With an abundance of open spaces, the UAE presents a wealth of opportunity for landscape professionals throughout the country. Landscaping emphasises and complements the grandeur of a building or green space. When well planned, designed and executed, landscaping translates into a long term value added investment. A successful landscaping project is harmoniously balanced with the surrounding elements, increasing in value and improving over time. It sets the tone and helps creates that all important first impression. The climate in the UAE doesn’t make things easy but with considered planting plans and a thorough understanding of the local demands on resources, landscape architects are able to fine tune modern architecture with a local natural flavour.
The main motive behind landscaping itself is to benefit the environment. The utilisation of plants helps decrease pollution and dust and enhances the quality of life of its users by creating a visually stimulating and pleasant environment. Landscape design may address environmental concerns by integrating sustainable development at different stages, resulting in a cost-effective solution for both client and builder. Sustainable development affects the environment, the use of human resources, and feasible economic savings. Practices in landscape developments that achieve an acceptable level of sustainability are based on many decisions, from sourcing, selection and supply of plants and materials, to irrigation techniques, to management and maintenance of completed landscapes, says Nev Connell, Principal, UAE Practice Lead, Landscape Architecture from AECOM Design + Planning. “The obligation of sustainability is a fact of life in our global environment.
Authorities are increasingly embracing strategies and policies designed to maximise the sustainable nature of development in the region’s evolving urban communities,” adds Connell.In a desert environment—especially one which uses desalinated water—conserving water is the overriding consideration for sustainable landscaping. Which is why, Keith Culhane, Landscape Manager, Khidmah, says that sustainability in landscaping starts with plant selection. “Based on the site location and soil (coastal, inland, sabkha, etc.) sun orientation, and other conditions a sustainable design uses those plants which need the least amount of water to achieve the desired effect and utility,” he adds.
One of the Best Practices often used in landscaping is Xeriscaping. It is a type of landscaping that utilizes low-water-use plants. Says Culhane, “These designs incorporate as many of the seven principles of Xeriscaping as possible, including soil improvement/ use of mulch, type of irrigation, plant selection, limiting or eliminating turf areas, and proper maintenance. The use of Xeriscaping principles will help lower water use, while increasing sustainability and lowering water costs as well.” When it comes to one’s personal space, Culhane suggests to search the nursery for low water use plants and group them in the garden according to water use. He insists that one must conduct research on the cultural aspect of the plant you are choosing and to use native plants whenever possible. “Avoid using hedges or other design elements that increase the amount of green waste; recycle the green waste that you do produce by mulching it at home or separating it so it can be sent to a green waste recycler,” he adds.
Benjamin Heydon, Landscape Consultant, Municipal Infrastructure & Assets Section, explains that where possible designers aim to balance project outcomes of aesthetic, cost and time. “More recently the requirement for landscape and public realm to become more sustainable has become a topic of discussion with industry professionals and asset owner/ operators. Sustainability is now being considered throughout the whole lifecycle of a project where each phase from design and construction through to the operation and maintenance of landscape assets,” he adds. The realm of sustainability in Abu Dhabi has been categorized within the vision of Estidama, a framework that identifies sustainability with a four angled approach; environmental, economic, social and cultural. “By considering all aspects of the seven categories one can start to understand the requirements of what is considered sustainable and relevant to the Abu Dhabi climate,” says Heydon.
TerraVerde has successfully built a region-wide recognition for creating exceptional award winning landscapes, garden and interior designs based on a philosophy of enhancing the environment and sustainability. They approach the idea of sustainability in three stages. Starting with the design process; where they specify robustly, long lasting materials to the landscape design as well as ensuring that practically, the layout and systems proposed work effectively. “We then focus our interests on the execution of the project. If project management is coordinated, organised and working in compliance with our own high standards, then the timescale and resources planned for the project will be accurate.
This results in no excessive use of transportation or on-site construction,” says Nehme Moujaess, Managing Director, TerraVerde. Beyond project completion, the most significant factor in achieving good sustainability with landscape design is the forthcoming maintenance required to preserve the project’s condition. “Each stage of TerraVerde’s sustainable practice consecutively links together; if the design and execution stages have been followed accordingly then the quality of the landscape can be successfully maintained and, therefore, sustainability is accomplished,” adds Moujaess.
New Technology and Products
Landscaping is a constantly evolving market. Keeping up to date with recent technological and equipment innovations provides the builder with the proper tools required to improve on delays, costs, environmental impact, and to evaluate the investment return on equipment costs. An interesting product in the market is Zeoplant. This is a water retaining soil amendment which is completely natural and treated with organic components. It’s a “desert proofed” substance and has a 420% water holding capacity.
This ultimately means that as a minimum, 50% less water and fertilizer is required, saving money, time, resources, and energy, overall increasing sustainability. Ralf Stahl, Managing Partner, Zeoplant, says that most people connect the sustainability aspect to a different plant selection by using more local plants. “But it’s also about using locally produced compost, recycled materials for hardscaping or advanced, modern irrigation systems with central control units and moisture sensors. Peat moss is disappearing more and more from the soil specifications of landscape architects and is replaced successfully by mineral based products with a far higher life span,” he adds.
BIM is also being adapted to landscaping and Connell states that BIM has the potential to be as revolutionary in the design industry as switching from Rotring pens and trace paper to computer aided design/ drafting, as most businesses did more than two decades ago. “Clever technologies enable more efficient and accurate delivery of complex projects, especially when multiple design disciplines are involved. The use of BIM is not suitable for all landscape design projects, but when applied has the benefit of providing consultants, contractors and clients with a greater level of accuracy in all aspects of design, construction, and financial surety,” he adds.
The UAE’s arid environment and subtropical climate provide some of the most extreme conditions in which to create urban landscape developments. The constraints of water budgets, of soils low in organic qualities, and of punishing high temperatures during summer are some of the major physical challenges faced in landscaping. Connell points out that the mere perception of life in the desert can also be challenging. “Many clients and end users of urban developments desire landscapes which convey a character reminiscent of lush tropical and ornamental sanctuaries. For the designer, this tests many of the criteria for sustainability. The challenge is creating landscapes that meet clients’ aspirations as well as environmental influences,” he says. Moujaess also agrees that the biggest challenge faced as landscape contractors are dealing with the harsh weather conditions.
“Agriculturally it is imperative to use trees, shrubs and plantation that can withstand this type of environment. We rarely use seasonal plantation unless it is requested by the client and even if we do, it will be located in an area where they are easily interchangeable. The sand and dust in the atmosphere mean that materials are more prone to weathering, again highlighting the importance of specifying strong resilient products,” adds Moujaess.
Culhane states that one of the key challenges is educating the public about the need for water conservation in landscaping. The Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi says that approximately 30% of the water used in the UAE is consumed in homes, businesses, and urban landscaping. One of the major environmental problems of the over-consumption of water is the discharge of the saline waste into the ocean—this is making the ocean water progressively saltier.
“In addition, the over-consumption of water will continue to drive up water costs as new desalinization plants are built to meet increased demand. New projects and those being replanted must be designed in such a way that they mitigate water consumption by using lowwater- use plants, using reclaimed water and subterranean drip irrigation wherever possible, utilizing designs that minimize Euro-centric turf and hedges, and maximizing the use of natives to achieve the desired effect,” adds Culhane.
Another challenge most face is with clients appointing landscape contractors with the lowest bid. “The cost factor is still dominantly influencing projects and project execution. Unfortunately, decision making is still too much focussed on Capex and the often wrongly interpreted value engineering aspect. Most clients prefer to cut budgets and save money during project execution and tend to ignore future O&M cost which is later a manifold higher than using proper products from the beginning. If one has the option of spending some extra money now, but saving this extra within a year and gain the coming years, you should normally expect a clear decision; mostly we can observe unreasonable decisions which are far from the sustainability idea,” adds Stahl.
Heydon observes that in the last five years there has been a concerted shift towards developing and implementing native species of plants within landscapes. “There have been many pilot projects which have tested the management response and social response to these pilot projects with positive results. As the idea of using native planting becomes a more commonplace we are starting to see more nurseries increasing native planting stocks and varieties. There has also been a shift towards procuring locally manufactured materials, as the UAE industry becomes more mature, manufacturers are becoming specialised and producing landscape products which are of the same quality and cost competitive, this is especially notable through landscape furniture items, such as bench seating, litter bins, planters and the like,” he observes.
Technology has changed the landscaping industry as well. People are able to use smartphones with applications that allow them to monitor precipitation rate, send a receive information to other smart devices in their home or office. Connell says that while there are many criteria used in creating impressionable landscapes, the most important factors are that the design is appropriate and that it creates solutions for the project; is cultural, environmentally and socially responsible; and that clients and endusers are delighted with the result.