Park life

Plans to develop new parks are plentiful in the Middle East, but of these how many will become spaces that we really use and cherish? COD takes a look at what makes a great park.

Access points are key to successful parks. (Pictured entrance to Zabeel park).
Access points are key to successful parks. (Pictured entrance to Zabeel park).

Plans to develop new parks are plentiful in the Middle East, but of these how many will become spaces that we really use and cherish? COD takes a look at what makes a great park.

Every great city needs a great park. Think London, and the sprawling mass that is Hyde Park, or New York City and its iconic Central Park, parks that have become identifiers of the cities that house them.

Dubai has a number of excellent parks - Zabeel to mention one - but as it propels itself towards its goal to be classed as one of the world's greatest cities, it is hardly surprising that more park creation and amelioration is high on the agenda.

Creation of an oasis

Indeed, 2008 seems very much to be the year of the park for Dubai Municipality. In January the authority announced plans to undertake 109 landscape and beautification projects as part of its strategic plan to increase greenery of the total urban area from 1.5% at present to 3.15% by 2011.

And it's not just Dubai, Abu Dhabi has also been investing more in its greenery, recently opening Khalifa Park, while Sharjah is set to get a number of new public parks over the next year.

The importance of large green open spaces is not to be underestimated, particularly in a harsh arid environment like the Middle East. "It's almost the oasis mentality," says Alex Tully, senior associate of the UAE landscape practice Cracknell, which designed Zabeel Park.

"Every day we experience a fairly dry environment. We're all looking for somewhere to walk in leafy surroundings, somewhere that is a bit of an oasis away from the hubbub of the city."

Design priorities

But what makes a good park? What makes the difference between a park that people frequently use and becomes a symbol of a city, and a park that is sad and stays empty? One of the first things to consider is the user, says Martha Schwartz of Martha Schwartz Partners.

You have to start off by trying to imagine how the park is going to be used by people. It's really a stage for people to act upon," she says.

"You have to think who are the users and that can range. Parks really are different and they will look different and function differently because of people that are going to inhabit the parks. Parks should respond to that and should be able to evolve to deal with change and time and use as well."

This can range from making sure the needs of the typical user are anticipated, to ensuring that there is disabled access.

Related to this is the importance of considering the surrounding area, says Schwartz. "You have to think carefully about uses that surround the park. A park is only a park in relationship to what defines it.

You need to think about the activities that surround a park to make sure that there is life and activity as much through the day as possible and that it serves different times in the day as well.

Making sure there is enough light is a key consideration to the success of a park, she adds. This means thinking not only about provision of shade, but also in the Middle East where people often go to parks in the evenings due to the temperatures being lower at that time, ensuring there is enough artificial illumination.


Programming the space is important, adds Tully. "What is it intended to be used for? Are there any particular facilities that need to be incorporated? Do any buildings need to be incorporated? These are all points that need to be considered."

You also need to think about access to the space, he adds. "Typically people in Dubai move around a lot by car so you have to think about where they are going to park and how do they move safely from the parking areas to where the open space is.

The US-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit organization dedicated to creating community based public spaces, says a number of key elements can be identified in what are generally considered to be great parks.

These include good management, integration with transit systems, enabling of activities year-round, an assortment of amenities, and various attractions.

Controlling the climate

Of course, the Middle East has its own challenges in creating user friendly year-round parks the most obvious of which is the climate. Shading is a must, with not just clever exploitation of natural trees but also inclusion of artificial shading at strategic points.

In particular, play areas and footpaths will always be lined with avenues of shade trees with big canopies in order to provide dappled shade to its users through the year," notes Mehdi Khazeni-Rad, senior landscape architect for Atkins in the Middle East.

Inclusion of water features is another necessity. "The inclusion of water features and water bodies helps to counteract the heat and that is one of the considerations that we have to include as part of our thought process," says Tully.

"Walking around in the summer can be an unpleasant experience and we have to try and mitigate that as best as we can.

Careful planning of amenities is another way to combat the climate, he adds, ensuring for example that refreshment areas are distributed at regular intervals.

If there are key destinations, it is not appropriate to promote people walking 150 metres in the midday sun so you have to think about access points and routeways and give as much shade as possible," he notes.

Back to basics

For many, an attractive park means a green one, but unfortunately abundant greenery is not something that goes hand in hand with the local environment.

The amount of water needed per day to keep parks looking green varies but is approximately 15 litres per square metre of grass.

Perhaps the solution is to start looking at alternative types of parks. Not all parks are planned around large expanses of greenery. In France, for instance, parks often contain strips of grass with the idea of grass as something to be admired rather than something to be sat on.

The idea of a grass free park is one that would be a hard sell in the Middle East region, but given the scarce supplies of water, perhaps it is something that should be explored.


Case study

Mehdi Khazeni-Rad, senior landscape architect for Atkins in the Middle East & India, explains the vision behind Al Kubra Park in Bahrain, which is anticipated for completion October 2009.

"The brief for Al Kubra Park was to design a park that would facilitate a wide range of activities from passive to active. It was also requested that we provide a number of commercial units within the parks limits that would provide revenue to help maintain the park.

The name Al Kubra means grand in Arabic and the idea was that this would have to be a park that was better than existing parks in Bahrain.

When designing a park you have to keep in mind the initial client brief and directives, which in the Al Kubra instance was a park to be jam-packed with a wide range of activities and things to do.

We wanted to provide a park not only for young children but also for teenagers and adults.

More recently there has been a directive by the Government of Bahrain to provide more recreational areas for residents and it was our task to deliver on this as well as to set precedence in park design for Bahrain and the wider region.

Designing parks in the Middle East poses great challenges in terms of executing a design that will cater effectively and sensitively to the social and racial spectrum of its end users.

Within Al Kubra for example ‘picnic pods' have been provided around the larger lawn oval. These provide a semi private space where Arabic families can dine and relax together in semi privacy whilst still being able to enjoy the wider park environs.

The large lawn oval will lend itself perfectly to park users playing games of cricket of a weekend or after work.

This is what makes a successful park whereby maximum use is gained from all zones and facilities provided."


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