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After just eight years at the helm as the emirate's development nerve centre, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) is now looking to export its knowledge and expertise in designing urban environments and set global benchmarks.
The ambitious goals are embedded in a new five year strategic plan, which provides a road map for establishing UPC as an international leader in urban planning by 2020, a little more than a decade since it was established in 2007 to manage the urban growth of the emirate.
Mohamed Al Khadar, UPC's Executive Director of Urban Development and Estidama, says the council's track record speaks for itself. ''Over the years, UPC has matured very rapidly,'' he says. ''We have won awards internationally for the quality of our regulations, master plans and programmes. We now stand very strongly in terms of knowledge, quality and professionalism.
''Now it's time for UPC to get out of the region and be a role model in urban planning internationally.''
UPC has accordingly updated its corporate vision, mission and values — unveiled at last week's Cityscape Abu Dhabi — to align with its new thrust in the next five years. ''Our plans, policies and guidelines are regularly being revised and updated, so must our vision and mission, to bring them in line with our Strategic Plan for 2016-2020,'' said Falah Al Ahbabi, Director-General of UPC, in a statement. ''This was an intricate process that involved many stakeholders, including our employees, to ensure everyone understood why we were revising our vision and mission, and what it means both internally and to the people of Abu Dhabi.
''We believe it now clearly explains the UPC's role and what we do as we move towards Vision 2030.''
It is no accident that UPC is becoming an influential voice in the global conversation on strategic urban design and planning. It has won several international awards for the urban design manuals it has produced, while countries such as the Seychelles, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have sought UPC's help in strategic urban planning. ''In the UAE, we're also collaborating with Fujairah, Sharjah and Ajman,'' says Al Khadar. ''In Sharjah and Ajman it's the Estidama programme. In Fujairah, we're [developing a] master plan [for] a city.''
Its global ambitions aside, UPC has had its hands full with the domestic challenges of managing the urban growth of the capital. Al Khadar acknowledges a city such as Abu Dhabi has its own unique hurdles.
''International best practices are not necessarily applicable here,'' says Al Khadar. ''You have to customize and that's a lesson we have learned. We are customizing a lot of our manuals based on local needs.''
UPC also has to constantly deal with developers and other stakeholders that do not stick to the rules. ''They are not always committed [to follow the guidelines],'' says Al Khadar. ''It is our job to make sure these manuals are embedded in their plans.''
In the first quarter UPC approved 22 projects covering almost 700,000 sq m of gross floor area. These include two residential developments — Al Noor Tower on Al Reem Island that will comprise 73 apartments and the 73-villa Shams Residential Development in the Madinat Zayed area of the Western Region.
''These projects were given detailed approval, which means they have been given final approval,'' says Al Khadar. ''They can go ahead and get a permit from the municipality [to start construction].''
Industry analysts have pointed out a pent-up demand for more diversified housing options as the emirate's population grows.
''Over the past 18-24 months we have seen an increase in tenant demand from the aviation, healthcare and education sectors,'' says Faisal Durrani, International Research and Business Development Manager of realty consultancy Cluttons. ''There is also increased demand from hospitality, although it requires larger blocks of accommodation.''
Al Khadar says UPC closely monitors market dynamics, which it takes into account when approving new projects. ''We look at the housing supply and demand so we can manage the growth [of the market],'' he says.
Al Khadar expects UPC to approve around 85-90 projects this year, compared with 76 last year. However, for some projects it could take several years to get detailed approval, and Al Khadar says many that are rejected by the council often fail to meet the minimum requirement for community facilities. ''Some developers come to us with less community facilities. [We have to] make sure that a certain number of facilities are met in accordance with the population of the community.''
Integrating affordable housing options within different developments in the capital is also within the ambit of the UPC mandate.
''UPC has been given the green light to represent the government in negotiations with developers to agree on a certain percentage of a master plan to be allocated for affordable housing,'' says Al Khadar. ''Developers will give us their proposal and we will look at it from a plan perspective and determine if it is a good idea or if it is a good location.''
Durrani agrees this is an important step forward, but he explains a collective effort by all emirates is a more viable solution to the housing gap in the lower-income bracket. ''That is an exceptionally positive move, but one that should be done at a federal level,'' he says, adding that bringing back rent to-own schemes will help open the property market to a much broader base.
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Source: Jobannie Tabada, Features Writer, Property Weekly