Green thinking

A long-term approach is essential to regional landscaping, says Geoff Sanderson, principal of Green Concepts. Michele Howe finds out more.

Geoff Sanderson
Geoff Sanderson

A long-term approach is essential to regional landscaping, says Geoff Sanderson, principal of Green Concepts. Michele Howe finds out more.

Established four years ago, Green Concepts is one of the best-known landscape architecture practices in the UAE.

Part of Consolidated Media Holdings and GRM International, the multi-disciplinary firm has worked on some of the largest projects in the region including the Dubai Creek extension and the Al Raha Beach in Abu Dhabi.

Wherever we go, it's the landscape we see first. That has a big influence on our appreciation of where we are.

The company currently employs approximately 45 staff, of which 27 are design staff including landscape architects, engineers, architects and horticulturists. It plans to take on a further 15 design staff and boost its headcount to 75 by year-end as it expands its operations.

In addition to offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Green Concepts is in the process of opening an office in Doha, Qatar and plans to open an office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at a later stage.

Despite its growth, the company remains true to its core focus."We do projects through North Africa and other parts of the Middle East, but we will always remain as landscape architects," says principal, Geoff Sanderson. "We're not going to sell ourselves as architects or engineers, it's landscape architecture that we do."

With more than three decades of experience in the region, Sanderson is one of the leading authorities on the changing landscapes in the Middle East.

What troubles him most about the region, he tells COD, is the lack of long-term thinking in regard to landscape and its management. "Over time as the city's new developments age, there will be a replacement factor and authorities will continue to replace with works that will last 15 years, 20 at most. Landscape can't work like that. Trees have got to be there for at least 60, 70, 80 years. And yet it's not in the minds of many people, they don't think that far ahead," he says.

"It is this long-term strategic vision, in relation to the aesthetic character of the city landscape that I'd love to see."

Which projects are you working on in the region at the moment?

There are many but, as examples, we are working on the landscape design of Aldar's Al Raha Beach development and the new Midfield terminal of Abu Dhabi Airport. We have recently completed the landscape for Dubai Creek extension with Halcrow and the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). In Qatar, we are working on the redevelopment of landscape for the Intercon hotel.

How important is maintenance to landscape architecture?

People tend to think of landscape, once it is built, as something that is finished and you walk away. As far as I'm concerned, that is just the start. Unless somebody knows what the design intent was, for example, instead of the hedge staying at a certain height, it grows too high and blocks whatever is behind it, because no-one has ever explained what its role is and why it needs to be kept at a particular height.

How well does this work in the Middle East region?

It doesn't work well enough. There is a defect liability period after construction and during that period the landscape contractor is still involved and they have to rectify anything that is deemed to be unsatisfactory. The landscape architect usually continues to be involved in that phase by making monthly inspections.

After that, the project is handed to the client. Some of the clients will outsource the maintenance and every year the contract is renewed, there are things added or taken away without reference to the original design intent.

You either design a landscape that will accept those changes or you design a landscape with a lot of guidance for the ongoing maintenance. Planned maintenance - that's the key.

Is that something that clients ask for?

No, it isn't. Some are becoming more aware of it but more often than not it's not well planned. It takes a long time to get real depth in the industry. Everything is happening so quickly here. We still don't have the depth in the industry that exists in UK, US or Australia where there has been a long period of establishment of the landscape industry.

I feel anxious that the longer-term implications of what the profession is designing are not well understood.

What is missing, particularly in Dubai, is the clear vision of the long-term character of Dubai as expressed in its landscape. There are visions for transport corridors, infrastructure elements, individual mega projects, but in terms of a coordinated visual character there is no clear strategy.

Dubai is dominated by spectacular buildings but what we also see is the near view, the view of the roadside landscape and the lower part of buildings. Wherever we go, it's the landscape we see first. That has a big influence on our appreciation of where we are.

You were formerly president of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects. Do you think there is enough collaboration between landscape architects in this region?

It is starting. There is a landscape association in the Gulf. The problem that it has is the number of landscape architects coming and going, it is difficult to establish a stable group. Until you have a really settled community, organisations like that will be difficult to piece together and to have any real influence.

One thing that Green Concepts is doing is sponsoring students from the American University of Sharjah and offering work experience.

It's too easy to be simply an expat consultant here. We don't want to be that, the long-term aim of Green Concepts is to be very much part of the culture of this region. And the only way you are going to do that is by employing more and more people from the region, training them, helping them, as well as learning from them.

What changes have you seen during the 30 or so years that you have worked in the region?

I think it's simply been the scale, the massive scale and pace of development. The actual style of landscape hasn't changed radically. I think the first major influence on character change is going to be sustainability and the need to follow the LEED guidelines.

That will start to introduce a number of changes, for example, the way we use water for features, the amount of water we use for irrigation and the energy for lighting, even the type of paving we use.

I'd like to be able to say that with the very good contemporary architecture, we're seeing equally good contemporary abstractions of a vernacular landscape, but I'm not seeing that, I'm seeing same old, same old. I haven't noticed a dramatic change yet.

The hard part is that a lot of clients are still not comfortable with a vernacular style sourced from the history of Dubai.

They are still not sure enough to be able to put to one side this resort hotel type approach to landscape and understand what we should be doing as a lasting part of Dubai's memory line.

The only place I can go to in the region that is a man made landscape that says more about the vernacular, are the oases. The old oases in Al Ain where the date palm provides the shelter to other planting, that is the nearest thing to a landscape that belongs here.

Has it become more difficult to secure contracts as more overseas firms try to get into the market?

No it's not more difficult, there is so much more work coming anyway and clients prefer those who have a solid base and history here. A lot of consultants come from outside, they design the conceptual part of the project, but don't go any further. A lot of projects look attractive because of the fees, but [the company] doesn't prepare well enough for the costs to earn that fee.

You have to spend money to make money here. That is why the bigger companies who've done it before can survive, while a lot of the smaller companies can get into trouble.

What are the main challenges of working as a landscape architecture firm in this region?

Trying to get good people in this market is tough because there is so much work going on. We have 20 people working on the Al Raha Beach project in Abu Dhabi and of that 20, half are landscape architects. You multiply that by dozens of projects of that scale and you can see there is a major world shortage of really skilled landscape architects.

Recruiting staff that want to work here is a problem. A lot of people come here simply because it's a well-paid job but they have no feeling for the place or the Emiratis.

A further frustration is everyone who comes here brings a kitbag of ideas from wherever they originated. They don't spend enough time understanding where they are and knowing what works and what doesn't.

What future plans do you have for the company?

We want to consolidate a reputation for excellence in delivering projects and applying a clear understanding of a sustainable, local design vernacular. We're looking to take on extra staff. We have about 45 employees at the moment and at the end of the year will have approximately 75. We plan to take on probably another 15 design staff.

We are also expanding our offices. We are opening an office in Doha, Qatar and expect to open an office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia over the next 12 months.

Fact file

Established in region: 2005

Offices regional: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha

Number of staff in the region: 45

Services include: masterplanning, landscape design and project management for infrastructure developments; landscape design and supervision of large residential subdivisions; consultancy for management of landscapes, horticultural technology, planning and landscape design for resorts and hotels, landscape planning for restoration of heritage sites, landscape planning for urban and rural centres; landscape design and supervision for education campuses.

Key projects in the region include: Al Raha Beach Abu Dhabi; Dubai Creek extension; Abu Dhabi Airport Midfield Terminal; Emirates Sunland development, Um Al Qwain.


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