Nine in every 10 people will be living in the GCC’s urban areas by 2050, surpassing the world average by 36 per cent.

Today, there are approximately 3.2 million homes planned for construction across the region over the coming years. This will likely fall short of the required number, should the population rise by 50 per cent, or about 22 million people by 2050, as predicted.

Based on average household size, however, about 4 million-5 million new housing units could be needed – roughly 10 times the number of units available in Dubai today.

While the World Bank’s average annual GCC urban population growth rate of 1.2 per cent sounds small, compounded over the long term it equates to 65 million people by 2050. This growth would mean about 20 million cars in total could be on the streets, if the average ownership of three people to a car holds out. This would have a net negative effect on air quality, safety and the urban dwellers’ overall quality of life.

Economic losses due to urban congestion could also rise significantly. Current traffic congestion and road accidents alone are estimated to cost the Saudi economy about SR81bn ($21bn) annually and Dubai AED3.5bn ($950m) in terms of emergency and medical costs, lost work hours, fuel and pollution.

Future not what it used to be

“Urbanisation across the region has followed the economic cycle and logic of post-World War modernism. As such, it has relied heavily on car-based, spread cities and major engineering works to acclimatise the harsh environment,” Ian Lyne, chairman at design consultancy Place Dynamix, tells MEED.

Low fuel prices and little to zero taxes on vehicles have further perpetuated these cities’ car dependence. Indeed, urban development across the region has followed a road- or car-first policy for decades, creating islands of developments that perpetuated the need for cars as the primary mode of transport.

However, as the initial urbanisation process matures, these cities’ requirements are becoming more complex. There is now a consensus that a holistic, policy-driven approach must replace the largely reactionary urban planning method across the region’s key cities.

“In many parts of the world, historic observations inform future planning and design regulations. We have an existing development planning system where history tends to dictate the future,” says Neil Walmsley, director and Middle East planning leader at UK professional services firm Arup. “It is inevitable that the future will be different from the past, so we need to challenge developers and authorities to recognise this.”

A shift in developers’ mind-set is gradually taking place, with a growing recognition of the value of mixed-use cities, where people can live, work, study and play within three kilometres of the same space.

This shift can be expedited by policies that encourage stronger integration.

“In many Middle East cities, developers are required to comply with parking standards that prescribe minimum spaces to accommodate predicted demand. Consequently it is not unusual for a new mall to pop up in a location with no access to [public transport],” says Walmsley.

In contrast, planning policy in more mature cities discourages car dependency, with parking standards typically expressed as a maximum, to encourage developments to integrate with public transit networks, Walmsley says.

The issue of parking space highlights that some developers adopt an approach when planning a city where history is allowed to create false assumptions about the future. In this example, it would effectively create demand for cars that should not be there in the first place.

Sources: Dubai Roads & Transport Authority; Arriyadh Development Authority; World Bank

Source: World Bank

A region-based design consultant points out that as a technical discipline, planning is still embryonic across the GCC. “[With a few exceptions], the budgets of the municipalities are relatively low in terms of providing higher levels of urban services, public space and quality of life,” the consultant tells MEED.

The same consultant, however, expressed confidence that planning approaches are improving. As cities mature, it is hoped there will be a second wave of re-urbanisation, where land use and safety will be improved through pedestrian-first, rather than car-first, approaches.

“It is possible to create a better human environment without adding significant development cost by focusing on designing for people rather than vehicles,” says Arup’s Walmsley. “Quality of life should be the top of the agenda that drives design.

Brave new world

So far, Abu Dhabi is seen as among the most advanced of the GCC cities when it comes to regulating its urban development.

“While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to city planning, Abu Dhabi’s plan-led approach is probably the most mature ‘top down’ system in the region,” says Walmsley. “This approach aims to constrain speculative development in favour of creating, in the long run, a more joined-up city.”

Lyne agrees. “[Abu Dhabi] offers well-developed planning strategy, planning tools, detailed performance requirements and pre-development monitoring.”

Apart from compulsory compliance to its planning process and to regulations such as Estidama, where all buildings must obtain a sustainability compliance rating, Abu Dhabi has made use of lower-level plans with detailed expectations of future land use.

The emirate’s Abu Dhabi 2030 masterplan is regularly updated, in contrast to many cities in the region, which the region-based design consultant describes as “showing little more than end-state images of land use and architectural imagery and whose life spans are frequently shortened by subsequent decisions and projects”.

Abu Dhabi is also home to Masdar City, one of the world’s most ambitious carbon-neutral developments. While later phases have been put on hold, Masdar City executed some development concepts extremely well, effectively showcasing what a climate-conscious city can look like.

Pedestrian first

Traffic congestion has become an area that requires urgent attention from the region’s urban planners. “A more sustainable transit system suitable for a wider range of users will minimise the need for car journeys and the associated congestion, poor air quality and respiratory diseases,” says Lyne.

Some cities have adopted sporadic efforts at addressing traffic congestion. Most, including Riyadh, Jeddah, Kuwait, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, have an existing transport masterplan, most of which were commissioned between the mid-2000s to as recently as 2014.

These plans include an integrated, multi-modal transport system that includes an urban light rail scheme. However, as of 2016, only 98 kilometres of urban light rail is operational across the GCC, 80km of which is the Dubai Metro, and the remaining 18km the pilgrim metro in Mecca. Almost 950km of similar schemes are planned. Some are under procurement, but execution is expected to be delayed as public spending budgets are reconsidered in light of lower oil prices.

Smartening up

While Dubai trails Abu Dhabi in terms of a proactive urban planning policy, it is fast gaining recognition for its cohesive smart city strategy, with the primary objective of promoting citizen happiness.

Dubai set out in the early 2000s to introduce electronic government services and 10 years later, it is aiming to host the world’s smartest real-estate spot, through the Dubai Design District (D3) by 2017. It is also in the advanced stages of migrating all government services into a platform accessible through mobile phones.

The Smart Dubai task force galvanised key stakeholders ranging from the Dubai Municipality, police, telecommunications, utilities and transport authority all the way to the real estate developers and investors by forming a committee that reports directly to the emirate’s top leadership.

The strategy has already yielded results. Over the past two years, Dubai Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) has linked all traffic lights to a command and control centre and is working to make 173 services accessible by mobile phone.

Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (Dewa) has pushed ahead with the Shams Dubai initiative to encourage electricity customers to generate their own green energy by installing rooftop photovoltaic (PV) panels and connecting them to Dewa’s power distribution network. The utility is also planning to implement unmanned substations and advanced energy management application to reduce electricity distribution wastage.

And Dubai Police’s integrated emergency management system aims to respond to distress signals within 15 minutes, 100 per cent of the time, and to bring its readiness to confront crises and disasters to 90 per cent.

The approval in late 2015 of an Open Data Law in Dubai, stakeholders say, completes the legislative framework the emirate requires in its aspiration to be among the world’s most connected, if not happiest, cities. The law mandates the sharing of non-confidential data between the government, private and individual entities, which would encourage increased collaboration.

“Dubai has a broad, holistic view and understands that a smart city is not about technologies but about using the data created by various technologies as a catalyst in enabling these services,” Bettina Tratz-Ryan, research vice-president at US information technology consultancy Gartner, tells MEED.

More recently, Riyadh launched a year-long study that would lead to the formation of its own smart city strategy. It is a clear indication that the region’s largest city has taken a cue from the ongoing oil price turmoil to adopt a more efficient city administration approach and tackle its daunting urban sprawl challenge.

It is hoped that, step-by-step, and in combination with the adoption of holistic smart city strategies, the region’s cities are becoming more liveable, climate-conscious and efficient. Hitting these objectives will better place cities to attract much-needed investments to fund governments’ economic diversification programmes, especially in light of the new oil price era.