Park life

The rapid pace of construction in all the Middle East’s major cities is driving demand for landscape development as recreation facilities throughout the region try to recreate the lost desert oasis

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By  Sarah Gain Published  October 3, 2006

|~|Zabeel-Park-B.jpg|~|Zabeel Park has a high-technology design.|~|The Middle East’s current building boom, combined with the region’s rapid population growth and the high disposable incomes of the citizens of the Gulf States, are key factors stimulating increasing demand for garden, landscaping and outdoor living products. With huge investment currently planned for parks, leisure facilities, hotels and golf courses throughout the region, there has been a growth of 12% per annum in the landscaping and gardening sectors, according to Messe Frankfurt, the company responsible for the Garden, Landscaping and Outdoor Living exhibition. At present, the exhibition is the only trade show in the Middle East dedicated to outdoor products. The organiser estimates that the Gulf States will spend nearly US $100 billion over the next five years on leisure, travel and recreational developments and according to exhibition manager, Gavin Morlini, “The population of [the Middle East] is living in a climate where, for nine months of the year, it spends around 60% of its leisure time outside.” As a result, the trade show, which was held in May this year, provided a platform for the industry’s buyers and specifiers to network with the suppliers that deliver the solutions for all aspects of design, development and outdoor living products. More than 120 international exhibitors participated at this year’s trade fair, which featured country pavilions for Hong Kong, France and Indonesia. There was also a strong presence from within the UAE, with a quarter of exhibitors being drawn from the local markets. Making its first foray into the Middle Eastern market was Italian company Pircher, distributed locally through Lunico, which showcased its treated pinewood designs. General manger of Lucino, Khalad Nayed, explains why the Middle East’s landscaping and gardening market is becoming so attractive to suppliers. “With all the projects happening here, it is only natural that you have to consider coming to the Gulf. You need to follow where the first-class, high-end customers are. I believe there is a [strong] market here — if everyone else is coming here, then you know you should too,” he says.||**||A la mode |~|Cube-Harmer-B.jpg|~|"Cube" by David Harber, located in Zabeel Park.|~|The diverse range of products on display at the exhibition earlier this year pointed to a strong trend for natural materials in outdoor design. Various types of wood, including pine and teak are among the most popular materials in outdoor architecture, according to Chris Campbell from 2nd Nature. “Timber is the most popular material in outdoor design in this region. A few years ago it wasn’t so popular as it was invariably bad quality — it would fracture and crack in the heat. These days, people are importing from New Zealand and Australia [where the product] is stronger and more durable.” However, more unusual materials are also now starting to find their way into garden design. For instance, Edelweiss, a subsidiary of the UAE-based Al Huraiz group of companies, offers a range of planters designed specifically for commercial use. The planters are handmade from aluminium, painted in car polish and finished in a chemical-resistant coating. “Aluminium is becoming a very popular material in outdoor design. It is ideal for this region as it is light, does not rust, is easy to move and is 100% locally produced. The increase in its demand is reflected in the price — there has been a 60% increase in [the price of aluminium] over the past year,” says Huraiz Al Huraiz, director of Edelweiss. As a designer for French company, Ego Paris, Thomas Sauvage has found that, along with aluminium, wood and resin are now also popular materials in outdoor design. “Lacquered aluminium has a lightweight structure and is available with a UV resistant lacquer in a choice of colours, making it one of the best materials available for outdoor use,” he says. “Woven resin on an aluminium structure is a common feature in furniture, and Batyline mesh, which has an open weave, making it breathable and stretch resistant, is also UV resistant and rot proof so it is another popular choice” he adds. The Middle East, and in particular the UAE, is an important market for Ego Paris, and Sauvage has noticed a trend in the region in recent years towards a more contemporary style when it comes to outdoor design fashions. “Over the last five years or so there has emerged both a modern style and an exotic trend in landscaping design in the UAE. Only a few years ago, most of the offering was very traditional, but there is a much more contemporary feel now. We can distinguish two major movements: a Latin style, with products made of curves and fluidity, and a Nordic style, which means more straight lines and geometric shapes.” Dubai’s Zabeel Park is a clear example of this trend for the ultra-modern in outdoor design. The development, which cost AED186 million (US $51 million), opened in November 2005 and has what Dubai Municipality describes as a “high-technology theme.” The 460,000m² park features a series of interactive displays including educational and recreational exhibits and is grouped into three separate parks; A, B and C. Four gatehouse buildings, each with its own water feature, provide access to the park, and within Park A there are four major elements: a sports area, the star gate, an amphitheatre, and a gallery for displays and exhibitions. Park B features a boating lake with a 30-m geyser fountain, as well as a BMX biking circuit, a mini golf course, a skateboarding park, an assault course and an adventure playground, while Park C includes a paved area for events and functions, with a permanent stage, space for large tents and floodlights. Al Khatib Cracknell, the Middle East’s largest firm of landscape architects, was responsible for the Zabeel Park project and it commissioned David Harber, of UK-based David Harber Sundials, Sculptures & Water Features, to develop and construct three major design pieces for the public space. One of these concepts, Cube, was inspired by the region’s connections with the origins of chess, and incorporated 384 panels of copper and mirror-polished stainless steel, forming a chessboard effect on each side. The two other pieces, Cone and Armillary Sphere were formed from hardwearing stainless steel. A team from the workshop, travelled from the UK to Dubai to manage the installation and alignment of the sculptures and sundial, which was undertaken using local contractors. “This site offered a unique opportunity to produce a series of scintillating outdoor sculptures and a sundial, but in the kind of harsh climatic conditions which meant the choice of materials, the transportation schedule and the means of installation became almost as crucial to the success of the project as the designs themselves,” says Harber.||**||Au naturel|~||~||~|Outside of the city, however, far from the manicured greenery and contemporary styling of Dubai’s city parks, a very different approach to landscaping is being taken. Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa is set in 225km² of pristine desert landscape, 45 minutes from the city. It is the only resort in the area where visitors can experience the beauty and majesty of the desert and observe the indigenous wildlife. Al Maha forms the core of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), the Dubai’s first national park, which comprises a huge 4.8% of the emirate’s total land mass and is the largest piece of land ever dedicated to a single project in Dubai. The Dubai Conservation Board manages the reserve out of the offices at the five-star Al Maha Resort, which ploughs a percentage of its revenue back into the maintenance and development of the reserve every year. “The reserve was created in 2003, as [a combination of] unchecked development, camel overgrazing and general undervaluing threatened to overwhelm the desert’s fragile eco system,” explains Tony Williams, vice president, resorts and projects, Emirates. “The emirate’s constitution had to be amended to make the concept of a ‘national park’ into a legal entity.” Now, protected by local environmental laws and royal decree, the reserve is being gradually nurtured into a thriving wildlife reserve. The number of visitors to the DDCR is pre-determined to provide an enhanced experience without overcrowding or causing damage to the location. The area has been divided into various management zones, each used for different purposes, including specified routes for desert safaris and an exclusion zone dedicated to research. The reserve is also conducting best practice and training programmes for safari guides. A variety of indigenous animal species, many of which are on the verge of extinction, have been released to roam free in their natural habitat. Plant life is now also unexpectedly verdant in the reserve, with date palms, acacia trees and crimson-flared Sodom apple plants among the many native species that have been re-introduced via the reserve’s reseeding process. “We brought in a selection of native plants and planted them randomly throughout the reserve. These plants are watered and nurtured, and eventually grow and produce their own seeds. The seeds fall and are naturally redistributed by the wind or by the animals that graze on the plants,” Williams explains. “Some land in places where they can’t grow, but many of the seeds take root, creating another generation of plants,” he continues. “Then we cut back the water supply to the original plants that we planted, and natural selection processes determine whether they survive.” Relying on nature to carry out the regeneration of the desert’s plant life makes reseeding an extremely gradual process and the challenge, according to Williams, is getting people to think long term. “Some people wonder why we don’t just buy more plants to start with and save time, but that kind of defeats the whole purpose of being environmentally sensitive. It’s not about a quick fix.” Despite being a long-term commitment, Williams says the environmentally friendly approach is definitely not purely philanthropic; it is also good for business. “Beautiful surroundings and a unique environment are great selling points for a property. If yours is the only place where guests can see and experience those things then they are more willing to pay a premium,” he points out. “Conservation and sensitive landscape development are not just good for the social conscience, they also make good business sense.”||**||

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