By Christina Thomas
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” – Italo Calvino, "Invisible Cities"
Dubai certainly has its share of wonders and answers. Shellstone minarets and glass skyscrapers once symbolized the city’s tenacity in contest with the harsh desert. But in the years leading up to 2030, Dubai has come closer to reconciling with nature and responding to environmental concerns.
The city has also been answering the many questions continually posed by its millions of residents. Some ask, “Where can my children play?” “Why are the streets flooded whenever we get an inch of rain?” Others ask, “Do they sell local vegetables nearby?”
As an urban planner, my job is to make sure that the city can provide many of those answers, be it though green parks maintained with recycled water or porous roads and sidewalks that collect runoff.
In my workplace, “transit oriented development” has been the catchphrase lately. This means expansion and integration of Dubai’s metro, tram and bus services. Mixed-used zoning has ensured that office spaces and essential services are not too far from residential areas.
It’s a relief to take the tram to work and not worry about road traffic anymore. But even those who drive have reason to be glad. Solar-powered charging stations have cropped up everywhere since car manufacturers began converting or retrofitting vehicles to make plug-in hybrids an attractive low-cost option for car owners.
Contrary to many initial fears, these changes haven’t hurt Dubai’s economy, which was previously heavily oil-dependent. Dubai’s new reputation as a hub for sustainable infrastructure and solar energy innovation has spurred enormous demand for green jobs.
Tourists flock here, too, to marvel at the distinct charm of the city’s public spaces. Arabesque facades and windcatchers incorporate traditional elements of local architecture to promote passive cooling in buildings and streets. Aside from consuming less energy, many of the newer buildings act as carbon sinks due to the use of carbon-negative concrete and other green construction materials.
The streets are also lined with carbon-absorbers, but of a different sort – lush trees and shrubs, which are well nourished with the millions of gallons of water saved from air-conditioning condensate.
However, planners can’t take all the credit for the amazing progress this city has made. Over the past 10 years, the amount of municipal waste has decreased dramatically as committed residents recycle and compost. My neighbor who’s on the committee overseeing our community garden says we can easily double the amount of organic vegetables we produce thanks to recycled water and the high-quality fertilizer that’s delivered from our local compost site. Locally-grown food is hugely popular; I have several friends across the city who religiously wait for food trucks every week to deliver the gardens’ fresh seasonal produce to areas where gardens can’t grow as easily.
With the government facilitating savings in energy, water and food, and with local communities supporting such initiatives, neighborhoods are seeing huge reductions in living costs. Keeping life in the city affordable and enjoyable is one of the key goals of good planning as it encourages citizens to be engaged in the way their city develops.
As to the importance of civic engagement, perhaps Kevin Lynch explains it best in this quote from "The Image of the City":
“Not only is the city an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of widely diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are constantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own […] There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases.”
The job of a planner, therefore, is to allow cities to grow in this way, with due consideration for residents and for their relationship to the environment. The job of a planner is to help build a city that answers its people.
Image credit: Flickr/klebtahi