Parks, squares, alleys: how do we make sure public spaces in the UAE work well for the multicultural communities that live here?

It's important to create places that encourage people to come together and engage with their surroundings - we speak to the experts about how to do so

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, September 20 , 2018 :- Artwork painted by different artists on the wall of Wasl Properties at the Karama shopping complex in Al Karama area in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For Big Picture/Online/Instagram

The voids in the midst of buildings and structures provide an open vase into which the "art of the space between" can be poured. As the UAE continues to grow apace, developers are increasingly recognising the value and game-changing skills that landscape designers and artists bring to the public realm, as urban pockets are transformed into integrated neighbourhoods, providing context for architectural structures to thrive, and the surrounding communities to bond and flourish. 

A panel discussion during Dubai Design Week explored the component parts that go into making the spaces between buildings successful, and sought to define the magic ingredients that bring people together to create a public realm that becomes a destination in its own right. Speakers included local landscape designer Kamelia Zaal; British sculptor and RHS Chelsea show garden medal winner David Harber, Chetana Andary from UAP, the company behind the Wahat Al Karama memorial in Abu Dhabi, landscape architect and managing director at Desert Ink, Duncan Denley; Maja Gligic Bosse of Azizi Developments; and Melkan Gursel of Tabanlioglu.

Wahat al Karama. Courtesy Jonathan Gainer/Surface Photography

'When it's full of people, it's successful'

The Project for Public Spaces in New York, founded in the 1970s, sought to categorise place-making and includes reasons for people to be there – places to sit, shaded areas, space for play, places to eat, and art to touch – to create a story that’s unique and a joy to be in. “The main thing about public spaces is people, and this is something we have noticed in the design quarter – when it’s full of people, it is successful,” Denley says.

If urban spaces are all about people, then a primary measure of success is usability, as the created elements draw people into a space where they otherwise wouldn't linger. ­Harber believes that the essence of a public space and how it is measured should be that its users take something away from that space as well. They must be able to engage with it, and it should provide a moment of reflection or stimulation, something that's edifying. 

Social media is playing an increasing role in creating that sense of place, from destinations that offer Instagrammable moments, to the dissemination of those images, which go on to connect and attract new visitors – evident with the large-scale commissioned street art in Karama, Dubai, as well as the Insta-friendly art spots found at City Walk. It's about enhancing the experience and the interactivity of the space. "Public places need to have fun," says Bosse, and as we well know, telling the story and tagging it is, for some, the only measure of how much impact an experience has made.

A public square in the centre of City Walk by developers Meraas

"Defining what the developer wants to achieve in any space and whom they are targeting in terms of the demographic of people living and working in that location is key," Zaal says. If designers are to achieve optimum outcomes, they need to create with specifics in mind. A holistic approach to urban spaces, where the designer of the external spaces is brought in at the beginning of a project, will achieve better outcomes than retrofitting a design around existing or partially completed architectural plans. 

“It’s important to also look at how the built-up area is impacting on the space, as heat reflections and how much greenery there is in an area to absorb the heat will influence how long people will stay in that place to enjoy it,” Zaal says. All the elements need to work together to create something that will draw people in and keep them within that space, whether it’s to eat, to talk or to play.  

Trees and nature have to be essential components of the success of in between spaces, yet the introduction of mature trees into schemes requires consideration at the early planning stages to make provision for larger pockets of soil to be built in – or trees will never reach their full potential or grow to provide an optimum canopy of shade. Denley references Barcelona, one of the great walking cities of Spain, and the Las Ramblas street areas. "If you actually look at it, there is nothing particularly special about the space itself – it's the people, the activity and these lovely, great big mature trees." 

Greenery in Al Barari, Dubai, which was developed by the Zaal family: 

What happens there is a consequence of the shade and the dappled light that these trees provide, rather than the paving design or the street furniture. Take those trees away, and people would pass through it quickly; they would not want to linger and it would be a hot hard space. “It’s a passion of mine to increase the amount of mature trees in local urban areas,” says the landscape architect. Given time, the right species selection and sufficient provision of soil to sustain them, there is no reason why trees in the UAE can’t  grow to the same scale as trees seen elsewhere. 

“Trees are the lungs of a city and one cannot fail to be moved by standing beneath a large mature tree. After all, humans are primates and are used to trees, and we should have a subliminal reminder of that … if anyone has had a screaming child in a pram, if you put them under a tree they stop,” says Harber. Our response to trees is inbuilt and primal.

Reading the multiculturalism of the UAE is key

Good designers also understand the importance of cultural literacy and of being able to read the signs and symbols of a place in order to reference the culture and society of that place. In an age of increasing disconnection, creating social spaces that invite people to interact is more important than ever. With the tapestry of cultures found in the UAE, in order to invite people to share and be together, reading this multiculturalism is key. 

Zaal, who is a specialist in contemporary Islamic garden design, finds it strange that there is not more Islamic architecture and design incorporated into the landscape. The designer often uses motifs and patterns that bring in a sense of place.

The use of indigenous plants is also a clear pointer towards place, and Zaal has been at the vanguard of utilising these species in her designs. Her landscape design at Canvas by Koa, which is adjacent to Al Barari, has particular resonance. “We are in the desert, and we should be saving water and getting more nurseries to produce these plants, as they relate to where we live.”      

Koa Canvas: 

Desert Ink’s d3 project for Tamdeen, The Block, is an outdoor space along the Creek. The design brief was shaped around bringing people to Dubai Design District who wouldn’t necessarily already be there for work or dining, such as skaters, children, teenagers, people who enjoy outdoor workouts, grandparents, parents and so on. Launched in May, the urban park and its distinctive coloured concrete blockwork is already attracting a Dubai parkour team, an unintended but welcome consequence of the design. On an early evening stroll it was evident that the space is succeeding in its brief, as skateboarders and basketball players were filling it up and parents with young children were strolling along the waterfront. Planting at this location is minimalist and engineered to have low irrigation requirements, but the design elements ensure that it does not feel sparse.

The Block at D3. Courtesy The Block

"Living in a city like Dubai that has grown as quickly as it has, we've had to rethink and design to create a community atmosphere again," Zaal says. "It's very easy for people to leave their home, get in the car, go to work and then go directly back again, without meeting other people and without having a conversation or communicating. It's our responsibility as designers and as artists to bring people together again.

“When designing spaces, it’s important to think about ­multifunctionality, whether that is pop-up farmer’s markets, space for children’s games, yoga, fitness training, an amphitheatre – any event that might bring people together to interact and talk.


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And the best examples to date of a successful public realm in the UAE? The panel makes special mention of La Mer by Meraas, for creating a place where a cross-section of society is truly represented and providing facilities where "there's something for everyone and lots of reasons to visit"; Emaar Boulevard for the space that it gives over to public art; The Beach opposite JBR; Boxpark by Meraas; and the Historial Neighbourhood for its representations of old architecture, heritage and creating a sense of place and shade. 

“Nature is innate to who we are as beings, and alleviates stress. It’s our job to connect,” Zaal says.

La Mer by Meraas