Landscape on the Edge: A Cooler and Greener Middle East
By BILL TAYLOR, ASLA, Principal at Carol R. Johnson Associates Inc.
Landscape architecture, as in the design of cultivated gardens and parks in the Middle East and the greater Arab world, is a far different practice than most consultants in Europe and the West experience today, where conditions are less demanding on materials and the “natural” or self-sustaining landscape can be more readily achieved.
Lessons from History
According to historical records, the earliest efforts to “cool-down and green-up” the landscape as an activity began in today’s Middle East. Landscape architecture curricula in the West start with the history of cultivated gardens and urban planning in the Arab/Islamic world. The gardens of Shalimar Bagh in Lahore, the gardens of Shiraz in Iran, the noble gardens of the Nile and those of the Mughul Gardens of Spain are the examples most often cited and a careful review of these gardens still offers valuable technical lessons for western consultants now busy working in the Middle East. Sustainability was not a term so often used in the past as it is today. Self-sustainability and low-maintenance were most likely never a requirement for garden design. Descriptions of these historic gardens refer to continual watering, cultivation and care as time-consuming an activity as tending the livestock or providing food and water for one’s family, without which green gardens in the desert would have quickly vanished.
On the other hand, gardens themselves were essential for health and comfort in a harsh climate and provided necessary spiritual refreshment to sustain urban living, once city people no longer moved about the landscape to seek shelter, comfort and food for the livestock.
Sustainable city-living still depends to a large degree on the availability of parks and gardens. They form part of the city’s essential infrastructure, providing energy-efficiency, passive cooling, air cleaning and conditioning and water resource conservation. To require that urban landscapes be low-cost, low-maintenance or self-sustaining in the Middle East and surrounding regions is to mis-deliver a Western ideal and force it onto an environment which has a much different natural economy. A large sustaining landscape is essential for desert cities and will always require a large commitment, sizeable initial investments and continual care. As in civilization’s first cities, where parks and gardens were continually cultivated and maintained, maintenance was a key to sustaining the gardens and parks and their presence was itself key to sustaining the health of the cities.
Design principles of the early gardens reportedly included minimal use of fresh water for maximum effect, simultaneous production of fruit, vegetables, livestock food, fish and construction materials along with sensual enrichment and moderation of the local microclimate while providing places of comfort and refuge during the warm seasons.
Drying desert winds were kept from the garden by walls and continuous tree canopies. Even architecture of the Arab/Islamic world was designed to make full use of the garden in the warmer season. Garden rooms, enclosed balconies and sleeping decks were designed to take advantage of morning and afternoon shade, the cool air and prevailing wind directions, the sound of fountains and the shade and scents of the garden. One may indeed employ new landscape technologies but not without teaching out the wisdom of these early gardens and architecture for guidance.
Melding Traditional and Emerging Technologies
Carol R. Johnson Associates has been active in designing to meet such goals since our first parks in Tehran in the early 1970′s. We apply traditions derived from the cities of the desert as well as emerging technologies for moderating the climate near the ground and for creating truly green gardens and streets with minimal demands on local resources.
To find a natural home for these environment-friendly practices today, we have only to look at one of the region’s most booming development areas: the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Here, the Government’s recently published Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 sets in place a strong focus on sustainability, ensuring all developers undergo a strict planning and approvals process, overseen by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, before the green light is given to begin development.
One of the largest and most important developers in Abu Dhabi is Sorouh Real Estate PJSC, with projects worth more than AED 45 billion under development. Established in June 2005 with a capital of AED 2.5 billion, Sorouh is now one of the largest real estate developers on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange. Shams Abu Dhabi is Sorouh’s flagship project, situated on Al Reem Island close to the current centre of Abu Dhabi City.
CRJA has worked in concert with Sites International, Ove Arup Consulting Engineers and EHAF Consultants to explore a full menu of traditional and modern techniques to use the urban landscapes at Shams Abu Dhabi to power both the cooling and greening of the city. Working under the client’s prime directive to design parks to induce passive cooling in the out-of-doors, we have exploited very slight temperature differences between nearby deep cool-year-round seawater and the air at street level to drive heat exchangers.
In addition, we have depressed all park and public realm landscapes to three levels below the streets. This provides full car-free pedestrian access throughout the new development. It also allows the “urban wadi” landscape to become a cool air reservoir, stored and protected from heat infiltration by continuous tree and storefront canopies, and continually replenished by the new cool-water flush canals and adjacent retail establishments which contribute spent air-conditioning.
With the full intention of creating the most comfortable outdoor public realm in the Emirates, other techniques are being added during the most oppressive seasons. We use direct radiant cooling along major public walks using cold plates in the pavement and targeted mirror arrays in the ceiling.
We also borrow additional air conditioned air from neighbors, as all parks and canal walks are bordered by retail uses dependent on maintaining the cool air reservoir for pedestrian and boat traffic. Twenty-eight small retail pavilions are stationed throughout the public realm to provide additional cool air and shade refuges. These will be privately operated as cafes. salons, waterfront function halls, restaurants and beach concessions, but at the same time they will offer the public cool pools and pockets along the Coastal Walkways at Shams Abu Dhabi. In times of low humidity (90% of the time in summer in Abu Dhabi) cool mist stations along public gathering areas will be operating.
Studies of these combined systems indicate that regardless of the ambient temperature in an urban area, it is possible to reduce temperatures 20-30% using passive cooling techniques borrowed from traditional methodologies and made more efficient with new technology. We use the word passive cooling to underscore the fact that the majority of the cooling effects are low-energy techniques. We use what is available in the best traditions of Arab/Islamic garden art. Canals were originally designed to be flushed with seawater. Our revised passive cooling design takes the seawater from a cool source 12-14 meters below the surface rather than the warm surface water originally contemplated.
In landscape heat management, we know to make the largest single contribution to passive cooling by minimizing any solar exposure to paving that can hold the heat, avoiding reflective walls on buildings that tend to double the solar radiation onto the streets and surfaces below. We know to further canopy all non-built surfaces with shade from native desert trees to reduce surface temperatures by 10-15% and then cover all non-walking surfaces, including roof tops with a green living material that does not absorb and re-radiate heat.
To ensure truly green landscapes, we exploit new ground covers and grasses such as the Paspalum species which can be irrigated with brackish well water mixed with gray water. We have planned the new American University in Cairo around a deeply shaded wadi or narrow valley that is the self-cooling outdoor campus center. For both the AUC campus and the new Shams development in Abu Dhabi, we have helped develop growing centers and large project nurseries ahead of construction so that the project would have the appropriate species, sizes and shapes of material for planting as soon as construction allows.
This is a promising time in the Middle East for those in the field of landscape architecture, even those whose primary practice has been in cooler, greener northern latitudes. It may also be an appropriate time for us landscape architects to revisit our notes from that first week in the History of Landscape Architecture courses, since much can be learned from studying the past.
This article was first printed in Landscape Magazine August 2008 Issue 14.
To view this project and more, watch Bill Taylor’s presentation during the Leader’s Council 2011 Weekend at the College of Design.
About the Author
Bill Taylor (BLAR 1969) is a principal at Carol R. Johnson Associates with over 35 years of experience in landscape architecture. Specializing in water fronts and urban mixed-use development projects, Taylor has practiced with CRJA for the past 25 years on design projects domestically and internationally.