Sunday, January 10, 2016

Overwatering the desert? Planting in Dubai.

Modern public spaces allow for new forms of social interaction

Just spent a couple of days in Dubai (on the way back from India) with Fareena Khaliq, a colleague I had originally made contact with through the Landscape Dept. at Sheffield. She works here running a landscape design and maintenance company. It has been a great opportunity to think through what planting design can do in the Middle East, and in desert environments more generally. We also met up with Kamelia Zaal, the designer of last year's Chelsea garden 'The Beauty of Islam'.

Lots of questions. How do you make a garden or public planting which requires minimum irrigation but which performs visually? How do you make gardens for a population with no history or culture of gardening? How can the traditional Islamic garden be re-interpreted?

First – some background. I find Dubai a strange place. Superficially ultra modern with its skyline which looks like an architecture student's models have all come to life, it is in many ways a traditional family autocracy, run in a relatively benign fashion (in comparison with some of the other family-run countries in the neighbourhood!), with 80% of the population as non-citizens, simply here to work, and therefore with no real stake in the place - a set-up unlike anywhere else in the world. It is utterly unsustainable in its power and water consumption. However, it runs very smoothly and is the sort of place where experiments are possible as technical and design innovation is highly prized, and as perhaps the ultimate meeting place of east and west, tradition and modernity, it may yet surprise us.
A scene at the very successful and peaceful Al Barari location using recycled water. The remainder of the pictures show here as well.
There are public landscapes here which many of us westerners would take for granted, but which are not necessarily part of Middle Eastern culture, like public parks, and cafes in landscaped retail environments. These are not the male-dominated spaces they might be in many Muslim countries. and it was great to see a lot of traditionally-dressed women in groups around after dark, even some on their own. I can't help the feeling that public landscaping is playing a role here in developing more relaxed social settings than you might expect in the region.

The planting is generally desperately unimaginative and insanely unsustainble, grass and clipped bougainvillea would you believe! Fareena says that she wants to “bring forth solutions in the public and the private realm that use a mix of native and adapted flora - planting that is robust and varied- hence ecologically rich and still suitable to the local clime”. But, she is limited by the desire of many clients for greenery and as so often the case, the availability of plants from nurseries is very limited. There is a rich regional desert flora but it lacks the lush look that clients want, so nurseries are in no hurry to grow it.

Which brings us back to the Islamic garden, which is traditionally an enclosed space, with flowing water in formal rills and lush planting – everything which the desert is not, a vision of paradise, in a metaphorical and spiritual sense. This model is ideal for the way people live in the Middle East, which is very family-centred and behind high walls (this mentality, with the implication that no-one outside the wall can be trusted, arguably lies behind the extreme dysfunctionality of some Middle Eastern societies, the political results of which we are constantly reminded). The Mughal gardens of northern India and Pakistan take this concept and expand it, but they still remain fatally dependent on water.

One way forward was shown by a visit to Al-Barari, an gated residential community developed by local designer Kamelia Zaal, who made a garden for Chelsea last year (The Beauty of Islam). With its dense blended mix of trees and shrubs, narrow water ways and intimate views, it seemed the perfect modern naturalistic take on the Islamic garden concept, a magical oasis. Kamelia's theme has been the spread of Arab culture and Islamic faith through trade, and the plant origins very much reflect this. It is of course an upmarket development, but as so often in the world of art and design, elite places can often help inspire and facilitate other, more democratic, developments. The water is in fact derived from treated waste so is sustainable on that level. There is a great deal of birdlife to complete the oasis feeling.

Shared public spaces are something of a novelty, and Dubai's having them a sure sign of progress, but in dry environments they cannot have anything of the lushness of the traditional Islamic garden beyond very small areas. To us, the obvious solution is to use local drought-tolerant flora, but to locals this has little value, and is not appreciated. In addition, Fareena explained to me that many of the spiky desert plants used in dry garden design in the Mediterranean or the Americas, like agaves and yuccas, are perceived negatively - as aggressive and unattractive. Working out how to turn people on to the beauty of drought-tolerant plants looks like a challenge but has to be the only way. There is a widespread nostalgia here for the traditional desert-based lifestyle of the Emiratis now long since lost, now that the palm leaf hut has been swapped for the air-conditioned villa in two generations. Perhaps appeals to traditional landscapes may be the way forward.

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DesertSnowdrop said...

Wow...very interesting view into Dubai. I have never been. Your pictures and words about a city never seen have given me a window into their world. Public gardens in Dubai, who would have thought....

Brigitte@KlasseImGarten said...

thx, Noel, for that insight why Dubai planners don't use xeric plants more widely.
I've linked your article to my image album at flickr with impressions of some public gardens in Dubai back in 2012.

kind regards

Paul Steer said...

The dysfunctionality you mention exists here in the UK and in Wales. The more affluent sections of society tend not to want to live in 'deprived' areas and even live behind gates in some cases. In terms of public parks and spaces - they too are increasingly neglected here as local authorities are starved of funds.We continue to see investment in our Capital Cities while the poorer areas are left to find what funding they can scrape from ever decreasing sources.

Aaron Pearson said...

I like the peculiar notion that the things we value aesthetically here in the west are frowned upon in the east and have a negative image associated with them. I guess it's just a case of (if you'll forgive the pun) of the grass always being greener on the other side.