Collaboration vital for UAE's urban development plans

27 August 2019
The UAE’s construction industry should focus on better collaboration, reworking legislation to meet future needs and promoting a sense of community, says engineering and design company Arup
By various contributors from Arup

The best future city plans are where government, the private sector and the community interact and collaborate. The UAE operates a government-led city model. There are benefits to this approach in that project ambitions are high and speed of delivery is impressive, as has been demonstrated by the level of growth and investment over the past 20 years.

The local context in which we work has many defining features. Three of these are associated with the behaviour of the city population: the impact of construction on quality of life, the existing regulatory and policy context leading to a city form that results in island developments, and standard design. These provide different kinds of issues and potential opportunities to make a step change to build a future city.

The population of the UAE is diverse and transient and while behaviours today may not be those required of a modern future city, the population is young and constantly changing.

A large proportion of today’s population will have been replaced by fresh, young talent in the coming years, bringing with them a readiness to take on whatever liveable and sustainable city systems have been created. These could be cities with a different mobility framework such as more walkable districts with less private car use, reduced energy intake, a drop in waste generation or perhaps more flexible working practices.

The land allocation for development and fast-paced implementation often results in infrastructure upgrades in existing urban areas or partial occupancy of areas that are still largely under construction. The traffic, noise, dust in the air or disrupted ground connectivity is impacting the quality of life of citizens and, within an increasing objective for wellbeing and happiness among the younger generations, a serious threat to attracting globally mobile talent.

The city form that is generated by the style of island developments creates a lack of connectivity across the city. This is particularly true for active modes of transport and public transport. The Dubai Roads & Transport Authority’s cost-sharing approach, mandated in law, seeks to overcome this issue and requires developers to contribute towards infrastructure and public transport improvements.

However, the development design process and approvals do still allow ‘inward-looking’ development to dominate and often prioritise road network upgrades over mass public transport infrastructure, since the latter requires wider strategic and long-term planning and has much higher initial funding needs.

Existing planning and design guidelines are based on older standards copied from elsewhere and are not fit for purpose when it comes to new technologies and planning concepts. At the MEED Mashreq Construction Club held in December 2018, a large number of attendees representing the construction sector agreed that existing standards and guidelines require a comprehensive revision.

So how can change happen and opportunities be realised?

In the UAE, broad city or country-scale agendas galvanise city stakeholders across government, private sector and communities. These agendas, often with the highest level of support, open up new opportunities to improve. An integrated approach based on collaboration and coordination will always be more successful for future city plans. Two such agendas that currently exist in Dubai are ‘Smart’ and ‘Happiness’.

Smart agenda

This initiative is one of the most significant city-integrating agendas since the introduction of the concept of sustainability in cities. In order for any city to be smart, it must first be able to gain new insights about itself across sectors and stakeholders, and then be able to act on this knowledge to improve. New forms of technology and innovation, in addition to more traditional solutions, must be considered. We have to resist the temptation to be smart for the sake of being smart.

The city of Cascais, located within the Lisbon metropolitan area in Portugal, has implemented a variety of smart initiatives including the FixCascais app.

Road or infrastructure damage can be easily reported through the app by taking a photo and sending a message directly to the municipality, which will be able to deal with the problem immediately.

But the approach is reliant on close collaboration between the public sector and private construction companies, with the latter being expected to offer a high level of flexibility and quick response times.

Developing a city where high-quality data is routinely gathered and shared allows a city to learn from itself and others. Collecting quality open-data means gathering information from across the city and ensuring transparency and accuracy. Where several data forms are combined, new insights will often be found that create otherwise unknown efficiencies or areas for city improvement and thus shape future cities in a more informed way. The feedback loop of understanding, acting and learning from the outcomes of that action are where cities of the future will excel.

Smart infrastructure monitoring, which is already being implemented for large structures such as the Queensferry Crossing bridge in Scotland, will form a key aspect of a smart city. Sensors can be embedded into road surface materials to understand the quality and lifetime of the pavement in order to define maintenance requirements and avoid major disruption.

Considering the amount of heavy freight traffic and high loads observed across the UAE, monitoring of pavement health is even more important.

Happy days

Human happiness or wellbeing is a complex outcome to achieve due to its fundamentally integrated nature. Housing, incomes, mobility, safety and security, community, the environment, healthcare, urban environment, culture, recreation, social infrastructure and sense of belonging, among many other factors, contribute to a person’s happiness or wellbeing. Cities are therefore under growing pressure to act as an enabler.

There is a growing body of evidence-based research on how the built environment can help support wellbeing and sense of community and this must be taken into consideration in delivering future urban growth.

In this sense, the UAE can achieve behavioural change more easily than most cities through the attraction of globally mobile talent. The UAE is also ideally placed to become a frontrunner in new city designs and integrating new technologies, considering the willingness and the need to reinvent itself constantly.

There is also a growing interest in creating cities that allow people to be happy, beyond meeting the basic human needs of sanitation, food, water and shelter.

To support wellbeing and happiness, agencies and construction companies will need to find a balance between tight construction programmes, efficiency of delivery, and ultimately cost and the impact on surrounding communities.

Smaller construction sites with a phased implementation and construction programme could reduce the areas affected. Also, successful cities are not built overnight—while there are ambitious plans in the UAE, building future cities in a way that allows learning from earlier phases to adapt and improve later phases will be necessary.

New construction materials and methods can be introduced over time, but will require a higher level of flexibility from all parties involved, including the construction sector.

Collaboration and coordination

There is significant opportunity to develop ways of collaborating with the private sector to generate innovative funding mechanisms and to engage with civil society to develop and implement more inclusive and resilient designs.

Crossrail in the UK is an example of an innovative funding approach for major public transport infrastructure, combining various income streams, including developer contributions and local taxes for commercial property owners as well as infrastructure operators in order to reduce the central government grant to about a third of the total bill.

Authorities could also encourage an increased focus on connectivity and coordination of transport and mobility systems across development areas to stitch communities together across the city. Updated legislation and regulations need to support this initiative to meet community requirements.

Pushing boundaries against outdated practices stifles innovation and change. The Dubai Transport Integration Manual, recently included into the formal urban planning and design process, serves as a great example for regulations adapting to community needs.

Ultimately, coordination throughout government departments and agencies is required to remove conflicts, delays and unnecessary ambiguity, which hinder the design and construction of future cities. Governments should also look at collaboration beyond their city boundaries and partner with other cities. The C40 Cities Climate Strategy connects more than 80 cities to share knowledge and best practice.

The increased availability of new technologies and focus on quality of life for every citizen requires seamless governance processes, which should also involve society. In Santa Monica, California, residents can influence the Downtown Community Plan which defines the development for the next 15 years, through a smartphone app by supporting or objecting to certain ideas and concepts.

This article was co-authored by a team from engineering and design firm Arup

Primary contributors

Joanne Carmichael – director, Middle East planning leader

Joerg Tonndorf – associate director, transportation leader


Irfan Khan – associate, utilities infrastructure leader

Cara Westerman – associate, senior urban planner

Omar al-Battaineh – associate, transport consultant

Hrvoje Cindric – associate, Middle East urbanism leader

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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