An oasis of ideas from public for Al Ain's future

Focus groups sit down with planners in consultations over development to cope with population forecast to more than double over 20 years.

Developing oases as tourist spots was one of the points discussed during the Urban Planning Council's public consultation in Al Ain.
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AL AIN // The chatter was thoughtful, even sceptical at times. But the spirit of the first townhall meeting on Al Ain's city centre "revitalisation" was decidely upbeat. "We're talking about our oasis and heritage, so we're talking about our culture," Saeed al Otaishi, 30, who lives in Falaj Haza, told representatives from the Urban Planning Council (UPC) in one focus group at the public consultations that was held in a conference room at a hotel.

Mr al Otaishi was concerned that increased tourism, while good for the economy, might affect his hometown. "We never see Al Ain from the oasis point of view - and tourists are coming" to see it, he said. Sonny Tomic, a planning manager for the UPC, asked if Mr al Otaishi had heard about Al Ain's bid for World Heritage status with Unesco, the UN's culture organisation. "I didn't know about that," Mr al Otaishi said.

A senior planning professional with the UPC, Khalifa al Kaabi, said having two marvels, the Hatta mountains and the oasis, so near to each other was a rarity that could be better promoted. Another idea is to build cycling paths to the oasis, and improve the area's lighting and signage to encourage more visitors. But Mr Tomic added: "My philosophy for planning is, you never design a city for tourists - you design it for people who live here."

Whether or not Mr al Otaishi left Sunday's meeting convinced was not the main point. The UPC's three-hour public consultations were about gauging public reaction to its plans, listening to concerns and making revisions to reflect the feedback, said Amer al Hammadi, the UPC's regional planning manager for Al Ain and Al Gharbia. "We'd just like to know about things they want to preserve in the city, things they don't want to see, things they want to develop more," he said.

"Sometimes the public comes up with some valuable ideas, and if we get really valid ideas why not change our plans? Because the plans are for the public, it's not for us." Based on current trends, the UPC predicts that the population of Al Ain will more than double by 2030. Currently there were about 400,000 residents in its 18 districts, Mr al Hammadi said. However, only about seven per cent of city centre residents are Emiratis. Most nationals live in the suburbs.

The UPC suggested building traditional courtyard housing to attract nationals seeking more privacy, a scheme that intrigued Fahad al Sawafi, 25. The Emirati architect decided to find out what he could about the plan after hearing about the public consultations from a friend. "They want to change the existing villa concept to this courtyard design, which was the way of the past," Mr al Sawafi said, pointing at a diagram drawn by Humaid al Theeb, a UPC planner.

"I like this idea because I came to talk about social life, and Humaid explained how the social life here goes back to the old way, with a family having their courtyard and they stay together and swim in the pool because they have privacy." Courtyard housing would also reduce the cooling load on the home, because of the shade provided by the walls, Mr al Theeb said. Among the dozens of people at the conference were university professors, engineers and municipal employees.

At a focus group on public transportation, Hassan al Hassani, a senior infrastructure planner with the UPC, jotted notes as he asked Ahmed, a police employee, about his favourite roads and which routes he avoided. And would he like to see trains connecting Al Ain to Abu Dhabi? "Why should I use a car and drive more than one hour if there's a train?" Ahmed said, adding that he would also like to see clearer bus schedules and larger bus stations to keep commuters cool in summer.

Saif Ghubash, another senior planning professional with the UPC, helped to mediate one group and said protecting the oasis was a recurring theme. Several academics wanted more public facilities, and suggested a library beside the oasis. The most important thing for Alyaa al Yahyaei, a recent graduate of UAE University, would be to have an environment where she could sit in a park and sketch. "I prefer to have a mixture of people and many activities," said Ms al Yahyaei, 22, from Al Aghabia.

She makes frequent trips into the centre for shopping, but she would stay longer if the atmosphere was friendlier towards pedestrians. "I want to see more nice spots where I can sit in green areas in the city centre. I want to go to the parks. I want to stay and do some drawing," she said. The UPC conducted public consultations before rolling out Abu Dhabi's master plan in 2007, and also held open meetings in August for Al Gharbia's urban framework master plan.

The sessions in Al Gharbia drew as many as 250 residents, who strongly objected to dredging projects on Delma Island. Plans were revised accordingly, Mr al Hammadi said.