Abu Dhabi should continue building consensus between preservation and progress

Cities are living organisms. They need to grow and change, just as they need to pay homage to where they came from

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This summer has been bookended by two “cliffhanger” heritage stories.

In April, improvement works began on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, one of Abu Dhabi's busiest urban avenues, and the associated pedestrian areas overlooking the mangroves. It was obvious from the outset that a major revamp of the 1990s era street furniture and landscaping was underway. Our reporting at the time noted: "Many of the car parks have now been closed off, roads dug up and some of the concrete canopies demolished."

The last two remaining pagodas were – at the time of writing – still in place, surrounded by diggers and workmen, representing in some small way the often tense balancing act between preservation and progress. The works continue and are due to be finished in a month.

The other "cliffhanger" was the fate of the Zaab Souq, a small cluster of shops and services in Khalidiyah that dates back to the 1970s.

It closed in midsummer to a fate unknown, although all the evidence on the site suggested that the strip mall was destined to be demolished. That fact was formally confirmed by Abu Dhabi Municipality last week, who described the former Commercial Market as old and dilapidated and unable to "meet the requirements of security, safety and public health" because of obvious structural defects.

The paper’s initial story on the souq prompted a wave of nostalgia from residents who remembered the buildings in their pomp. One observer said that it represented “a part of the history of the construction and development” of Abu Dhabi.

That is certainly true. At the same time, the Municipality has to act in Abu Dhabi’s interests and given the parlous state of the site, there was no other realistic option, save for demolition.

It is the same discussion with the concrete pagodas on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street.

There is no doubt that they are a familiar site to anyone who regularly uses that dual carriageway or walks in that area of the city.

But does that make them worth saving? Of that I am not convinced.

In the balancing act between preservation and progress, the right battles have to be picked. We shouldn’t leave everything as it was for fear that removing it makes the city slighter by its absence, particularly if safety becomes an issue. Equally, we shouldn’t knock everything down to make way for bigger and better redevelopment.

There are, in truth, many ways to honour the past and respect a city’s heritage.

I have argued before for the introduction of an information plaque system, under which the authorities could put up signage on significant buildings, dwellings and around neighbourhoods to establish an informal tourist trail for inquisitive visitors and residents.

Such a project would help preserve the story of the city, while also flagging points of interest. In the case of the pedestrian areas next to the mangroves, the current round of improvements might be added to with information boards that could feature images of how the area used to look and potted histories for visitors to read about the mangroves and the walkways. In the example of Zaab Souq, perhaps one of the arches that make the structure so distinctive, or a mould of one, could be retained from the demolition and reinstated for display when the site is redeveloped.

London, UK - An English Heritage blue plaque, marking the house in Mayfair, central London, where the musician Jimi Hendrix lived in the late 1960s.
A blue plaque system, like the UK's, would reveal the rich history of Abu Dhabi. Getty

A registered list of protected buildings would be a welcome and timely interjection, as would a discussion about the types of architecture that need preserving. Strides could be made to identify and retain examples of each phase of the city’s urban development. Such a list should include both the mundane and the magnificent.

What no one wants to happen – nor will it – is for the city’s charm to be somehow flattened by the march of progress. Equally, sentimentality should not blind us to matters of public safety nor stop the authorities from taking action where appropriate. Cities are living organisms. They need to grow and change, just as they need to pay homage to where they came from.

This week it was announced that Abu Dhabi will host the International Council on Archives Congress late next year. Thousands of archivists from around the world are expected to attend an event that will examine in detail effective ways to preserve and record history, culture and heritage. That is great news, because we know there is significant interest in the city's development at an official level and among the general public, and especially because this is the first time this quadrennial event will be hosted in the region.

So, let’s keep having those conversations about the way we were, but let’s be realistic about the way the city is now and what it is destined to become. In a perfect world, preservation and progress should not be competing forces, they should work together.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National