Comment: Dean McGrail, WSP|PB ME on city design

WSP | PB ME's director of property and buildings represents Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in Dubai, writes about city design for CW

Dean McGrail, director of property and buildings, WSP | PB ME.
Dean McGrail, director of property and buildings, WSP | PB ME.

In the recent years the Middle East has seen an incredible boom in real estate development and urbanisation and skyscraper construction has played a crucial role in this.

Building tall and iconic buildings has become a mechanism for generating value and identity.

So why is it happening?

In the past, development of cities was driven by need. As populations grew cities were becoming bigger and therefore there was a need for more homes and more infrastructure.

Over time this created a demand for taller buildings and more efficient urban infrastructure.

The massive shift towards urbanisation we are seeing now has exacerbated this trend. The world is a much faster place with the digital age meaning we all have, and expect, access to information and services 24/7.

People these days want to live in the cities because they have easy access to all their needs throughout the day and night and this has led to huge demand growth for central locations.

As a result a modern city needs to find a way to accommodate this growth within spaces which are becoming more constrained. It’s this demand vs space challenge that is the reason we are building higher and higher buildings.

However there is more to it than demand based growth.

Nowadays skyscrapers are becoming landmarks in themselves, helping a city to stand out on the global stage but also shaping the city itself and giving it an identity; can you imagine Dubai without the Burj Khalifa?

In this sense tall buildings have become about identity, rather than just a specific need.

What has fundamentally changed is that these days an iconic building is more than just a building that looks great; it’s a hub, a focal point, for the community.

Tall buildings have the capacity to change the area around them, they don’t just stand in isolation as a symbol of prosperity; they have a huge role in regenerating the surrounding area.

Take a building like the Shard in London for example; a vertical city with restaurants, offices, apartments and a hotel, it created footfall in the area and restarted the local economy – and you can see this pattern being repeated the world over.

A new trend of tall buildings which is becoming popular in New York is called the pencil tower – in other words a super slender building.

With this type of building - with a minimal footplate but stretching high into the sky - you can have more people living on an even smaller and therefore less expensive piece of land without having to find space in the most in demand areas.

So how can we apply this thinking in the Middle East?

Do we even need to? We certainly don’t face the same space constraints currently, however the fact that we have space doesn’t mean that we necessarily have the luxury of using it.

With urbanisation continuing at pace, even here in the desert we will have to learn how to build higher and in crowded locations to accommodate the demand for inner city living.

It’s a challenge we are looking forward to taking up.

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