An Opportunity to Convince the Region to Build Sustainable Cities – One Botanic Garden at a Time

Nick Leech

At a recent ceremony in London, the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE announced its latest architectural commission, the new 600,000 square meter Sharjah Botanical Garden. Located on a site the size of 70 football pitches on the emirate’s border with Dubai, the project is being designed by Grimshaw, the architectural firm responsible for the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, which transformed a disused quarry into a temperature-controlled environment for a rainforest, and the Oman Botanic Garden, which promises to be the largest botanic garden in the Arabian Peninsula when it is finally complete.

Sharjah’s ambitions for the project are lofty. Its stated aim is to educate as well as to delight. But if the garden is to become something more than yet another tourist attraction, it will need to exceed these expectations, becoming an exemplar of sustainability in a region faced by the twin challenges of increasing temperatures and aridity. To do this, the garden will have to change attitudes, not just to water consumption, but to the role that the region’s indigenous plants can play in the urban infrastructure across the whole of the Arabian Peninsula.

According to statements issued at the time of the Sharjah announcement, the botanic garden is set to become a hybrid of the precedents in Cornwall and Oman, thanks to its promise to exhibit rare flora from around the world alongside 90 of Sharjah’s native plant species. Sharjah has an established track record when it comes to promoting and conserving the UAE’s floral heritage. In February, it opened a new seed bank, herbarium and horticultural research facility, but at a wider public and a commercial level, an appreciation of the UAE’s native flora has remained a minority pursuit. Indeed, the same might be said of the wider Middle East.

Beyond a very public love and widespread use of the date palm and a tiny handful of hardy, utilitarian-looking shrubs, interest in the Arabian Peninsula’s native flora has remained the province of a handful of pioneering investigators, a curious mixture of academics, consultants and private enthusiasts. Even as recently as 2008, there was little or no interest in the cultivation of native species for commercial production in the UAE, for example, and no understanding of their potential uses – a mystifying situation in a country so heavily reliant on desalination where irrigation, at the time, represented 70 percent of total water consumption. But thanks to the introduction of environmental legislation such as Abu Dhabi’s pioneering Estidama program, which has water conversation at its core, native species are beginning to make an appearance in experimental demonstration plantings across the emirate, such as those conducted by the municipal parks department in the city of Al Ain, near Abu Dhabi.

Nevertheless, such examples continue to be the exception rather than the rule, a situation that will become all the more stark as the UAE gears up for the launch of Expo 2020 Dubai.

The first event of its type to be hosted in a desert country, Expo 2020 is being promoted as an opportunity for Dubai to assume a position of leadership in the field of sustainability, an experimental laboratory in sustainable city-building.

An idea of what these lessons might be can be gleaned from “Cities Alive: Rethinking Cities in Arid Environments,” a recent report by the international engineering consultants Arup, which also happen to have worked on the Eden Project, the Oman Botanic Garden and the masterplan for Expo 2020.

Alongside the potential benefits that can be gained from intelligent city-governance, smart cities, energy efficient buildings and improved public transport, the report highlights the multifaceted role that plants and landscape can play at an urban scale in helping to make life in desert cities more habitable, sustainable and resilient.

Rather than seeing plants as exotic oddities or as a means of urban beautification, the report proposes that they be understood as natural systems that have the potential to contribute to cooler, healthier and more productive urban environments. Employed appropriately and at scale, plants that are naturally adapted to arid conditions can not only help to limit desertification, but can also filter particulate and pollution from the air while mitigating the urban heat-island effect, a phenomenon which sees city temperatures rise disproportionately thanks to large swathes of impermeable and non-reflective surfaces that absorb and radiate heat.

The Arup report cites case studies from arid cities across the world – in Australia, Chile, China and the US – that combine technological innovation with locally adapted and climatically appropriate natural systems, several of which can already be found in the region.

At Wadi Hanifa, south of the Saudi Arabia capital of Riyadh, for example, the conservation of an existing wadi and the creation of dams and additional vegetation-planted lakes combine what the report describes as blue (i.e., linked to water) and green infrastructure. Not only does the wadi and its new wetlands help to purify recycled water from local sewage treatment facilities, they have become a become a popular leisure destination in an area with little public open space.

Will the Sharjah Botanical Garden become such an example? The most profound role it can play is in helping to transform attitudes and promoting an awareness, not just of the Arabian Peninsula’s horticultural heritage, but of the wider issues the region’s cities face. If it does so, not only would it be an inspiration and an exemplar in a new paradigm in arid city design, it would be part of a profound and much-needed rethink.

Nick Leech is a writer and qualified landscape architect who specializes in the art, architecture and heritage of the Gulf and wider Middle East.