Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates was until the 1960’s a settlement of around 1,500 people, mostly locals on the waterfront. These people lived mostly in traditional huts constructed out of palm fronds or in tents and had no public services. With the discovery of oil in the 1960’s, there was some development but not significant. In the mid 1960’s, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan came to power and under his leadership development began in earnest.
From the 1970’s, the city began to expand outward and adopted a Western style of architecture with roads, railways, hospitals and airports dominating the city (Murray 2013). The earliest constructions after the discovery of oil were designed to catapult the emirate into the technological advancements of the previous decade. Backed by oil revenues, the city of Abu Dhabi has expanded rapidly and a five year period, the city developed at speeds that would have taken decades (ProQuest LLC 2014). The developments however did not fully integrate into whatever urban fabric that already existed. This fast-paced urban development has led to concerns about the economic, ecological and social impacts and has also caused challenges of the availability of usable spaces especially in residential neighborhoods.
The policies of the government, market forces and the local cultures have dominated the discussions on housing in Abu Dhabi. This has led to a segregated housing system where natives of Abu Dhabi live in government-subsidized neighborhoods. The subsidized housing is usually low density or single-use developments. Newly built gated communities and high rise apartment complexes house expatriates and lower income migrant workers are housed in dorms or in the old sections of the city.
Can High-Density Residential Neighborhoods Could Be Effectively Implemented or be the Norm in Abu Dhabi?
Subsidized housing meant for native-born residents of Abu Dhabi are mostly low density and sprawl over most of the city’s built landscape. The houses are also mostly designed as single-use residential buildings. The system also separates housing for nationals of Abu Dhabi are also separated from the districts that house non-nationals. While the acceptability of high-density housing might be low in Abu Dhabi like in any other city in a developed country, there are no known negative impacts if such developments are planned well (Dave 2011). In order to have more sustainable development, Abu Dhabi will have to accept an alternate form of construction that will turn the neighborhoods into compact and well-connected housing units. The neighborhoods will also have to be more high density in order to best utilize available buildable land. The housing needs to be designed so as to respond well to the natural environment as well as to encourage diversity among those who reside in the houses (Talen 2008). While the culture and government policies might not encourage the construction of high density housing for nationals of Abu Dhabi, it would be prudent to embrace high density housing in order to have more sustainable development.
Abu Dhabi also has a policy that restricts land ownership for non-nationals. While this policy is effective in ensuring that inefficiencies and externalities that would be brought about by the market forces such as speculation and hoarding, it is also a disadvantage as it restricts access for people that would be interested in investing there. The policy could also potentially lead to a lack of access to services for poor people who live outside of the planned residential houses (Fekade 2000). This could lead to a mushrooming of informal settlements and subsequently create a housing problem. To stem such problems, Abu Dhabi needs to enact policies that embrace high density and compact housing.
High Density Residential Neighborhoods
The ratio of people occupying or living units in comparison to land area determines the density of the area. Housing for Emiratis in Abu Dhabi is currently low density. High Density residential neighborhoods would ensure that materials used in construction, energy consumed and the land upon which the construction is done is utilized in a sustainable way. High-density neighborhoods also ensure that infrastructure and transportation that the occupants will use is more effectively and sustainably used (Jabareen 2006). The construction and use of high-density neighborhoods also ensures that resources are conserved and social interaction increased because of the compactness of the dwellings.
Low density housing as is currently the case also encourages spatial segregation and consumption of large amounts of open space (Wheeler 2003). This is evident in the current system where the planning system encourages separation of housing for nationals from those of non-national residents of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi needs to implement policies geared towards construction of high-density neighborhoods to ensure that the city develops more sustainably and utilizes available buildable space more effectively. High-density residential neighborhoods can also incorporate the neighborhood unit concept. This concept is effective in bridging planning, design, policy and development and in improving the quality in building of residential houses (Brody 2013). The neighborhood concept also helps to develop an area as a whole as compared to small pockets of development.
Usually, new towns and cities spring up as satellites to already existing cities or metropolises. Abu Dhabi was not built in this manner; instead, it came up as a brand new city built from the foundations. The initial planners wanted a city that was modern and whose technological advancements would go beyond the 1960’s (ProQuest LLC 2014). The massive oil wealth and low population ensured that the government could afford to build houses for the population. The design of the houses, which is still prevalent to date does not take compactness into consideration. When new development takes place adjacent to already existing structures, compactness is achieved. Urban spaces designed and built with compactness in consideration leads to the minimization of the effort and distance covered in transporting water, construction materials, people, energy and products intended for consumption.
Abu Dhabi’s current structure of Emirati residential neighborhoods does not take this into consideration. Compactness is achieved through the increase of density and helps to contain any sprawl beyond what currently exists. Abu Dhabi’s ambitions to brand itself as a city of the future with sustainable design and technological integration cannot be fully realized if compactness is not achieved.
How to Ensure High-Density Residential Neighborhoods become the Norm in Abu Dhabi
In Abu Dhabi, the Urban Planning Council, which was created in 2007, regulates how the city is planned and developed. The council ensures that all regulations are followed and regularly reviews development proposals. This body would be instrumental in ensuring that high-density residential housing becomes the norm in Abu Dhabi. This is because sustainable urban development needs changes in governance, regulations and market policies (Haughton 1997). Since the council has powers to regulate the design and construction of any development, they can use their authority to ensure that the residents through sensitization accept high-density housing and passing of regulations to ensure that national resident housing is made high density and compact. Acceptance and building of high-density housing will also depend on the proactivity of the public sector. The public has a role to play in determining what the built landscapes they need and to ensure that their social and ecological needs are met (Wheeler 2008). The participation of the public cannot be ignored since they are the ones that will eventually occupy those residences.
Through the use of policies instituted by the government, it is possible for Abu Dhabi to embrace high density housing for national residents. In line with Abu Dhabi’s bid to become a sustainable city, high density neighborhoods would ensure that the environment is preserved, transportation, construction materials and buildable land is utilized more effectively and that the residents have ecologically friendly neighborhoods.