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Building sustainable, mixed-use developments in the UAE

Madinat Jumeirah Resort

The Middle East has a unique set of challenges and opportunities with regard to creating large, mixed-use developments.

In this interview, Louise Adams, Aurecon’s former Country Manager United Arab Emirates (UAE), describes the importance of investing in master planning, some of the current opportunities and trends within this region, as well as some of the solutions and innovations Aurecon is leveraging in order to create efficient, liveable spaces.

Adams discusses the push for sustainable projects, the importance of planning and how cross-interdisciplinary stakeholders need to work together to achieve liveable, efficient developments.

Is there a big push towards large, mixed-use developments in the UAE and what is the current situation with regard to creating these developments?

While many of the world’s large cities are space constrained in their push to the meet the needs of increased urbanisation, the UAE has, for the past 30 years, provided a blank canvas full of greenfield sites for the realisation of large-scale, mixed-use developments.

With these empty greenfield sites, you are able to start from scratch. In Europe and other mature markets, there are other challenges such as existing land ownership, possible contamination issues, etc. In the UAE, however, there is more flexibility in terms of urban planning and the vision that can be created for such sites, which gives us the opportunity to be innovative when deciding the vision for large, mixed-use developments.

In more recent years, the UAE authorities have recognised that while there is an abundance of land available to develop, there still remains a need for a base level of municipal planning – not only to ensure that all parts of their cities remain relevant, but also to ensure that the infrastructure demands of the developments can be met both now and into the future.

How much focus is placed on sustainability?

Sustainability has become a major theme in the UAE. A great deal of focus is placed on green buildings, reducing energy consumption and water usage. The government aspires to international best practices in terms of creating sustainable, liveable cities. From an engineering perspective, the reality is that temperatures rise to 50°C in the summer, so making sure that different environments are comfortable can be challenging.

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi leads the way in terms of sustainable design systems with the implementation of Estidama, the local sustainability index in the UAE, which includes both a Building and Community Infrastructure Rating system to promote sustainable development initiatives. Working on a development on behalf of a government client, requires a minimum 2 Pearl rating under this scheme.

Liveable and efficient environments

While rating systems and comfortable indoor environments are important, the large, mixed-use developments also need to respond to the needs of the end user. This can be tricky in the UAE due to the immense multicultural mix in the city, as well as the different scales of wealth. If a development is targeting the local Emirati or wealthy expat population then these users may be less inclined to use public transport systems because many of them use their own cars – and in the heat of the summer it is hard to walk past an air-conditioned vehicle in favour of sitting on a bus.

One key area of focus for the UAE has been in transportation planning. Looking at developments during the initial planning stages with a view to clearly understanding the impact that this development will have on the surrounding transport network, and how it will impact congestion on roads, intersections, etc. is important in these cities. The authorities implement a fairly strict engagement and approvals regime around traffic impact studies as part of the development process.

What role does master planning play in terms of integrating diverse functions such as residential accommodation, transportation and commercial opportunities?

Master planning plays a key role because it gives you an understanding of the impact that your development will have on the wider city or region. Developers often have very specific aspirations for their development, for example, they could be planning a high density area. Adequate planning would be able to point out potential future issues or ‘red flags’, such as utility issues (which could lead to questions such as whether the developers need to build a substation in order to deliver power to the residents and tenants of the area).

It’s happened in the past that developers have higher aspirations for a site than the physical infrastructure can support. I think this is more unique to the UAE because overseas markets have steadfast municipal plans, while the UAE is still developing these plans in many of their cities and suburbs.

Is the cross-disciplinary integration between government, local authorities, planners and developers currently successful in the UAE?

It continues to improve. The UAE government has put many processes in place to allow for cross-disciplinary interaction, so there’s more structure in how decisions are made regarding large developments and precincts. The processes and legislation are set out in such a way that the right people are making the right decisions at the right point in time during planning, development and construction. There are still conflicts and it’s not always easy to identify areas of responsibility and get a clear path on the way forward, but this happens regardless of the region or area you operate in.

How important is it to invest in the planning aspect involved in large, mixed-use developments?

Time and time again, we have seen that plans are put in place without getting input on engineering elements such as infrastructure and transport. A plan might look good on paper, but without the proper input, the project can turn out to be unfeasible. If you need to add a major bridge or use a large portion of the land to build a substation and this wasn’t accounted for during the initial design plan, the cost impacts could be insurmountable for developers. Aspects such as this have put a stop to a number of projects in the UAE, which is why clients need to work with the right consultants to plot a detailed plan of how everything will come together in an efficient, sustainable and financially feasible way.

There’s a large focus on feasibility at the moment. In the past, you would see over-the-top, astonishing developments being built in the UAE. These developments were based on loose financial estimations of affordability with questionable return on investment analysis and often had to be designed and redesigned or even worse rebuilt, to redress such issues. While some of the developments are amazing and successful, there are also a number of failures, which drew more attention during the global financial crisis in 2009. Today, people recognise that these over-the-top schemes aren’t necessarily sustainable or feasible; consequently, more attention is being placed on ensuring that the developers are able to get a return on their investment.

Aurecon works with partners and clients to understand what their key drivers are, who the target market is, the financial basis of the development and what sort of flexibility and adaptability needs to be built in for in the future. We are future-proofing the projects, ensuring that they are not only technically sustainable and financially feasible, but also so that the people of the UAE can benefit from them and improve their living, working and recreation facilities in the future.

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