Abu Dhabi’s role in global urban planning

Against the backdrop of global discussions about sustainability and urban planning, Abu Dhabi is hosting a series of events aimed at addressing modern challenges of urban development and fostering new avenues for sustainable growth.

Abu Dhabi held the inaugural Pan-Arab Urban Development Symposium (PAUDS) on March 31, which focused on identifying strategic priorities for urban planning in Arab cities and the measures needed to achieve these goals.

Organised by the Abu Dhabi Department of Urban Planning and Municipalities (DPM) in conjunction with the Regional Office for Arab States of UN Habitat (ROAS), the symposium brought together more than 80 experts and decision-makers from the private and public domain.

Delegates gathered to discuss increasing urbanisation and the demands it places on communities and resources under the theme “Sustainable Arab Cities: A Brighter Future”.

See also: The Report – Abu Dhabi 2019

Urbanisation: a global phenomenon

In 2016 there were 512 cities around the world with at least 1m inhabitants and this number is set to increase to 660 by 2030. As cities grow, they face not only the perennial issues of housing, transport and energy, but also the need to combat rising pollution, inequality and urban sprawl. 

These challenges are particularly significant in the Arab world, where demographic fluctuations have resulted in rising youth populations and greater concentration in urban areas.

The urban population share among Arab countries is now above 62%, a higher share than the global average of 50%.

From a financial perspective, urban infrastructure has also become more sophisticated in recent decades and demands greater investment to keep up with growth.

The IHS Herold Global Projects Database estimates that since as early as 2013 large infrastructure projects have on average cost 80% more than their original budget and have been completed more than 20 months late. Alternative finance models that leverage the capital and expertise of the private sector are being used more than ever.

As discussed at PAUDS, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is enabling more streamlined construction and infrastructure schemes by providing architects and engineers simpler ways of rigorously testing and analysing designs through the implementation of advanced technology tools.

For example, Abu Dhabi successfully incorporated building information modelling (BIM) technology, which employs 3D-modelling software, during the planning and construction of the $3bn Midfield Terminal Building by Abu Dhabi Airports Company. The emirate is now integrating BIM models into its building permitting and information systems.

Identifying and categorising priorities

One of the key components of the symposium was the Ideas_Lab, a forum for delegates to exchange thoughts on the most pressing needs in urban planning from an Arab perspective and to propose solutions to be considered at the 10th World Urban Forum (WUF10).

The discussion identified a range of issues affecting quality of life – from architectural deficiencies and infrastructure shortfalls, to bureaucratic inefficiencies and community non-engagement.

Delegates also pointed to the sociological aspects of urban planning, emphasising the need to address feelings of isolation and detachment in urban environments. In particular, participants highlighted the poor sense of belonging among the youth and expatriate segments of society – of which Arab nations tend to have a higher proportion – as well as the rising exclusion of the elderly, as key challenges that planners must tackle.

The key outcome of the Ideas_Lab was a list of 12 priorities for the future of Arab urban development, which are categorised under four main pillars: economy, environment, society and culture.

The three economic priorities are to provide job opportunities for youth, facilitate entrepreneurship and address inequality.

Under the environment pillar, delegates underscored that the planning process for Arab cities needs to set new and more aggressive targets to support sustainability, develop new policies and engage citizens at all levels. They also agreed that reforms should be made to make it easier for businesses of all sizes to adhere to regional environmental standards.

The cultural category prioritised accepting and celebrating diversity; creating opportunities for integration, with a particular focus on the needs of both local and expatriate communities; and fostering participation in social life.

The social pillar underscored the importance of creating physical and social spaces, generating opportunities for women and engaging all segments of society in a dialogue about the future.

Contributing to the global discussion

While PAUDS focused on urbanisation in the Arab world, the issues discussed will also take place at a global scale at WUF10, which will also be held in Abu Dhabi in February 2020. Some 20,000 delegates from more than 150 countries are expected to attend the week-long UN Habitat event.

WUF10, which is being organised by the DPM, will mark the first time the forum has been hosted by an Arab country; the last event took place in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur in 2018.

Themed “Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation”, the forum will highlight the lessons of PAUDS in its platform of discussions, according to the DPM’s chairman, Falah Al Ahbabi.

“For Arab cities to become sustainable while remaining culturally distinct, they require tailor-made solutions,” Al Ahbabi said. “At WUF10, we will demonstrate that Arab cities are experimenting with innovative approaches and conceiving solutions to some of our toughest common challenges.”

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