City Environments around the Globe: Past Challenges, Future Visions

Conference Report (10–12 February 2019, New York University, Abu Dhabi)

The new collaboration between Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU Munich) and New York University (NYU) focuses on understanding urban environments over time and aims to explore urban issues and challenges via a comparative, transnational, and global framework. The second installment took place in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.


By Elena Torres Ruiz

We kicked off the workshop with an early-morning exploration of Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangroves. Our guide John Burt (Biology, NYUAD) elaborated on the relevance of such coastal ecosystems: Over half the human population lives within 100 km of a coast, and coastlines contain more than two-thirds of the world’s largest cities. As a result, humans have substantially modified the world’s natural coastal environments to suit their needs. Kayaking through the mangroves, we observed a stunning diversity of birds, the shallow waters alive with crustaceans and fry, mangrove roots lining the edges of sandbanks, and finally, construction equipment signaling the impending transformation of these habitats. John elaborated on the extraordinariness of these fragile, yet adaptive, systems that have suffered from human intervention as well as benefitted from it by way of increased access to nutrients and freshwater.

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Kayaking through the mangroves. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones.

After a quick change of clothes we were off to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an engineering spectacle built right in the water. Architect Jean Nouvel designed a place-based homage to built traditions and the region’s natural heritage. Consisting of 55 cubic, detached structures (23 of them serving as exhibition spaces), the Medina-style arrangement is eclipsed by a giant metal dome consisting of eight layers of geometric steel and aluminum. The 7,500 tons of metal provide protection from sunlight while allowing rays of light to shine through. The prevalence of vertical lines referencing palm trees, specks of light, and stunningly staged water canals pay respect to the local climatic challenges and their human responses.

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Exploring the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones.

We spent the second half of the day listening to equally diverse and stimulating presentations on NYU Abu Dhabi’s campus. Rana Tomaira (Social Sciences) led a multifaceted panel on urban planning. We gained insight into the vast challenges (summer temperatures can reach up to 50°C/120°F) and equally vast resources (Abu Dhabi holds about 9% of the world’s proven oil reserves and has one of the highest GDPs per capita globally) that shape the city’s approaches. As a multicultural metropolis, Abu Dhabi’s urban planning goes beyond the triad UN model (social, economic, and environmental) and considers cultural activities and values as foundational aspects of urban life. Considering local cultural disdain for public transportation, for example, challenges practitioners who want to tackle the prevalence of private vehicle use. Abu Dhabi will host the 2020 World Urban Forum, which will provide a global platform for expanding such urban planning considerations.

Nidal Hilal (Engineering and Water Research Center) outlined one of the most pressing trials for cities around the globe: While two-thirds of our planet’s surface is covered with water, only about 0.5% of water is actually fit for human consumption. Considering that human population increases by about 80 million annually, safe water supply poses a serious challenge for the future. This is especially the case for this region, as seven out of ten cities with the highest water scarcity are located in the Arab world. In the UAE, personal water use lies at around 1,200% of natural supply. Reverse osmosis (RO) technology supplies the answer to this puzzle. Globally, this technology is a growing sector, offering economic perspective to a region that is keenly aware of the looming expiration date for fossil fuels, which have supplied its economic backbone for so long. In the UAE, 10% of water is used for personal consumption, 20% goes into industrial production, and 70% goes into agriculture. When we consider rising water insecurity globally, these numbers highlight the challenges posed to agricultural production.

Historically, the region has met water supply challenges with astonishing engineering innovations. Nora Barakat (History and Arab Crossroad Studies) elaborated on this in her presentation on the falaj irrigation system in and beyond the Al-Ain oasis. Starting as early as the Iron Age, in order to expand agricultural lands, groundwater was moved from foothills to arid and semi-arid plains and valleys with low rainfall. After Portuguese colonizers were pushed out, the impact of this technology grew beyond the Arab peninsula and led to expansion agriculture, as well as the slave trade, furthering Ya’arubid imperial aspirations. Complex social systems of distribution rights regulated human interaction and provided social stability. More recently, the falaj system has been re-invented, now serving as an eco-heritage site.

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Al-Ain Oasis. Photo: Sam Nabi via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Student Killian Dumont outlined some of the future water-challenges in agricultural production. The UAE is heavily reliant on food imports and, as a result, has a ministry that focuses solely on the issue of food security. The ministry has outlined a diverse strategy to ensure future food security (through diversification of sources, increasing control over the supply chain, reducing food cost and food waste, and increasing local production). Aquaponics serves one future perspective for local food production and is advertised through a pilot project that cultivates the UAE’s national fish, the Hamour (brown spotted reef cod).

We rounded off this enriching day with a book launch and conversation with co-editor and Professor Emeritus Harvey Molotch (Sociology, NYU), followed by an art opening featuring the works of Charles Geiger. In his book The New Arab Urban: Gulf Cities of Wealth, Ambition, and Distress, Molotch provides insight into the phenomenon of new Gulf cities and their influence on global trends. Arguing that urban theories have been unable to explain these phenomena, Molotch (and co-editor Davide Ponzini) expand on the concept of enacted cities—cities created from above, based on land and power monopolies, popularized by spectacle, and sustained by inequalities governed by authoritarian rule. Gulf cities are places and spaces of extremes: Molotch made a strong point that, in considering them, one must not mistake this with exceptionalism.

Artist Charles Geiger’s work features stunning and emotionally captivating laments on environmental destruction and climate change in the Anthropocene. His rhizomatic assemblages use complex interactions of natural ecosystems to critique the simplistic and ultimately destructive human interventions that have compromised countless natural habitats and nonhuman communities. Using different materials, techniques, and vibrant colors, his exhibition Quasibotanics: Painting as Landscape Ritual confronts human-centric views of diverse environments, from the Arctic to Kiribati.

The second day of the workshop was equally packed and stimulating. Having acquired a deeper understanding of past and future planning challenges, we turned to the people and landscapes that make up Abu Dhabi.

The NYUAD campus is located on Saadiyat, a natural island. Robert Parthesius (Heritage Studies) told us about a 2017 HeritageLab project, in which students partnered with the local Department of Culture and Tourism and Zayed University. The collaboration’s aim was to identify and map the archaeological layers of the island dating back 7,000 years and to conduct more research on its history. The exhibition Meeting the Neighbors opened up spaces for local and expatriate audiences to explore and add their own heritage layers to the narrative. In this way, the collaboration expanded beyond the university and institutional sphere and created space for public participation.

Writer Deepak Unnikrishnan added his personal layer to the web of urban narratives by shedding light on the less-visible, precarious aspects of life in Abu Dhabi. In the UAE, citizenship and land-ownership are tightly regulated and reserved exclusively for Emiratis, who make up less than 12% of the population of the UAE (ca. 19% in Abu Dhabi). A son of Indian guest workers, Unnikrishnan’s life started under the premise of this legal framework that slated him for expulsion as soon as he turned 18, lest he proves his worth on the job market. In a gripping personal narrative, he outlined the emotional and psychological effects of having been born and raised as an other, as Indian, in Abu Dhabi. Explorations of this subject in his debut novel Temporary People have won him critical acclaim. Currently working as a Lecturer in NYUAD’s writing program, he continues to claim his place in Abu Dhabi.

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The Corniche, Abu Dhabi. Photo: Mark Kirchner via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Moving from personal memory to the question of urban memory, Laure Salma Assaf (Anthropology and Arab Crossroad Studies) explored the city’s premiere public leisure space, the Corniche. Assaf elaborated on the Corniche as a liminal space, situated between the skyline and the sea. Stretching eight kilometers, the Corniche has undergone several re-makings, expansions, and modernizations. Family photographs and art projects comparing monuments over time provided insight into the transformations as well as the personal stories interwoven with these spaces. Through its proximity to water and its many parks, the Corniche produces what Assaf calls segregated cosmopolitanism and reveals lesser-known aspects of Abu Dhabi’s urban life: The written and unwritten rules of the Corniche produce neither public, nor private, but intimate practices. The symbolic value of the Corniche contributes to the representation of Abu Dhabi as a modern city.

One of the long-term challenges for Abu Dhabi is replacing the economic backbone of oil extraction with new revenue sources. Tourism may serve as one answer, but what can Abu Dhabi do to broaden its appeal beyond saturating and satiating one-time visitors? Matthew Karau (Engineering Design) outlined exploratory projects that aim to offer incongruous and unexpected experiences for returning tourists. NYUAD students who are designing solar-powered houses that simultaneously serve as micro-farms lead one such project. Broadening tourism to agricultural tourism experiences aims to connect visitors to Abu Dhabi’s future energy and food security challenges, creating a more in-depth connection between visitors and place.

“Smart” urban farming is another reply to the challenge of food security. NYUAD student and entrepreneur David Ahmad is seeking innovative approaches to urban farming by making agricultural water use as efficient as possible. In his project, he uses fog-based irrigation. Nutrients and water are quickly absorbed through the plants’ root systems, leading to high growth rates and yields. Ahmad’s project explores the growing field of highly technicized urban agricultural production with data-driven, automated, and remote-controlled technology.

Before ending the workshop with a visit to the city’s fish market and Corniche, artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein (Visual Arts) enriched our impressions of Abu Dhabi with a studio visit of his Odysseus series. After discovering that Abu Dhabi’s 214 islands were to receive standardized names, in 2015, he set out to gain access to, and visually document and explore the natural and artificial islands. Rather than merely recording found conditions, his work explores the boundaries between landscape photography, self-portraiture and performance art by recording his interactions with the islands.

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Market, Abu Dhabi. Photo: Dr. Norbert Heidenbluth via flickr, CC BY 2.0

Abu Dhabi’s fish market graced us with an abundant lunch before we set out on our on- foot exploration of the city. Recent NYUAD graduate Finn Murray-Jones led an insightful tour through Khalidiya Garden, one of the city’s oldest public spaces. In a young city like Abu Dhabi that means it dates back to the 1970s. The park (as Abu Dhabi itself) is a carefully planned space that is governed by an overarching vision for the city, an urban plan that has been shifting and morphing since the 1960s. Remnants of the past, such as unmistakably 70s- style streetlamps, contrast with the backdrop of hyper-modern steel and glass buildings (and the most thought-through recycling station we have ever encountered). Beautiful birdsongs guided our way through a spotlessly clean park that visibly accommodated its human and animal visitors with plentiful shade.

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A tour of Khalidiya Garden. Photo: Sara Penrhyn Jones.

From its extreme summer temperatures to its equally dramatic architecture, Abu Dhabi is a city of extremes. And it is exactly because of these extremes that the city is acutely aware of the stakes of climate change. Wedged in between sand and salt water, Abu Dhabi’s city environment challenges our thinking and makes for a fascinating stage for sharing understandings of global urban spaces and their possible futures.


The featured image shows a cityscape in Abu Dhabi.
Photo by Sara Penrhyn Jones

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