With a multi-lane highway bisecting the entire city, Dubai residents are much better off investing in a set of wheels than a pair of walking boots. Although pedestrian-friendly areas exist – such as JBR Walk, Downtown Dubai and the older neighbourhoods surrounding the creek – it is either dangerous or inconvenient to traverse most districts on foot, in contrast to many Western cities.
The populations’ penchant for the automobile and the scorching summer months are often cited as reasons for the emirate’s urban makeup.
Dubai’s lack of pedestrian facilities came under scrutiny in two recent industry talks, firstly November’s Green Build Congress, which ran alongside The Big 5 show.
Keynote speaker Andrew Olszewski, AO Director, International Urban Systems, gave a speech entitled ‘Transforming urban environments to create economically successful, liveable, sustainable communities.’
Olszewski asserted that Downtown Dubai has shown that it’s possible to create a successful pedestrian environment. “In front of Dubai Mall, you see Emiratis walking by the Dubai Fountain. This is exactly how public spaces should be done.”
The urban spaces between Dubai’s landmarks were analysed in detail at the recent Design Road workshops, organised by Creative Dialogue Association, and held in Al Quoz.
An urban design workshop, run by Christoph Leuder – principal lecturer in architecture and urban design at Kingston University London – observed an area around Baniyas Square, near the creek, at different times of the day.
Leuder explained: “We’ve been going to the site and observing it during busy hours when the shops are open, and during quiet times. We looked at the site through two different viewpoints. One considered the dimensions and proportions of the enclosure – essentially public space surrounded by private buildings – and compared it to London.
“We also used a second set of parameters which would be termed ‘intensive’ – these included temperature, light, frequency of traffic and more. We’re curious about how connective tissue can be strengthened.”
Leuder believes that the landmark buildings are successful, but that the connecting spaces need to be more pedestrian-friendly. “The next stage of development might need to focus on making those spaces more connective and friendly to the pedestrian, with more awareness of what we call intensive parameters,” he added.
He observed that the citizens of Dubai orientate themselves through landmarks rather than streets or squares. “It’s a fascinating phenomena that taxi drivers get by without street names – you have to point at landmarks. The image of the city is very much landmark-based.
“I compare it to China where the tendency is to build skyscrapers with heads or hats or crowns to symbolise something. But in Dubai, these towers are literally new and not replacing anything.
It’s completely uncharted territory and that might exacerbate the condition of the urban tissue and how one struggles to connect things and form the tissue. It is obviously a bit problematic if the urban tissue between landmarks is overlooked.”
Leuder believes that London is a “useful counterpoint to Dubai” with its hierarchy of public spaces and a “reluctance to mix iconic buildings”. He asserted that both approaches have pros and cons.
“Both London and Dubai can learn from each other, but we might not want to have a situation where Dubai is imitating the European model.
“Yet the connecting tissue could be strengthened by looking at the activities of people – when they go shopping, how they deliver goods and cross the street.”
Leuder conceded that the European alfresco model might not be applicable due to the hot summer climate in the Gulf. However, Olszewski disagreed. In his presentation at the Green Build Congress, he remarked: “We often hear that the Middle East is too hot for public spaces. Yet Toronto has a tremendous amount of pedestrian spaces, but for six months of the year it is too cold.”
Olszewski believes that many of the region’s urban planning woes stem from the preference for masterplanned developments.
He asserted: “In this region, everything is masterplanned. It’s an extremely inflexible model – it’s very time consuming and it creates more problems than it solves.
Authorities like it because it gives the whole picture, but we are working on projects that are constantly evolving.”
He advocated the use of an urban framework plan as an alternative.
“By not defining everything too early gives us a chance to understand the project better.
“It is a way of defining the vision without limited outcomes, ensuring synergy between specific projects and urban systems.”
The speaker cited Melbourne, Australia, as a highly livable, walkable city that has turned itself around through good urban planning.
According to Olszewski, a key element in the transformation was the redevelopment of the Yarra River area to provide an attractive pedestrian promenade and a contemporary public space, Federation Square.
He remarked: “It is critical to have an example that is live and which is happening. From a post-industrial city, Melbourne has become one of the most advanced cities in the world. So much so that in 2011 it was deemed to be the most liveable city in the world by The Economist.”