Dubai aims to tighten its eco belt

Dubai Municipality's 2020 Urban Master Plan seeks to stop developers building in protected zones to create areas of rugged beauty surrounding the city.

Dubai Municipality's blueprint divides the landmass of the emirate into four rough land zones each of which allows different land uses within it. Jumana El Heloueh / Reuters
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"There are around 90,000 camels in the Dubai desert that need natural space for their movement," says Essa Al Maidoor, the deputy director general at the Dubai Municipality.

"It's about sustainability. We need to preserve land for flora and for fauna," he adds, looking at the brightly coloured map in front of him.

Sitting in his Dubai Municipality office, Mr Al Maidoor seems a long way removed from Dubai's free-roaming desert camels.

However, the document on his desk alongside idealised photographs of sand dunes, flamingoes and horse-riding children represents not just a camel-saving lifeline but what could be one of Dubai's most important planning documents since the emirate was founded.

Dubai's 2020 Urban Master Plan seeks to surround the city of Dubai with a desert belt of rugged beauty.

And, like London's Metropolitan Green Belt, the blueprint will prevent property developers building in the protected zone.

So-called green belts of undeveloped open space have become the norm across many parts of the world, often fiercely defended by hordes of anorak-wearing campaigners. Mr Al Maidoor says a similar type of protection is now necessary for Dubai's desert outskirts.

"We need to preserve land for future generations," he says.

"We need to achieve sustainability and capitalise on prevailing infrastructure. That is why preventing urban sprawl is important."

At a basic level, the master plan, put together by the Dubai Municipality with the help of the planning consultant Aecom, divides the Dubai emirate into four rough land zones, each of which allows different land uses within it.

Area One, which comprises the coast off Dubai and the sea up to 12 nautical miles from the shoreline, an area of some 1,450 square kilometres, has been designated for urban resort development and tourism. According to the Municipality, 23 per cent of this territory is subject to dredging and reclamation as offshore man-made islands.

Area Two, which comprises about 796 sq km and most of the current city of Dubai stretching from the sea to the Ring Road, is earmarked for further urban development.

These include both ongoing and deferred mega projects that are recommended to be developed after 2020 if required. Within this area, specific pieces of land have been zoned for general housing, Emirati housing, tourism and industrial and logistics developments on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis.

Area Three, a space of some 600 sq km to the south west of the existing city, is reserved as a conservation area that includes, among other things, spaces for traditional equestrian and camel sports, and resorts.

And Area Four, which forms the outer ring of desert and covers the remainder of the 3,978 sq km forming the mainland of the emirate, is designated for conservation areas but is also earmarked for farming, resorts, a gas-extraction zone and an aquifer zone.

Certainly, property experts in Dubai are getting excited about the master plan, which was adopted by the Dubai Executive Government last year and was announced at this year's Cityscape last month.

"The implementation of this plan will be a hugely significant step for Dubai," says Craig Plumb, the head of Middle East and North Africa research at the property agent Jones Lang LaSalle.

"If enforced, city plans of this sort create a boundary to future development, which both reduces future supply and creates certainty.

"Both of these things would have the effect of increasing land values over the long term and improving the urban form of the city," he says.

"The plan would have the effect of increasing densities which would in turn make public transport more viable and make the city more sustainable."

"For anyone looking to buy a house in Dubai it's all about confidence," says Mario Volpi, the sales and leasing manager at Cluttons in Dubai.

"At the moment you can buy a villa or an apartment here with what you think will be a wonderful view.

"But there is nothing really to stop the developer changing his mind and later building another apartment block in front of your apartment and blocking your view," he says.

"Now that the market is recovering and we are seeing schemes starting to be built again, it would be a very good time to implement the new planning rules."

However, despite the optimism many questions remain about how effective the blueprint will turn out to be.

Firstly, although the plan has been ratified for a year, getting hold of a copy is no easy task.

Although a draft of the plan was circulated at the Cityscape exhibition last month, when The National contacted Dubai Municipality to ask to see the completed blueprint, reporters were told it was unavailable because the municipal authorities were still deciding on a price to charge for providing copies of the document.

To enforce the plan coherently, property experts speculate that the Dubai Municipality would have to introduce some form of systematic development control scheme requiring anyone who wished to build on their own land to seek planning consent.

Furthermore, although proposals to set up a new committee to regulate urban and regional planning, the Supreme Urban Planning Council, were ratified last year, with no current separate urban planning authority as yet in existence it is unclear how the plan will be enforced.

"The establishment of the Supreme Urban Planning Council and defining its responsibilities is supposed to streamline the urban planning process and governance," Mr Al Maidoor said when asked who would enforce the plan.