Thinking beyond a concrete jungle

26 April 2019
Future Gulf cities need crucial connections, data-backed design and a strong sense of environmental responsibility

Global cities have growth in their future, whether they are ready for it or not.

The UN predicts that 68 per cent of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, up from today’s 55 per cent. Combined with natural population increases, this forecast homes another 2.5 billion people in cities in a little over 30 years.

This is the kind of urbanisation the Gulf’s baby boomers have already experienced. In 1950, just 54.5 per cent of the UAE population and 21.3 per cent of Saudi residents lived in urban areas. Now that figure has shot up to 86.5 per cent in the UAE and 83.8 per cent in Saudi Arabia. Both countries are forecast to broach the 90 per cent mark by 2050.

What has happened in the Gulf may point the way ahead for key centres in Africa and Asia, where many of the 2.5 billion new city dwellers are likely to live.

As planners, architects and engineers in the Gulf design and build ways to comfortably accommodate more people, the future development of the region’s cities could prove to be a test bed for urbanisation elsewhere.

Unhindered by the hundreds of years of organic development that underpin some global population hubs, Gulf cities have grown upwards and outwards in their own way. They have eschewed the centre-out pattern of the old world, opting for what architects have coined ‘polycentric development’; creating cities that start off with more than one clear centre, or develop multiple centres over time.

“Newer places are where things seem to have taken off in a polycentric direction from the start,” says Daniel Safarik, an architect and journal editor at the Council on Tall Buildings & Urban Habitat (CTBUH).

Dubai’s linear organisation, with its multiple focal- points—and 63 per cent of the Middle East’s tall buildings—is a clear example.

Driven by hectic growth and the kind of masterplan ideas more readily implemented in greenfield developments, it is a model that could predict the future for expanding cities and those struggling with the snarled highways of excessive suburbanisation.

“The solution in localities where the suburban model is clearly becoming unsustainable is to create smaller central business districts along transit nodes that are on the periphery,” says Safarik. “To some extent the Middle East is ahead of the game here.”

Effective connections

But if polycentric cities are to be a solution to the challenge of urban sprawl, then lessons must be learned from the Gulf’s shortcomings. Multiple centres need effective connections between them-connections not reliant on the car.

“Connectivity is probably the challenge for the entire region,” says Thierry Paret, president of the American Institute of Architects International Region and founder of Resilient Design Group. “Getting cars off the roads is, to me, one of the greatest issues.”

Reducing traffic will be key for the region’s cities if they are to become environmentally friendlier, easier to traverse and more liveable. Effective mass transport has been slow to develop, but huge investment has seen metro systems added first to Dubai and now Riyadh. The $22.5bn Riyadh Metro project is an unprecedented effort to effectively retrofit public transport to an entire city, overlaying connectivity onto an existing urban environment.

“The Riyadh Metro is going to be a game changer in terms of reducing traffic and will help to connect neighbourhoods in ways that they really are not right now,” says Paret.

While multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects will not be within reach for every municipality, Paret points out that there are smaller-scale connectivity issues that design can address.

“I’m talking about connectivity in terms of sidewalks, bicycle paths, aspects that you would hope that the cities in the Gulf would progress to incorporate,” says Paret. “It’s one thing that is still sorely lacking.”

Paret believes a way forward is best defined by a clear masterplan, something he saw the benefit of while working as lead architect at the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust).

“Kaust was masterplanned from day one. A very comprehensive concept and detailed masterplan was completed by HOK. It studied the current context of that particular site, looking at a five, 10, 15-year plan.”

For more mature locations, Paret believes experienced urban planners can achieve a similar impact via detailed district-by-district analyses, stitching them all together into a cohesive whole “from the macro down to the micro”. It sounds a formidable task, but one being made easier by advances around the use of data in urban planning.

Data driven, people focused

Data-fuelled technological advances are enabling design practices to more rapidly analyse and predict how people will behave and interact with elements of the built environment. This data is used to provide hard evidence for design decisions once based solely on experience and intuition.

Perhaps counterintuitively, some argue that more data is leading to a greater focus on the people the designs are for.

“What we’re seeing is really down to the influence of technology,” says Richard Fenne, principal and regional executive chair, Middle East region for Woods Bagot. “We’re seeing a shift in the focus of design to a much more human-centred experience, achieved through technology.”

New tools are making it easier for architects and planners to use data to drive design decision making, reaching conclusions in real time.

“Designers always use intuition,” says Fenne. “But now a big shift is that we’re really able to validate that intuition through data-backed design decisions.”

It is a technological promise that could positively impact go-to efficiency measures such as energy use and transit congestion. It is also the kind of technology already being applied by companies that facilitate urban travel and navigation, making reservations or improving their interactions with retail environments.

“We can do the same in public spaces as well,” says Fenne.

But making data useful means having enough of it available. It is here that GCC cities may face a challenge. While international centres have been gathering—and making public—detailed information for decades, the same cannot be said in the Gulf. Without a wealth of data to work with, regional efforts to deploy data-backed design to examine the detail of how Gulf cities and their residents interact could be hindered.

Environmentally responsible

Reducing the future environmental impact of cities will be essential if they are to accommodate larger populations sustainably. The environmental drivers behind new build projects are likely to grow in strength and urgency as a result, something already being seen by architects in the Gulf.

“Most of our clients, particularly for the very large projects, are being driven by environmental responsibility,” explains Steven Velegrinis, head of masterplanning at Aecom.

How this environmental responsibility is pursued may be expressed in different ways. Conventional responses include meeting the requirements of an environmental rating system, or working to minimise a project’s environmental impact. But Velegrinis has seen outliers emerging, organisations prepared to push the boundaries of environmental responsibility further into the future.

Velegrinis cites the example of a large urban masterplanning project in Saudi Arabia where the client wanted to look at climate change and the environment in a deep way, prompting Aecom to provide solutions for future sea-level rise.

“For new projects now, this is not unusual. It’s almost like the do-less-damage model is the baseline nowadays and it’s really the reach goals where we’re looking at true sustainability and real responses to climate change,” he says.

The government connection to most of the Gulf’s major developments could press home potential environmental advances. Undertakings made on the international stage to climate agreements and sustainable development goals could gradually influence private development projects.

“The combination of concentrations of financial power, political power and political goals in private developers or semi-private developers in the Gulf means that you’re getting projects and project briefs that are really genuinely looking at world-leading solutions,” says Velegrinis.

While cautious authorities may still need some persuading to introduce new building methods and techniques, there is the political will to make a difference, which in turn can translate to change. It is these changes that may mark out the Gulf’s developing cities as models for the future and shape Riyadh and Dubai in the decades ahead.

Building Future Cities_MashreqThis article is extracted from a report produced by MEED and Mashreq titled Building Future Cities. Click here to download the report

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