Build up not out: The future of urban planning

August 22, 2017

undefinedWith a global population of 7.5bn, set to increase by 25% in the next 30 years, as architects we are increasingly responsible for designing spaces which work harder and cater to more people. Dubai is a superb example of a fast growing city that still has the skills and time to address its own immediate growing population needs. The pace of growth and expansion in Dubai is unrivalled anywhere in the world. It is currently the fourth most visited city on earth, ahead of Singapore and New York. In 2011, it was up to 9.3mn visitors per year. In 2015 we saw 14.3mn per year. That is around double the United Nations World Travel Organisation’s (UNWTO) projected three- to four per cent global travel growth over the same period.

In 1975, the first signs of the rapid expansion of the city had begun in earnest, but with a population still under 200,000. By 2005, it had reached almost 1.5 million. Ten years later it was close to 2.4mn . It’s been reported that the emirate could be home to 3.4mn people by 2020, in line with Dubai’s 2020 vision.

Most of us will have seen, at some stage, satellite images of Dubai, perhaps comparing the current city with a photograph taken 20-or-so years ago. The differences are often staggering and provide the most powerful impression of rapid urban expansion. What that really means is with the information we have, we are now able to responsibly design our living and working landscape to better accommodate this growth.

Can you imagine there ever being a time when the two cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, for instance, will have extended so far into their respective geographical borders that they would actually meet? That isn’t as far-fetched as it might at first seem. In light of the current rate of expansion, it’s time to tackle the problem of population growth and its impact on all our lives and those of the next generation. Population growth, urban sprawl and pollution are all inextricably linked – think of it as ‘cause and effect’. Globally and locally we are seeing the emergence of some interesting migration patterns with people relocating to larger cities. This has an impact on agriculture, air quality, the natural landscape, journey times and our general quality of life and, as cities continue to expand to accommodate these people, it’s entirely possible that within the next 100 years the whole world really will be one continuous city. While this trend is almost inevitable, today we are still able to slow down the sprawl of architectural dominance and conserve the natural landmass effectively. The key here is to build up, not out – to have existing infrastructure work harder and for more hours for more of us.

The US is a good case study for where we can expect the UAE to catch up to, where a northeast ‘corridor’ is forming with from Washington DC going through Baltimore, Philadephia and New York all the way up to Boston joining together– you can see this happening when you look at night satellite imagery. People are frequently moving between such cities and their geographic footprint is becoming larger all the time – it’s happening all over the world.

Urban sprawl, then, is becoming a quite literally expanding problem. As our cities expand outwards, they encroach on agricultural land and areas of natural beauty – expansive dunes become concrete jungle. So what’s the solution?

If we look at Dubai it is unlike some other major cities (such as Mumbai or London), inasmuch as it doesn’t face the problem of dilapidated buildings that need to be torn down and replaced – much of this city is new. Other cities are more full and don’t actively pursue new inhabitants. Here, though, the emirate is proactive in attracting both new residents and tourists – there’s a lot of available land and a growing transport infrastructure that improves all the time, take the Hyperloop as an example. Eventually, however, that urban sprawl mentioned earlier could become a real problem.

Think back to a time, not long ago, when the central hub of Dubai was Deira. The E11 highway enabled rapid outward expansion but it also brought with it numerous problems and the city is now, in some respects, bisected and divided; inland vs coastline and multi-nodal with nodes mainly connected by the E11. It’s time to look at our home holistically. Vertical expansion of cities does more than provide an impressive skyline – it’s the most efficient use of land mass there is and allows greater scope for provision of meaningful recreational space, which in turn is a huge positive for quality of life. It encourages us to spend more time outdoors in those weather perfect months this country has to offer. We should look at restrictions on the amount of land made available to developers, with more thought put into reducing our physical footprint. And equally importantly, let us not forget to provide public open space, Dubai - like the great cities of the world - needs its Central Park, its Bois de Boulogne or its Hyde Park. While at face value it seems like a commercially unviable venture, such a space – or indeed spaces – will provide amazing real estate value to developments densified around it.

Dubai’s Metro and Tram networks are excellent examples of how public transport is becoming more efficient, with startling projects such as Hyperloop promising to overturn the way we travel across, and between, the cities we live in. Such methods of moving from place-to-place help develop links between communities and allow residents greater choice when it comes to deciding on where to live. These existing communities and their infrastructures can be used more effectively by building upward in the areas with access to existing amenities. In other words, upgrading existing infrastructure and densifying around it is far more feasible, efficient and environmentally conscious than building new infrastructure and sprawling horizontally.

Allowing more of us to use what’s already there is something that is perfectly possible. For example, the metro has its busy commuting periods. Allowing more of us to live in walking distance to metro stations and increasing the number of trains will allow for a more concentrated set of communities without needing to build new transport links to new developments. In addition, existing communities in Dubai are already self-sufficient, with malls, corner shops, highway access, schools and transport links, some even have small outdoor public recreation spots, like the Meadows and Springs. Each of these amenities are distinctly able to cater to a larger number of service users. If we take existing communities between the two most notable ones, DIFC and Marina, we can see examples like Al Quoz that could be built upward to achieve the aforementioned goal of more people using existing infrastructure.

We talk about sustainability in terms of energy conservation and increasing the green environment without understanding its full meaning. There are so many more elements to sustainability. Its true meaning is “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level”, and this is what we are talking about here. Sustainable living really is achievable – we just need to alter our worldview and think smarter. Besides curbing cities’ expansion and solving population problems, high-rise buildings can and will act as energy generators. Photovoltaic - integrated glazing, wind turbines strategically positioned on tall buildings and geothermal technology amongst other things, makes them the cornerstone of building a zero energy sustainable future independent of fossil fuels. High-rise buildings are not new – they’ve been around for a hundred years – but in the long term they could just save the planet all of us call home.

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