I had the pleasure of attending the MESL conference this week. There was one message which came across loud and clear: we need to do better, particularly in the Middle East, when it comes to designing landscapes with place in mind.
As Dr. James Hitchmough bluntly put it, landscapes in the Middle East are being designed based on an American 70’s model, when there was no concept of water conservation. While this may be visually appealing to residents and visitors, it is completely unsustainable and can lead to disastrous consequences (as California is finding out). The current landscaping model in desert cities such as Phoenix provides a much better model to follow, bearing in mind that even Phoenix gets roughly double the rainfall Dubai does. In fact, many of the Phoneix examples Dr. Hichmough shared were of non-irrigated (that’s right, zero irrigation) landscapes, and they looked stunning!
There are of course a number of initiatives promoting sustainable landscaping in the region. Local planning guidelines and rating systems are introducing requirements for limiting water use and promoting native species in the public realm. There have already been some successful examples of implementing these concepts on highway interchanges outside the city, and in public parks. The research on native flora species is also growing, with upcoming projects such as the Oman Botanic Garden promising to provide a valuable resource in terms of information and seed banks.
Developers are still slow to embrace such concepts though. Lush ‘green’ developments and golf courses are still being branded as ‘sustainable’. In some cases, the argument is that they will be irrigated by treated water and hence not contribute to the depletion of natural resources. Even if this does turn out to be the case, treated water is still a valuable resource which could potentially be put to better use. Ultimately, it will take a shift in perceptions and preferences of the buyers to shift the market, particularly when it comes to private developers.
There is of course a need and a place for green [as in the colour green] spaces, particularly in the heart of cities where their benefits can be fully utilised. As we continue to grow, develop and improve our cities and the public areas with them, the challenge is to do so with place and purpose in mind.