I first started doing urban planning work in Abu Dhabi and Dubai four years ago. Landing in the region for the first time, I immediately began to write the place off as one of the worst example of urban planning ever.
I would spend my days designing and selling dreams to local clients on how they could transform this inhospitable piece of desert into something that it was naturally never meant to be. Off-hours, with a smug sense of satisfaction I would then collect and document specific examples of the wacky follies that offend every western planning sensibility I was taught.
One example is the green belts that have been planted and irrigated in the western region of Abu Dhabi, shown in the top photo. Guided by the goal to “green the desert,” Sheikh Zayed dictated the planting of tens of thousands of acres of trees in the most inhospitable locations possible and developed extensive irrigating systems using desalinated water that are maintained by innumerable South Asian workers.
This seemed foolish to me at first. But then I started thinking about the emphasis in the US to use what can be produced locally to promote livability. Besides camels and dates, the only thing that can be produced locally in Abu Dhabi is oil.
Locavores in the US are trying to live better by using local resources. Emirates (the local people in Abu Dhabi) are doing the exact same, but are doing so using the one main local resource they have, oil. Using the revenue generated from oil, Abu Dhabi is trying its best to create a livable home in a place that for the last 2,000 years has not been very livable.
Viewed purely from the perspective of resource consumption, this seems like a colossal waste. Viewed from the perspective of “using local” this approach to urban planning makes a lot more sense.
Craig Johnson is a conflicted planner working in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.