif, the department's horticulture expert. In the past two years, he says, "we have had to remove many, many plants. We are now at 1.58 per cent and by 2020 it must be eight". But no one in the team is discouraged, not even by the gigantic dusty scar left along the length of Sheikh Zayed Road by the building of the Metro. "It will be green again within two or three years, God willing," says Abdullah al Ali, head of the horticulture project unit.

Because of the constantly developing and evolving nature of the city, the team has had to become adept at relocating vast numbers of plants that suddenly find themselves standing in the way of progress. No plant is left behind; all are evacuated to fresh sites or returned to the nurseries to be cared for. Between 2003 and 2009 more than 158 hectares of gardens had to be uprooted as a result of the development of roads and other infrastructure. The department keeps precise records, and these reveal that during this period no fewer than 148,485 trees and shrubs, including 6,800 date palms, went walkabout.

All this has to be achieved despite the government-wide drive to cut costs, from which the greening of Dubai is not immune. "We constantly compare our costs and the private sector costs, down to the cost of a square metre of grass, and we go with who is cheapest," says al Zarooni. So far, by a wide margin, that has been the department itself, which is on the lookout for cost-saving innovations and private partnerships. With more than 70 million plants grown in trays every year, a job that occupies a workforce of about 100, its nurseries unit has become the first organisation in the region to import a new automated seeding and watering system from Holland, which can be run by eight people.

In fact, the nurseries unit is the engine of the greening of Dubai - and the key to the cost-effectiveness of the vast project. Today, every flower, every tree, every single blade of grass planted by the parks and horticulture department, is grown in one of its nurseries. It wasn't always that way. "Since the Eighties we have gradually introduced about 1,000 plant species we grow," says al Zarooni. "Until 1982, they didn't have any nurseries and used to buy all the plants they needed."

In her opinion, Sharif, who came to Dubai from Egypt 28 years ago, "is one of the pioneers of the plantation of Dubai". He certainly is. In fact, it isn't going too far to describe him as the father of Dubai's gardens. When he arrived all those years ago to head the horticulture section, "there was no landscaping, only some trees planted along some roads." "I brought with me around 15 to 20 kg of seeds to start the trees production in Dubai Municipality nursery and to be used in landscape projects."

Today, it is almost impossible to look at any of Dubai's public gardens without glimpsing a descendant of the seeds that arrived in Sharif's luggage - among them the Flame of the Desert; the striking Kigelia pinnata (also known as the sausage tree); the yellow-flowering Cassia fistula (the golden shower tree); and the elegant Jacaranda obtusifolia, with its spectacular lavender-blue blooms.

Around the city, plants are removed before their flowers die and are quickly replaced with new varieties so the gardens are constantly in bloom. But waste not, want not; the department is working on a project to recycle the dead plants as fertiliser. (Chemical pesticides have also been shown the door, to be replaced by a natural cure-all created from the crushed seeds of the locally grown neem tree.) Ground-covering plants such as the white petunias carpeting much of the Garhoud gardens will be in flower for up to four months. Sometimes, though, nature stages her own encore; in the middle of one sea of white, two rogue golden marigolds, seed refugees from the previous cast, stand proud, though invisible from the road.

Keeping all this alive in a desert city is, of course, a thirsty business. Each tree needs about 68 litres of water a day; a square metre of grass needs 54 litres - and, when it gets really hot, they need it twice a day. Waste is avoided because watering is fully automated and besides, says al Ali, every drop they use is recycled from the sewage system. "That's why we have plenty of water, even in the summer," he says, laughing. "More people, more water."

In the same way that the UAE is working to Emiratise many of the roles traditionally filled by expatriates, so the parks department has a programme to develop local plant species and introduce them to the city's flower beds. Thirty-three indigenous species are now nurtured in one specialist nursery and between 2003 and 2009, about 20 of them, a total of 194,000 plants, made their public debut. Last year alone more than 38,000 local plants, including the Arabian gum tree, a species of mangrove and, of course, the ghaf tree, a national symbol of the UAE, were planted.

Nevertheless, as with many of the people who live in Dubai and help to give the city its vibrant, multicultural flavour, the vast majority of the plants that provide the colourful backdrop to life here are expatriates who have successfully relocated. Take the basic grass that is the foundation of almost every one of the municipal roadside gardens; this is Paspalum vaginatum, or seashore paspalum. Tough, thick and indifferent to heat and high salinity, it hails from the coastal regions of America's southern states, from Texas to North Carolina.

"But now," says al Ali, standing in the middle of Gharhoud gardens, a verdant cluster of islands where the seashore grass is lapped not by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but by the tides of Dubai traffic, "it's local."