designMENA Summit: Integratating Dubai’s neighbourhoods through connectivity

The modern city should turn back the clock and learn from the urban environment of 150 years ago and be designed around people rather than cars.

That was the view expressed at designMENA Summit, held in Dubai, which attracted an audience of designers and architects to listen to panel debates, case studies and presentations.

“Connecting Cities: Integrated neighbourhood design” was the title of one discussion which included moderator Nigel Eckersall, director of design and developments at VE Experts, Jason Chia, senior landscape architect and urban designer at Perkins + Will, Jonathan Ashmore, founder of Anarchitect, Ralf Steinhauer, director at RSP and Ignacio Gomez, design director for the Middle East at Aedas.

The panel all agreed that a greater concentration on connectivity – especially in Dubai – would make the city a much more liveable place and be of great benefit to residents.

Another emphasis from the group came on the subject of public transport with Steinhauer going as far as to suggest that two lanes of Sheikh Zayed Road should be reserved for the exclusive use of buses.

“Would travel by car be so attractive if you were stuck in traffic watching all those red buses passing by?” he asked the audience.

Ashmore started the debate by saying design should be on a more domestic scale.

“There is an opportunity to develop what is an existing city [Dubai],” he said. “There are gaps between [building] projects and architects need to sit with clients and see how best to utilise them. There is also the opportunity to redevelop older structures so that they meet modern requirements.”

Gomez said looking to inspiration from history could act as a way forward and a catalyst for human-scale design – especially in the area of connectivity.

“The city has been shaped over a long period of time,” he said. “If we look back 150 years cities were actually better. We had a formula then and we need to recreate it now. What worked a century and a half ago will work in the modern day.

“Now the city is shaped for the car and we need to deconstruct that mentality.

“Do we really need another car-park – or do we need to make it more attractive for people to use public transport?”

The panel felt that “10-15” cars can be taken off the road if the occupants decided to use a bus instead and the Metro is a good alternative form of transport as well. But members all agreed that it does not reach many parts of the city and for residents of those areas which it does, they have to negotiate narrow pavements to get to stations.

Building communities was another theme with Eckersall asking the panel how its members would create a more liveable environment.

Chia responded by saying: “It’s not about today, it’s about what is coming tomorrow. And it is about allowing the infrastructure to evolve. And it’s not about just what is within the boundaries of a particular plot. It is about what is beyond. We need to look at the bigger picture and the big vision.”

Steinhauer said plans to upgrade the Dubai Metro and improve the bus service were positive.

But he added: “I will take someone who is a visitor to the city to a particular place and they may want to revisit. They will say ‘can I walk there?’ But sometimes they cannot. We need much greater interconnectivity that will allow people to move freely between neighbourhoods.”

Ashmore agreed after Eckersall asked him what the next step in this area should be, by saying: “We need to isolate the car to the periphery of the urban environment and allow people to use public transport. Dubai Marina is a good example of this [with its frequent traffic congestion]. The tram is getting more use. Then there is Jumeirah Lake Towers. One lake has been filled in and is now a park.

“I would think that property values have risen in that area as residents can walk across the park rather than around the lake.”

The panel all agreed that such factors could be a powerful influence on making clients aware of the advantages of connectivity.

Gomez said: “At the moment the city of Dubai is in layers but it needs to connect. It is like a lasagna – but it needs to be more like a moussaka. We must try and break boundaries and to do that we need to change the mentality.”

Steinhauer compared Dubai’s approach to development – building on plots and then laying down infrastructure – to that of Stockholm where the transport links are in place first and housing comes later.

He added: “Perhaps it is time for us to take a breather, as we all did after the global economic crash and really think about the best way forward to develop this city.”

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