In 1975, the UAE’s first general census revealed a population of 655,937. Of this, about 509,719 people were living in the country’s towns and cities, according to the World Bank.
Over the subsequent four-and-a-half decades, the emergence of the UAE as a major oil producer and trade and travel hub, along with the steady expansion of the country’s non-oil sector, has seen its population increase to an estimated 9.98 million in 2020, an expansion of 1,400 per cent since 1975, with more than 8.5 million people living in the country’s urban centres.
The rush to accommodate this massive influx of people, along with an abundant supply of land and resources, led to a rapid expansion of the UAE’s cities through fast-track, ambitious construction projects. As is often the case with rapid urbanisation, however, liveability and sustainability were not a high priority.
“We are seeing a maturing of cities in the GCC,” says Hrvoje Cindric, Middle East urbanism leader at UK consultancy Arup. “Some of the highest urbanisation and growth rates globally have been witnessed in the GCC.”
“When you start to think about the population composition, I feel this is a bit like the post-war situation in the north Atlantic. We had a huge amount of catching-up to do and there was an element of ‘just get it built’ because we need to accommodate people. It will be really interesting to see how the cities [in the region] are maturing, and to see how other things are starting to come onto the agenda of governments and developers and, in turn, of construction.”
But the high cost of infrastructure, along with the quality and concentration of services available in city centres, makes an endless spread of development unlikely.
“One of the things we always hear about is the sustainability of this urban sprawl model that we are currently employing,” says Cindric. “In a place like Riyadh that has just grown to an enormous size, we are starting to see the model is no longer to keep sprawling endlessly into the desert. There is a focus on trying to come back in.
“In Abu Dhabi, we could endlessly sprawl through the desert because we have plenty of space to accommodate. But at some point the distances become uneconomical. I think we will see a contraction back into the existing cities and some of the greenfield developments are going to be decreasing and brownfield redevelopment … will be more on the agenda.”
For developers and contractors, retrofitting is set to become an important trend in the coming decade, driven by the need for greater energy efficiency, reduced travelling and recycling of resources.
“It should not be about knocking a whole development down and starting afresh,” says Cindric. “It is about the kind of tactical improvements that we can achieve to provide better efficiencies in terms of energy usage, but also in terms of how we actually provide better spaces for people.”
Balancing the objectives of high-density development and quality of life is no easy task, however. If the UAE and the wider region is to continue to attract global talent, it must ensure its cities are desirable places to live in.
To achieve ‘liveability’, cities must look at urban planning from a more human perspective. Rather than thinking about development in terms of a single road, a metro line, a hospital or a tower block, people-centred design is a more holistic approach that prioritises the needs of the end-users.
Key success factors in this include: mobility; safety; community; the environment; healthcare; recreation; and social infrastructure.
Typically, a people-centric area will enable pedestrianism and cycling, with seamless links and facilities. There will be social spaces and community hubs. Underpinning it all will be modern, internet of things (IoT) enabled infrastructure.
To achieve ‘liveability’, cities must look at urban planning from a more human perspective.
Data has a central role to play in shaping the modern, people-centred urban development. Thinking holistically about communities has long been a vital component of urban planning, but new technologies such as Big Data, IoT and artificial intelligence (AI) are allowing many of the future visions of smart cities to become a reality.
To better understand the needs of a community, digital data-driven software is enabling design practices to more rapidly analyse and predict how people behave and interact with the built environment. Sophisticated data analysis informs critical design decisions that in the past were based solely on the experience and instincts of the designer.
New technology enables greater energy efficiency, improved connectivity, increased flexibility of space and the reuse of physical waste in a circular economy, including the use of recycled materials on construction projects.
But an unexpected key factor in shaping the region’s future cities could be the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
At the start of 2020, as Dubai raced to complete the construction of pavilions, facilities and transport infrastructure for the opening of Expo 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic forced people to adopt new ways of working and living that have fundamentally altered the way we think about technology, urban spaces, health and wellbeing, and the environment.
It might not be too much to say Covid-19 could turn out to be one of the most significant factors in shaping the future of urban development in the Middle East.
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