With a massively increasing income from petrodollars in the 1960s and 1970s, accommodation for the expatriate workers, associated to the oil industry, were rapidly built along the north-west of the Abu Dhabi. Most of the first-wave of construction still standing in the city can be recognised by both their relatively low height, often between 5 and 18 storeys in height and the air conditioning units attached to vast walls of concrete. Today the population of the city is three times greater than it was ever planned for and the process of renewal is in full swing; following the detailed Urban Planning Council’s Abu Dhabi 2030 Urban Structure Framework Plan.
The congested streets of downtown Abu Dhabi are starting to see more light appear in the skyline, as old buildings are bulldozed and removed from sight. What amazes me about these temporary spaces is how small the footprints of the buildings actually are. As the number of cars in the city is greater than the number of parking bays, these temporary spaces are sometimes converted to parking places to ease the congested city streets. In other places children take the opportunity to use these spaces for recreation; to kick a football around or to play in the sand, in amongst the more permanent features of the urban landscape.
Having grown up in East London the temporary spaces in the city remind me of the renewal that took place after the war and deindustrialization. What is different about renewal in Abu Dhabi seems to be the scale and pace of change. The rate of renewal can be measured by the number of cranes seen on the skyline. From my window I can see 27 cranes, and my view only takes in a third of the main island. In comparison, when I was in Manchester, at Easter this year, there were only three cranes towering over the city. New developments are appearing across Abu Dhabi as quickly as the Shard has added its outline to the London skyline.
In the two years have lived in Abu Dhabi I have watched schools, hospitals, new hotels and multi-purpose structures grow from the ground up to sky. Renewal is driving modernity across the city. It is providing retail and office space required for economic diversification; it is providing high quality housing for Emirates and expatriate workers and it is providing world class facilities for leisure, healthcare and education. Increasing the amount of housing stock combined with the global economic downturn has reduced city property prices by a third since 2008 and yet demand still outstrips supply.
Renewal is a positive process in this city; as long as you are not directly affected by the noise, sand and inconvenience of living too close to a new development. Signs of renewal give the urban dwellers hope. Both Yas Mall and the water park are exciting the younger people of Abu Dhabi, as these developments signal the arrival of new leisure activities. The developments at Nation Towers and Etihad Towers on the Corniche will increase the number eateries, shops and bars; pleasing the expatriate workers. Renewal is taking place at a phenomenal rate. If you talk to the older generations of Emirates who have grown up in the area they speak about the loss of the natural landscape and how it has been replaced by glass and tarmac and so many people. If you ask whether this is a good change; the answer is always yes. Emirates are very patriotic and proud of what has happened in their city. What next? Perhaps Abu Dhabi will aim high and break the record for the tallest building in the world.