What constitutes today’s ‘city fabric’, in the UAE, the GCC and globally? What are the latest trends in landscape and urban design?
The ‘city fabric’ is the built environment with its buildings, bridges, infrastructure, transportation, parks, water bodies and edges, while the non-built environment consists of the community, people, and the social and natural networks and environments.
Cities normally grow by adapting to the needs of their citizens, or by guiding the development of a city carefully into a defined development direction. Today’s modern cities and urban areas, those that mainly developed over the last 20 years, are defined by car-dominated environments and large-scale zoning plans. This was considered the future, and to attract talent, businesses and growth. Cities in general followed this tempting vision of the ever-growing metropolis. Latest reviews of traffic, urban and population growth indicate that cars are counter-productive to a sustainable economic growth, in addition to wellbeing and development.
Today we know that the cities will grow further, but zoning and oversized infrastructure, especially for individual car traffic, are no longer considered viable, attractive or sustainable.
Fortunately, the tide is turning. City planners, designers and even infrastructure engineers recognise that car-dominated environments are no longer the path to take and that, in order to create liveable and desirable urban environments, smart cities, mixed-use planning, and zoning and walkability are the keys to success.
Dubai is very much on the forefront when it comes to smart city development. Soon, and I believe the Emirate will be one of the first cities in the world to implement this, we will have autonomous driving cars where we pay by ride and order the ride through apps on our phones. Imagine what the reduced number of cars will mean to the public realm!
In planning, there is a continuous effort to improve the city. Newer developments are already showing some improvement and are testing how mixed use can be adapted, which will stay an ongoing discussion since innovation in work and changes will never stop.
Considering the walkability of the city, here we still have some battles to fight but I’m hopeful that global trends will be adopted soon, especially when considering the commercial, social and environmental benefits.
Can you elaborate on the concept of ‘public realm’?
The ‘public realm’ generally refers to all external areas to which the public has access, such as open spaces, parks, squares, roads, streets, bridges and the like. These spaces consist mainly of those in between the built-environment and are outside what is defined as private or semi-private spaces.
The public realm is mainly used for socialising, transportation, circulation and utilities, and includes other amenities made available to the public. They should address and provide for the main requirements and serve the needs of its residents and visitors alike.
We consider these spaces as the most valuable in planning and design as they define the character of the development and are key to its success or failure.
What are the biggest challenges in environmental design? How do you address them?
The biggest environmental challenge is, for sure, the arid climate. Not so much in terms of the design, but to create environments for people to enjoy all day.
In some cases, current planning policies and the dominance of infrastructure make it difficult to create these environments. You may have asked yourself why new roads are built without shading trees. This is mainly because utilities, which are providing all the needed services to our homes, are taking up most of the space underground.
This requires the willingness of the consultant to be addressed and resolved. In most cases, we are successful and can rearrange utilities together with the infrastructure team and the approval of the client to allow for tree corridors and the required cool shading.
In cases where this cannot be achieved, we are investigating other shading options or elements that help to create a more pleasant micro-environment.
Public parks, streetscapes and open spaces are integral in an urban landscape. What formula is used to build them, keeping in mind the region’s arid climate?
The formulas vary widely since creating suitable environments depend on density, the number of residents, required programming, uses, zoning, connectivity and so on. There is not one key for everything, and every development requires careful consideration of the above, as well as the social, climatic and environmental factors. In general, there is a drive towards more walkability and less car-dominated public realms within new developments. Accessible leisure and recreational programming facilities within walking distance are becoming more and more key decision criteria for homebuyers and residents alike, too.
If you look for developments with the highest margins, and an increasing growth rate, you will see that these developments are somehow walkable, providing sufficient greenery and amenities and have shops and services for your daily needs within walking or short driving distance. They are also easy accessible, provide ample parking and may have affordable and good schools close by and/or provide public transport links.
Every new project requires us to rethink the formulas established. Personally, I would like to have more public feedback and participation, especially when it comes to developments within existing urban areas.
The UAE is known to consume huge amounts of water. Is this a cause for concern for the urban landscape sector and, if so, what measures are being taken to handle this issue?
This is a very important point to raise and we are very well aware of the UAE resource scarcity. In parts, this has been addressed already through LEED and the Green Building Code in Dubai, or subsequently Estidama in Abu Dhabi. These sustainable guidelines require all projects to implement water-sensitive saving measures.
It needs to be mentioned that public landscape projects in Dubai and within private developments mostly run on TSE (Treated Sewage Effluent) and are not using groundwater resources and that the groundwater is mostly used for farms and food production.
In all SSH’s projects, we try to exceed the required water-saving measures and we continuously discuss sustainable and water-saving measures with each of our clients from the start of every project. These measures range from sustainable design solutions, selection of the most appropriate plant species, soil amendments, identifying the best irrigation regimes and technologies, to mulching of surfaces and water-saving soil additives. In most cases, we exceed water savings by 50-60 per cent compared with standard practices.
How do landscape designers and contractors remain on top of their game and adapt to new innovations and technology?
The biggest challenges that we face are the changes in the market and fluctuation of trained professionals. While the industry is growing and maturing, there are still no real standards or certification programmes available to which we could adhere. We just teamed up with one of the biggest nurseries in the UAE to further develop the quality benchmarks for nursery stock and discussed how contractors could be trained or educated in the right transportation and plant-handling methods. We hope that the construction industry will take similar steps to improve the quality of construction and maintenance.
One of the requirements contractors may need to fulfil in future will be the certification of workers on tree pruning, plant handling and the like. We know that this may require further investments by the companies, but it will reduce the fluctuation of professionals we are currently challenged by.
What projects are you currently working on?
We are working on a variety of projects, from small single- or double-tower podium and surrounding landscape designs, through hotel and resort developments, to large-scale mixed-used master planning projects. They are all special and unique to us and our aim at SSH is to serve the client by delivering the best product. This reflects on our design and our thinking about the small but important details. A big advantage is that we are part of the SSH Studio, working closely together with architects and interior designers, which allows us to address issues very fast and develop unique and project specific solutions.
We are also working and co-ordinating very closely with our engineering teams, which is unique in the industry. This way, we have already perfected and developed podium drainage and other bespoke solutions for grading changes in our projects.
Boris Fabinski is speaking at The Big 5 Outdoor Design & Build show tomorrow, taking place at the Dubai World Trade Centre until Wednesday (27 September).