Abu Dhabi Showcases Sustainable Urban Design
Abu Dhabi's new urban design guidelines call for more greater connectivity and accessibility, especially for pedestrians.

Abu Dhabi's new urban design guidelines call for greater connectivity and accessibility, especially for pedestrians.

The Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) in February released the Urban Street Design Manual, a 172-page guidebook that outlines design standards to create more walkable communities in Abu Dhabi, the largest and most oil-rich of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates. With its population expected to double to at least three million people by 2030, Abu Dhabi recognizes a need to prepare for a sustainable future, with a focus on transport and urban planning solutions.

The new design standards, created in association with experts from planning firm Otak International, signal a shift away from the automobile-centric, gridlocked urban sprawl that characterized Abu Dhabi during most of the past three decades towards a more multi-modal, pedestrian-friendly environment. UPC’s manual is based on the following key design principles:

  • The best transport plan is a good land use plan.
  • Good street design starts with pedestrians.
  • A well designed street network provides safety for all modes of transport.
  • Street connectivity enhances capacity and allows smooth traffic flow.
  • Street design reflects Plan 2030 goals for Abu Dhabi Emirate.
  • Street design supports Estidama principles. [“Estidama” is the the Arabic word for sustainability.]


Some of the specific recommendations include reducing the “urban heat island” effect by introducing native, drought-tolerant landscaping and “shadeways” that will encourage walking, bicycling and enhanced access to transit. Nancy Kete, the director of EMBARQ, the nonprofit organization that produces this blog, says in an interview with .commerce that Abu Dhabi should create a “reflective city,” creating lighter surfaces to deflect warmth from the sun.

“You could probably cool down the streets in Abu Dhabi as there’s too much asphalt at the moment,” she says. “There’s also landscaping, which would need irrigation. Anything you plant needs a water preservation solution. And wider sidewalks made of white materials to reflect heat rather than black, which absorbs heat.”

Indeed, the design manual has a whole section on mitigating urban heat gain, recognizing that “streetscape elements that attenuate the Emirate of Abu Dhabi’s hot and humid climate will be critical for encouraging multi-modal travel. Thermal comfort for bicyclists and pedestrians is a key factor in modechoice.”

Some of these “cooling” elements include shaded transit shelters, artistic sculptures that block out light (form and function!) along pedestrian routes, shade-providing trees, patterned screens, “green walls,” trellises, and “wind towers” to funnel air into pedestrian walkways.

These innovative ideas actually borrow from local history. Older Middle Eastern cities relied on “the integration of narrow alleys, cloth awnings, and even wood frame roofs for plants to block out the sun,” writes blogger Huma Gupta from MIT Meydan.


Abu Dhabi is learning a lot about sustainable development from cities like Vancouver (the city’s co-director of planning, Larry Beasley, is serving as the emirate’s “special adviser”). But at the same time, it’s also becoming a best practice of urban design, in its own right.

“A city that continues to grow by leaps and bounds has decided to reinvent itself based on placemaking,” Gary Toth writes in Planetizen. “Why can’t we do the same in the U.S.?”

Or any place else, for that matter.

Toth points out some of Abu Dhabi’s “unique circumstances” that have allowed it to move away from a pattern of growth based on cheap energy and car culture. These advantages, Toth says, include the lack of public resistance to government action, an abundance of wealth from oil reserves, and the weak presence of entrenched bureaucracy, which usually slows things down.

Though its future is still uncertain (a plan is only a plan until it gets executed), Abu Dhabi is poised to become a leader in the Middle East when it comes to developing environmentally and economically sustainable cities. (It already bailed out its neighbor Dubai, who spent a lot of its resources building palm-tree-shaped islands and empty mega-skyscrapers.)

Recently, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) and the Abu Dhabi Council for Economic Development (ADCED) launched the World Sustainable Capitals (WSC) initiative. The initiative will include a global network of experts in urban planning who will identify strategies and policy recommendations to help guide cities towards a more sustainable future. Members of the WSC will meet in Abu Dhabi in May to gain more support and start preparing for a white paper to be presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2011.

Right Menu Icon