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Greening Up Sheikh Zayed Road When Brownbook met Portland, a London based company who focus on designing environments that tell a story, creativity was the only card on the table. We imagined how Sheikh Zayed Road might look if we had free rein to turn it into a utopian oasis of green space. Here we envisage Sheikh Zayed Park…

Sheikh Zayed Road (SZR) is the central nerve system of Dubai, UAE, and is considered one of the most important thoroughfares globally. So when we started to talk with Ibrahim Ibrahim from Portland, in London’s buzzing creative hub of Shoreditch, our imaginations ran riot. Personal experiences and traffic jam horrors, along with getting stuck in the daily rush hour led to an open blue sky session as to how communal green-space in the middle of Dubai could be significant, and how transport systems would work together. A public space such as a series of parks interlinked with walkways in place of the current motorway, which would be submerged underground, would then be complemented with floating bridges. The entire space would endeavour to be a conglomeration point for the whole community and undoubtedly the biggest experiential landmark in the Middle East. In an attempt to retain SZR’s true characteristics, the exploration of ideas accelerated into a vision outlining what kind of space could be developed. The aim was to bring together visiting and resident communities whilst also knitting together green spaces with the practicality of shopping, entertainment and commerce. Amongst all these dreamy visions, the ultimate questions were; what would this

mean for Dubai in the global context and how could this feat be delivered? Portland’s army of in-house designers, architects and urban planners enlisted a core team and collaborated with an extensive network of experts in order to explore the full potential of greening up SZR. Contributors included Guy Briggs, founder of the Cape Town-based consultancy USPD, and Viraj Chatterjee, Design Principle of One Landscapes; alongside Portland’s Middle East regional director Stephen Walsh, a retail and design specialist and passionate Dubai enthusiast and resident. This illustrated think piece acts as a catalyst for further debate and the following pages are an open dialogue between designers, experts and locals.

The Changing Highway 1980s


Two decades ago SZR was lined with only a few modest buildings

By the ‘90s the familiar skyline was beginning to take shape


Global Brand

Rapid Development

Although it is called Sheikh Zayed Road as it traverses the emirate of Dubai, the road is actually part of a much larger highway – the E11 (also the country’s longest road) – that stretches over 560 kilometers across the UAE. It connects the bustling and expanding communities that inhabit the seven emirates and follows a course parallel to the Gulf coastline. After its upgrade in the 1990s, the road was named Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, after the late president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

SZR is now home to over 82 of Dubai’s most illustrious skyscrapers such as the Emirates Towers and the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. Utilising its broad networking capabilities, it also acts as a link between the internationally famous developments in Dubai such as the Palm Jumeirah, Downtown and the Dubai Marina, making it the most significant thoroughfare in the city. The development and expansion of Dubai has generated an increase in avant garde buildings being envisioned and built that not only enhance the highway experience, but also dictate new routes and transport networks. SZR is the main artery and its confident architecture is testimony to Dubai’s success as a city, which hosts some of the world’s best hotels, premium offices and luxurious apartments. It is the most commercially rich road in the UAE.

Despite all the things that Dubai is, there is one thing it isn’t – congestion free. Pollution generated by standing traffic tops the ranks compared to other Middle East countries and despite a massive investment in infrastructure to try and improve this, SZR is still jammed with traffic. One effect of the road’s development has been the split of local communities due to the reduction of connections between the eastern and western sides. Due to a limited number of intersections, the required drive from one side of the road to the opposite carriageway can only be achieved by making long circuitous journeys, adding further gridlock at peak periods and exacerbating drive times. In conjunction with rapid building programmes, the construction of SZR has neglected the needs of the existing residential communities, resulting in a detrimental environmental effect on adjacent neighbourhoods.


Over the last ten years the road’s landscape has morphed into an urban metropolis

Sustainable Future

Local Residence

Looking Next Door

Now the emirate is making a conscious move towards a more sustainable and ecological transport strategy, partially prompted by having one of the world’s largest ratios of car-ownership to population. Recently the Department of Economic Development and the Foreign Investment Office hosted a two-day Green Transportation and Logistics Summit, which came after of the introduction of over a thousand new buses, as well as another Dubai first-plan for electric limo buses offering luxurious transport for up to 23 people. The biggest sustainable step to date has been the introduction of the elevated Dubai Metro, with its Red Line running alongside the busy highway and several more lines opening soon.

Stephen Walsh, originally from the UK, is Portland’s regional director and has resided in the Middle East for over 30 years – and in the UAE for eight. In the Middle East, he is responsible for development projects in Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Doha, Dubai, Isfahan, Jeddah, Muscat and Ras Al Khaimah and was responsible for creating the original Dubai Duty Free Shopping Centre in Dubai International Airport. Walsh was involved in this project from the start and understands the beneficial aspects of such development. ‘As a future city, Dubai wants to show the way, so new developments need to be cutting edge in every sense,’ he says. ‘That means creating space that is supportable and in line with sustainable environments.’

New communities are already being created in Jumeirah Gardens on the northern stretch between Al Diyafa Street and Safa Park. These areas faced a similar problem of connecting communities.

The Big Idea Shops

As well as plenty of retail outlets, the undulating roof would create a variation in height: not only dropping down to pavement level to create pedestrian access, but reaching high enough to house major indoor sports facilities



The wave-like roof and its elevated park strips would also act

It became a realisation that instead of changing the whole

as a series of commuter bridges. By dramatically expanding

framework of SZR, the spectacular approach route could be

the metro station’s connections, living bridges would allow

maximised. The majority of the traffic would go underground

parkland to arc over SZR at each metro station point

and the current slip roads would be raised to to allow access for park users and to create usable space underneath


The initial idea of burying SZR under a vast park was unsuitable to Dubai’s harsh environment. Instead, what was needed was a concept to retain and accentuate its grand boulevard

Open space

features. Rather than a cover-all approach, this would be the Champs Elysées meets Blade Runner

For a pedestrian, being faced with ten lanes of traffic couldn’t be less appealing. So the challenge was to create a solution that neither affected the quality of the spaces nor got rid of the highway altogether

Parallel parks

Slip roads

of the highway, between SZR and the slip roads. The parks

out of which the skyscrapers would appear to rise, these

would form an undulating plane with a public space running

newly built-forms would create shading to shelter pedestri-

along the top, dipping in some places allowing views of the

ans. These slip roads would then become animated streets,

road and the city’s architecture

lined with shops and cafes on both sides

Two parallel strips of space would be created along each side

Framing the highway and providing a continuous landscape

Making Places For People SZR has grown organically from the early days of Emirates Towers and a limited number of residential and office towers, to what is now an urban forest of skyscrapers each jostling for height, recognition and attention by day and by night. The shops, restaurants, cafĂŠs and banks at their bases stretch along the service roads and, between the World Trade Centre and the Defence roundabout the road represents one of the busiest highways in the Middle East. Over 350,000 cars per day travel up and down this stretch of highway not to mention the number of metro passengers travelling through or using the three stations of Emirates Towers, Financial District and World Trade Centre. In addition, there is a thriving residential and office community and many tourists. Whilst there are wide pavements around they are still hot, humid, noisy, dusty areas not particularly friendly to people. So the massive daily footfall coming from a variety of environments would without a doubt, benefit from this ambitious transformation.

The Opportunity

Conveniently located, a new community would develop where residents could visit cafes and restaurants, with plenty of seating inside or out. There would be convenience stores and a mixture of shops to serve and satisfy the community needs. With Dubai’s creative and emerging entrepreneurial scene these areas could also house some of boutiques and art galleries while others could utilise the space as a meeting point, a place to sit and talk, play or read. Somewhere where you could surf the net or relax and get away from it all. Areas beneath the metro tracks (and adjacent to the stations) could be developed outward and upwards to create sky decks

over the highway to use the existing metro stations’ infrastructure for access. Hence all metro passengers and everyone within walking distance from each of the three stations would have the opportunity to access community facilities at street and sky level. Resting above the busy nodes of shops and amenities for commuters, would be green oases with recreational areas for children and adults alike.

A 21st Century city

Make it people-centric

Make it waterproof

Not enough green space

and corrosive salts to become a waterproof membrane, are useful here.’

mean that I could conceptualise new venues to and host something very different!’

‘Dubai is one of the great experiments in 21st century urbanism. The scale of the vision has been huge, but it has thus far lacked finesse in its details. This project shows how to reintroduce the human scale and demonstrate how to humanise the 21st century city,’ says Guy Briggs, an architect based in Cape Town.

Annabelle Filer, a trained architect with a passion for sustainable development says the materials used contribute to the success of any built environment. ‘They underpin the architectural integrity of both the visionary that created the urban landscape and protect it from day to day use,’ says the owner of SCIN, a materials consultancy firm in the UK. ‘Dubai is no stranger to the influence of climate on its infrastructure and the choice and use of materials is critical. Smart materials such as hydrophobic concrete or hycrete, that prevent absorption of water

‘We should focus the experience into a people-centric vision,’ says Alan Thompson, the developments director at Portland. ‘The opportunity here is for linking neighbourhoods, for developing communities, for tempting pedestrian movement and also improving the ecological environment.’ Thompson also heads the development team that specialises in planning for big scale projects making sure it is well researched prior to design.

Jean Oosthuizen is a South African events consultant who has been living in the UAE for over 25 years. Living close to SZR, with the opening of commercial space and activities on his doorstep, means he doesn’t have to travel too far to socialise. ‘Living very close to Dubai Mall now means that I have everything nearby, but there is a lack of green spaces and parkland here. Something like this only a five minute drive away actually excites me. I would love to be able to shop in an environment that is sustainable and also pleasant to look at.’ Consulting on a daily basis would

Rooftop Park

By creating dramatic installations on the expanded bridges above the retail spaces, design and innovation can reach their full potential. We envision the oasis garden and commercial district to be be protected with flag shaped canopies or articial pillow domes made from the the same material as the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. The green spaces would then rub shoulders with event squares, dining terraces, water features and kiosks that offer refreshments or sports equipment for hire. In milder weather, the enclosures could be opened to extend the landscaped spaces out onto external terraces. The canopies could also support solar photovoltaic panels to generate power for additional lighting and air-conditioning.

Fun places, calm places: personal space The beauty of public space is not just in the inclusion and composition of fragrant flowers, in providing grouped seating, or in a programme of changing events, promotions

and places for occasional organic markets and craft fairs. Its charm is also encaptured in the versatility of space. A successful space will afford families a calm corner for a picnicking as well as providing dynamic places for sports and meeting friends.

Environmental Extremes

The weather in Dubai is warm, humid and unpleasant for almost four months of the year, so developing a space that is usable all year round is vital. Shade can be created with climatically suitable planting, and care must be taken to mitigate water usage. Therefore, plants that require less irrigation must be used as well as artificial shading to supplement the cover provided by trees. Too many external lawns should be avoided, as these require high-maintenance and huge amounts of irrigation. Water can also be useful by generating a cooling effect and if used in fountains, cascades or mist producing devices, they should be implemented in shaded and protected locations to be the most effective.

Only in beautiful Dubai

Abdulla Al Kaabi, widely appreciated for his work as a film director (he recently made a short starring Jean Reno), is an environmentalist at heart and is enthusiastic about the Sheikh Zayed Park idea. ‘Where else would you have a park built over one of the most active highways in the world? It would only be in my beautiful Dubai,’ he says. ‘I believe the city is really sliced into two by SZR so a project like this can connect the people from both sides of the road. Ultimately, we want to create a pedestrian and walking culture in the city and this is going in the right direction.’ Kaabi also says he would use a park like this for a shooting location and that having a green city would enable us all to live healthier lives. ‘The air is cleaner and life can be so stressful sometimes; a walk in a park can do wonders. But I must say, we live in a desert after all so I hope as much as we can to have the least consuming vegetation; those local to our environment to preserve our water. Gallons of water to feed fields of grass is not really the idea.’ Away from the envrionmental benefits, the new park could also instill an extra lifestyle factor, he concludes. ‘Just the common facilities found in every other park – a running track would be great. A small hidden café maybe and it would be awesome if we had open air oud concerts.’

Final Say

The opportunity to transform the glass and steel landscape into a flourishing communal neighbourhood that will enhance the world’s perception of Dubai, is something that could really be achieved by focusing on the needs of the public as well as the practicalities. A park and entertainment area full of places memorable with character could become a reality with the right support. The transportation nodes could be transformed into exciting hubs that, instead of being merely functional could be a celebration of Dubai’s ‘can do’ spirit. Metro stations, intersections and roadways could be

for progressive renewable energy, the latest ecological technologies and methods could be showcased. The result would be a series of spaces to encourage people to come together, make connections between journeys or just to relax at a wonderful watering hole. The journey can be half the fun of getting there. Sheikh Zayed Road is at present a place where people live and work but it has the potential to be so much more. It could be a junction where individual paths cross, merge and break away into vibrant destinations. Building this vision would start turning the

developed to better serve the needs of their localities and by utilising the opportunities

improbable into the possible. The task may not be simple; major develop-

ments such as these entail solid investment and some complex construction challenges. Nevertheless such obstacles are the kind Dubai is renowned for overcoming and despite an initial outlay of costs, they can be recuperated through new commercial streams started by the wew centres of retail and leisure that will benefit from the steady flow of commuters and local communities. In the end, this think-piece is not just about turning the highway into soaring parks, it is about connections, convenience and composing a greener, healthier, more peoplefocused vision for Dubai.

Brownbook + Sheikh Zayed Road  

When Brownbook met Portland, a London based company who focus on designing environments that tell a story, creativity was the only card on t...

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