Urban nature doesn't have to be green, Abu Dhabi summit hears

An urban planning expert says the UAE should embrace its native flora that may not necessarily be green

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 17, 2019.  Reem Festival.
-- First day visitors of the Reem 
Festival at the Al Reem Central Park.
Victor Besa/The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Panna Munyal
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Our future communities - if they are to be sustainable - will have plenty of nature but will not necessarily be green, according to an urban planning expert.

“We are distracted a bit by the idea of trees,” said Huda Shaka, an associate director of Middle East planning at UK design firm Arup and a board member of the Emirates Green Building Council. “We must think of it as ‘urban nature’, not ‘urban greening’ because [nature] does not look green in our part of the world.”

We need a paradigm shift here. It's not just desert or green. There are so many shades in between

She made her comments on the opening day of The World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

For the UAE, urban planners and developers have to consider the arid climate, shading from the heat, high humidity and the risk of rising sea levels on its coasts and the car-based lifestyle of residents.

Ms Shaka said that, in addition to designing urban areas within this context, society is grappling with the idea of what it means to love and interact with nature in an arid climate, which in the UAE includes deserts, mangroves, craggy mountain ranges and coastline.

“We need a paradigm shift here. It’s not just desert or green. There are so many shades in between,” she said.

Drylands like in the Arabian Gulf make up 41 per cent of the Earth’s land surface, according to the United Nations, with the share increasing amid rising global warming. Yet urban environments are still being built with “imported ideas” from the Global North, which have more temperate climates, Ms Shaka said.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 24, 2019.  
For Standalone:
-- Beautiful Al Reem Island on a cool and sunny afternoon shot from the Eastern Mangroves area.
Victor Besa / The National

Those who live in the UAE want more ways to interact with nature. Last week, a survey from Masdar in partnership with The National revealed that UAE residents say existing public green space in the cities where they live makes a major contribution to their personal happiness, but more is needed closer to home and with better facilities.

Residents are onto something. Urban nature is proven to promote well-being, reduce stress and the risk of mental distress and illness, according to a 2019 peer-reviewed study in Science Advances. And the Arabian Gulf has an opportunity to pioneer community planning tailored to arid environments.

While residents say they want green space, there is room for more nature that is not necessarily always green. “There is a way of developing experiences with nature that maximise shade and minimise water use,” Ms Shaka said.

She pointed to the development of man-made Reem Island in Abu Dhabi as an example. While the original development plan did not incorporate the mangroves along the island’s shoreline, an updated version has long boulevards right alongside the coast.

“This edge for walking and interacting with the sea and being very close to the mangroves allows people to experience a different type of nature,” Ms Shaka said. This sort of planning provides an alternative to the typical urban green spaces many city dwellers expect.

“Many of the problems of civilisation have been addressed. We can now focus on much higher values that make the best of people and help them thrive,” said Lukas Sokol, head of city design, sustainable planning and approvals at Masdar City, in public remarks a the World Future Energy Summit on Monday.

The goals for urban planners over the next half century, he added, are around livability and promoting overall well-being.

It just may not look like what we expect.