Abu Dhabi bridges gaps

The capital is buzzing with plans for 32 new bridges to link the city's archipelago.

Strong connection: the new Sheikh Zayed bridge will open near the current link to Abu Dhabi, the 1970s-era Maqta bridge.

If Abu Dhabi is to be a city of islands, it will also be a city of bridges. While the average driver coming into Abu Dhabi is likely to cross the water in only two places - the Maqta and Mussafah bridges - the municipal authorities are planning another 32 bridges in a strategy to connect the main island with nearly 6,000 hectares of land on islands that will be home to racetracks, skyscrapers, malls and homes for hundreds of thousands of new residents.

A smooth transition between these islands is paramount to the city's transportation strategy, said Falah Mohamed al Ahbabi, the general manager of the Urban Planning Council (UPC). "The purpose of the bridges is simply to connect," he said. "We must have the feeling that when you are in Abu Dhabi, you can roam. When you go to Reem Island, it should feel smooth, without noticing that you are even travelling over water."

Not only will these bridges allow cars easier access to the likes of Reem, Sowwah, Yas and Saadiyat islands, but they will provide platforms for metro trains and pedestrian walkways. Of the new bridges, Saadiyat will be the longest in the country. The 1.45-kilometre structure will connect the Shahama district of Abu Dhabi to the 2,700ha Saadiyat Island. The bridge is a key component of a 25km Shahama-Saadiyat motorway that will radically alter the way people travel to and from down town. The nearly 30 to 40-minute drive from Al Raha Beach to downtown Abu Dhabi will be nearly halved, with a five-lane motorway straight to the destination.

The Dh671 million (US$182.7m) bridge is more than 70 per cent complete and will be ready for cars to travel over it on Aug 31 next year, said Andrew Seymour, the director of infrastructure on Saadiyat Island. "What this will do is add access to the whole top third of the island," he said. "It's the beginning of an era of combining the islands and Abu Dhabi into an integrated area." Next year's autumn will be a major test for the transportation infrastructure of the emirate. Thousands of visitors from around the world will descend on Abu Dhabi for its first Formula 1 race on Yas Island on Nov 15, giving the motorway its first taste of the traffic that will have to be sustained in years to come.

The bridge is also notable for its complicated construction process, with engineers using three methods. On the Saadiyat side, where there is more room to operate, workers are casting it in place as a single structure. In the middle, they are using a "balanced cantilever approach", where they build up a platform from the middle and then outward on each side so that it does not tip over. And from Abu Dhabi Island, where the construction area is small, the workers are building up incremental pieces and pushing them out over the water.

"But the most difficult part is co-ordinating with the navy, the oil refineries, pleasure crafts and the coastguard," Mr Seymour said, adding that the bridge would have a 26-metre clearance to let marine traffic continue unabated. Saadiyat will also have a main connection to Yas Island that uses several smaller bridges between islands. City planners are also considering an underground tunnel that will connect directly to Reem Island.

The other major bridge project is the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, which until recently had been stalled because of a dispute with the contractors. The 800m bridge was designed by Zaha Hadid and will serve as the new "gateway" to Abu Dhabi near the 1970s-era Maqta Bridge. Signs of life at the site have begun again recently, with new pieces of the concrete structure added and construction workers present. Ms Hadid writes in a briefing on her design that the bridge resembles "a collection, or strands of structures, gathered on one shore... lifted and 'propelled' over the length of the channel". The result is a "sinusoidal waveform" shape that "has the prospect of becoming a destination in itself and potential catalyst in the future urban growth of Abu Dhabi".

That bridge will link up directly with Al Salaam Street, allowing an alternate route through Abu Dhabi. But if quantity of bridges are an indicator of priority, Sowwah Island reigns supreme. There are at least 11 bridges, or more than a third of all the bridges in Abu Dhabi, planned for the 57ha Manhattan-esque island. Sowwah will be Abu Dhabi's new Central Business District, containing the new headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange, a hospital - the Cleveland Clinic - and scores of office buildings.

Half of the bridges, each designed by a different architect, will connect to Reem Island, which will be a dense new commercial and residential location with skyscrapers, a giant park, marinas and Abu Dhabi's largest mall. To the West, Sowwah will connect to the main thoroughfares of Abu Dhabi island. "Providing rapid and convenient connectivity between Sowwah Island and its surrounding areas is of paramount importance," said John Thomas, the executive director of Mubadala Real Estate and Hospitality - the group overseeing the island's development. "It will be a hub for dynamic 24-hour business and leisure activity."

The designs for the bridges are still in the works, but Mr Thomas said in a previous interview that each one would be designed to have its own iconic characteristics. Mr Ahbabi said these bridges would epitomise the transportation philosophy of Abu Dhabi. "Sowwah bridges will be the most pedestrian friendly of all," he said. "Our philosophy is to get people out of their cars. We want them walking, biking."

He said the council was going for the same effect as the 35 bridges that cross the The Seine in Paris. They would be low-rise bridges with no arc. "In Paris, you don't even feel you are on a bridge," he said. "It's the simplicity of it. We want the roads to remain flat, to be a continuation of the grid system of the city." Bridges, however, could be the wrong choice when you wanted to preserve a view, he said. For that reason, the UPC is planning to connect Abu Dhabi to the 570ha Lulu Island by two tunnels beneath the water, one from the Mina section and one from Marina Mall.

"For the urban form, the look of the city, sometimes a tunnel is much better," he said. "Bridges on Lulu Island would ruin the view of the Gulf." Lulu Island will be almost exclusively low-rise housing and hotel resorts. Several of Abu Dhabi's new bridges are planned for islands on which development has not even started, such as Umm Lafina, located between Saadiyat and Reem islands. The island, which is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Minister of Presidential Affairs, has already been expanded through land reclamation. Mr Ahbabi said a masterplan for the mostly residential island would be released in the coming months. Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 describes the island and several others that lead to Al Raha Beach as the "Inner Islands" and specifies that they will contain low-rise buildings with a total population of about 20,000 people. It will also house some of the infrastructure for Reem Island, including a sewage treatment plant and desalination facility.

The other island that is set to begin development is Huydariat, a stretch of sand that extends the length of Abu Dhabi Island just to the west. Only the bottom half of the island will be developed and it, too, will be primarily residential, Mr Ahbabi said. The 2030 plan shows Huydariat cut up into smaller islands by a series of wide seawater canals. "These bridges will keep going with the growth of the city," Mr Ahbabi said. "We need more and more connections."

* with reporting by Ivan Gale @Email:bhope@thenational.ae