Fresh chapter opens on future of oasis city

A new book reimagining the Qattara and Jimi oases, edited by Harvard professors, proposes strategies for revitalising the area to capitalise on its natural beauty to create better urban spaces.

It will take more than planting trees and building new roads to revitalise two oases in Al Ain, but it is not a bad start.

That is the idea outlined in Invention/Transformation: Strategies for the Qattara/Jimi Oases, a new book that proposes a series of urban redesigns for the area surrounding the two oases.

Edited by two Harvard University professors, the book marks the end of a one-year investigation of the oases by students and faculty from Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

The publication provides a comprehensive overview of the history, geography, architecture and urban systems of the Al Qattara and Jimi oases in Al Ain near the Omani border and proposes a series of potential solutions for future use.

The authors were quick to note that the book was not meant to outline specific guidelines for what will come next for Al Ain.

"We actually did not want to come up with a master plan," said Felipe Correa, an assistant professor of urban planning and design at Harvard and a co-editor of the book.

"We came up with a constellation of strategies and ideas on how to advance development in the oases, rather than just provide a fixed set of solutions."

Al Ain is an oasis city located 160km east of Abu Dhabi, at the base of the foothills of the Al Hajar mountains. Founded more than 3,000 years ago as a stopping point along a trade route to the south and west, the city was formed from villages that grew slowly around and between a cluster of seven oases.

Some of the student ideas focused on the area's natural beauty and called for the creation of public gardens, privately owned oasis plots and the expansion of public parks. Other plans envisioned connecting the city centre with the edge of the Al Qattara oasis or pushing the boundaries of the oasis to the Oman border.

"It is about change, about different moments in time, about actions and consequences. This book is about imagining the future," said Jorge Silvetti, a professor of architecture at Harvard and one of the book's co-editors.

The Harvard team collaborated with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) on the project.

"This book is very inspiring; it makes us think in very different ways," said Ayse Ege Yildirim, a heritage planner. "The publication is very inspiring graphically, and we're hoping people will be inspired to go and look at the oases."

Adach has been working to develop the Al Qattara and Jimi oases into a cultural, educational and research destination focused on the arts, crafts and design traditions of the Emirates. The authority's strategic plan proposes to develop and conserve Al Ain's oasis areas through master planning, appropriate adaptive reuse and site management.

The partnership with Harvard is part of Adach's efforts to work with world-class institutions and make Abu Dhabi a centre of research.

"I hope this is the first of many such partnerships," Ms Yildirim said. "We're thinking about different ways to show Abu Dhabi. Other people are putting up these huge iconic buildings, and we're preserving culture."

The Harvard team included 25 advanced graduate students from three disciplines - architecture, landscape architecture and urban design.