Defining sustainability

With its expanding portfolio, EDAW is fast becoming one of the region's biggest players in outdoor design. Visiting principal Christopher Choa talks to COD.

Christopher Choa of EDAW.
Christopher Choa of EDAW.

With its expanding portfolio, EDAW is fast becoming one of the region's biggest players in outdoor design. Visiting principal Christopher Choa talks to COD.

International design consultancy EDAW appears to have gone from strength to strength in the region since formally establishing operations in Abu Dhabi last year.


Right now being green is considered socially desirable, it's not economically desirable.

The firm, which offers urban design and landscape architecture services, has garnered a number of mega projects in the region including Saadiyat Island and the Al Raha beach development in Abu Dhabi.

Commercial Outdoor Design caught up with visiting principal Christopher Choa during a recent trip to the Middle East to discuss urban design in the UAE, and what he sees as the major obstacles to the implementation of more sustainability in the region.

What are the main challenges in urban design in Abu Dhabi and Dubai as they expand?

The biggest challenge is to link the idea of urban development and economic development and sustainability. And it is very important how you define sustainability because sustainability can be measured in many different ways.

Certainly there are issues related to energy resources but there are also images related to quality of life, social parity and fairness and also even models for development for other places in the UAE, so getting those pieces to connect and to create a overall objective of sustainability is absolutely critical.

The challenges in the UAE have to do with climate first and foremost, but they also have to do with expectation.

People here expect an enormous amount of individual mobility, private security, it is a very uncivic city in many places in the sense that the life of people who live here, not just expatriates but Arabs themselves is very interior.

If you compare how people in Europe live in cities and how important public spaces are for people who live there, and how important public spaces are for people in the Middle East or in Asia, there is a completely different expectation.

In Europe, you go out, you sit in a nice café sidewalk, you are out in the open.

Here you go to a private restaurant in a hotel, you wear a veil. In Asia, the idea of eating out in the street is beyond conceivable, you would never, ever do that so the expectations about what is public and what is private between regions are very different.

What do you think are going to be the main obstacles to more sustainability happening in this region?

The main obstacle is that energy is too cheap. If you had to really boil it down, it's right there.

Power is so cheap it is relatively inexpensive to create potable water, with potable water you irrigate the heck out of all sorts of things and you make air conditioning possible because it is so inexpensive to produce.

From an economic point of view, it is not unsustainable because the power doesn't cost very much right now, but from an environmental point of view it's a huge challenge.

What do you think needs to happen to drive more sustainability in the region?

In a place such as Abu Dhabi where you don't have the cost of energy driving any real decision, you need aspirational ideas to create sustainability.

That is why Masdar City is interesting, it is trying to create a way of providing renewable power that is actually much more expensive than local power but it is creating an aspiration that still makes it desirable.



Christopher Choa currently lives and works in London. He was previously based in Shanghai, where he led major architecture and urban design projects in China and Southeast Asia.

Prior to joining EDAW, Choa served as co-chair of New York New Visions, the design coalition for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.


That's the difference. The challenge here to sustainability in the UAE is the price of energy, it is very, very low which doesn't create many incentives to do anything else that is sustainable.

So there is a lot of talk about sustainability, but whether or not it will happen is a different matter?

I think right now being green is considered socially desirable, it's not economically desirable.

If you go to a rural development in a very isolated area, there is no choice but to be sustainable so that's an economic issue, not a social or aspirational issue.

The UAE has energy that is too cheap, that's the biggest obstacle.

Can you tell me about EDAW's background in the Middle East and any key milestones?

EDAW has a long history of work in Middle Eastern countries in a variety of capacities, including urban revitalisation, resort design, parks design, and landscape architecture.

Over more than a decade, it has completed various projects in the region ranging from resort developments to masterplanning of new communities and city centres.

The EDAW Abu Dhabi office is currently working on several large projects in the UAE, as well as coordinating projects between EDAW offices and their respective clients located throughout the region.

One of the many milestones for the EDAW office in the Middle East was being appointed as part of the masterplan development team for Al Raha Beach development in Abu Dhabi.

EDAW is responsible for the public realm concept design across the 675ha mixed use waterfront project on the eastern coastline of the Persian Gulf.

What projects is EDAW working on at the moment in the region?

EDAW's current project list is extensive, but of particular note, we are working on the following: Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, San Bani Yas Island, Al Raha Beach, Abu Dhabi, Bastakiya masterplan in Dubai, and Doha Education City in Qatar.

With so many large-scale developments under way in the UAE, what will be unique about the Saadiyat island project?

What's unique about it is that it's the attempt to create a very large system where the urban areas and the hinterland are in balance with each other, it's creating a large amount of density.

Saadiyat island is a much bigger population than Masdar. Masdar is 50,000 people, whereas we're about 160,000.

Saadiyat doesn't rely on technology to create its sustainability, the sustainability comes organically through density and mass transit and mixed use lifestyle. It's a traditional solution to sustainability.

So the fact that it's an interesting place to live attracts people to want to live there, and because there is a critical number of people who could live there, you then have the capital base to provide for mass transit.

Because you have mass transit you want people to move around more easily without the car, and because of moving around more easily without the car, it's a nicer place to live environmentally.

The key is critical mass and mixed use.


Fact file

Established 1939 (January 2007 in Abu Dhabi)

Offices regional Abu Dhabi

Offices international 34 including 19 in the US

Number of regional staff 25

Services include Urban design and revitalisation, landscape architecture, community planning, ecological and environmental sciences, resource management and planning, environmental impact assessment

Key Projects in the region include Saadiyat Island; Al Raha Beach; Desert Islands; Dubai Festival City; Tusdeer Port masterplan


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