Place making

The Al Raha Beach development in Abu Dhabi promises to bring new meaning to the use of open space in the region. Michele Howe takes a look.

he development will contain a number of unique water features
he development will contain a number of unique water features

The Al Raha Beach development in Abu Dhabi promises to bring new meaning to the use of open space in the region. Michele Howe takes a look.

When it comes to exciting projects in the UAE, the attention tends to focus on Dubai. But one of the most exciting projects under way in the region at the moment in terms of use of the outdoor space is Aldar's Al Raha Beach development.

Our concept was to create Al Raha Beach as a Great Arabian Water Village.

Located at the juncture between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, just off the main highway into Abu Dhabi, Al Raha is a massive project, spanning over 570 hectares of land and with a total development area of 12,240,178 m2.

Built largely on reclaimed land, the area is envisaged as becoming a great waterfront space, and one that will eventually be home for an estimated 120,000 people.

"What we observed when we first began working on the Al Raha Beach project is Abu Dhabi as an archipelago of waterways and islands, with a more rounded city plan than Dubai which is more linear," explains Allan Stevens, director of Australian design firm Esquisse, which did the masterplan for the project.

"Our concept was to create Al Raha Beach as a Great Arabian Water Village, and the gateway to Abu Dhabi; with the idea that it was a microcosm representation of what Abu Dhabi, is as well as of what it can become."

Water will be a key aspect of the project. Not just through the beaches and marinas, but also through the inclusion of a number of unique water features, something that was specifically requested by the client.

The main stretch of land - the area has a total length of 11,280 metres - is broken up into 11 precincts or villages, each of which will have its own individual character.

Giving each area a separate identity was an important part of the masterplan, explains Naomi Fry, also a director at Esquisse.

"Usually cities are built over time and by nature they develop their own character precincts or neighborhoods, but because everything is built fast track it is important that we build in those contextual differences and urban grain from the outset."

Some of the areas are more residential based, some more entertainment based, others more urban based.

The Al Seef precinct, for example, is mixed use, but has an emphasis on entertainment and restaurants.

The landscape of the area has more of a resort character than the Al Dana precinct, which is more urban in style. One of the main focal points of the Al Seef area is a canal which weaves through the precinct, and which has a surrounding area of narrow promenades and water features.

The Al Dana area, on the other hand, is planned to be the urban centre of the project. The central feature of this area is a marina.

The precinct will also contain a high street, a classic open air shopping street, an uncommon feature in this region of indoor malls.

Part of the challenge of working on the project was varying the detail of the individual areas whilst at the same time giving the project a unified design, says Craig Guthrie, associate director landscape architecture at design firm EDAW, which together with landscape practice Green Concepts is working on the landscape component of the project.

"On one level, we are doing a design that defines it as a city that is different to the rest of Abu Dhabi to give it its own character that is unique. On the other, we do have to create interest and character for the different precincts which have different land usages and also different people using the spaces so these spaces have their own identity and character," he says.

"For example, there might be a material that defines all the footpaths, or trees on the main boulevard that tie the main roads, but then on the finer grain the character changes," he adds.

Various design specialists including signage and wayfinding experts are collaborating on the project to help give the different areas individual character for each of the neighborhoods and to make the most of the open space.

Creation of a high quality public open space was in fact a key requirement by the client Aldar for the project, explains Esquisse's Stevens.

"The project is unique for the Middle East in that we are creating a high quality public open space that has a very significant relationship between building and open space. We believe that it will become the social gathering place for people within neighborhoods and within projects," he says.

Open space will account for approximately 1,464,512 m2 of the total Al Raha development.

The project will have a total of five beaches, plus four marinas, and three parks as well as a variety of gardens.

Greater use of the public space throughout the year has been encouraged in the design of the development through measures such as shady walkways.

In the pedestrian areas, for example, hard pavements, which retain heat are to be minimised as much as possible, and replaced with planting which helps to provide shade.

An elaborate transit system - including a Light Rail Transit system - has also been incorporated into the plan to facilitate use of the open space.

Al Raha Beach is not the only major project under way in Abu Dhabi - the leisure driven Yas Island is another mega project in Abu Dhabi that has attracted much attention - but for outdoor design experts it is perhaps one of the most interesting to keep an eye on.

"For us what has given Al Raha a smoother path than some projects is having such a solid vision in the first place," says Stevens.

"Anyone coming onto the development is communicated that vision and what we are encouraged by is that everyone working on the site has bought into the vision and they all share a sense of working on something that is really special."

Project details

Client Aldar Properties

Masterplanner Esquisse

Landscape consultants EDAW (landscape concept and design of the public realm plus landscape documentation), Green Concepts (landscape documentation)

Infrastructure design managers Cansult Maunsell

Construction managers Laing O'Rourke

Water feature specialist Wet Design

Estimated completion date 2017

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