Pity Abu Dhabi, the poor little rich city. For years, while neighbouring Dubai grew famous for its mega-malls, sky-high hotels and look-at-me architecture, and lured cash and Eurotrash with underwater restaurants and man-made islands, Abu Dhabi sat idle. The United Arab Emirates capital may be the world’s richest city, but, for a long time, not much was happening there. Now the sleepy desert city is playing catch-up, aiming to muscle its way into the ranks of world capitals.
Last month it quietly unveiled plans for a major makeover. This includes designs for a futuristic light rail metro system and a multi-billion-dollar cultural precinct. Saadiyat Island — 500 m off the coast of Abu Dhabi — will house the biggest Guggenheim yet, by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry, a spacey performing arts centre by avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid, and a maritime museum by Tadao Ando. With French consent, it will also get a Nouvel Louvre. Sure, the city will make room for some wacky projects — hello, Ferrari theme park! — but it is positioning itself as the anti-Dubai. And if Vegas was Dubai’s inspiration, then Vancouver will be Abu Dhabi’s.
To re-create Vancouver on the Gulf, Sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who took control of Abu Dhabi after his octogenarian father’s death in 2004, is tapping the source. Last year, the 46-year-old British-educated crown prince — considered the most Western of the emirates’ leaders — imported Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s 59-year-old former planning czar, immediately after he’d retired from a 20-year stint as co-director of planning. Last month, Beasley poached five senior staffers from Vancouver’s planning department, offering them a salary that is rumoured to be triple their city pay.
This was bound to happen sometime. Global enthusiasm for “Vancouverism” extends far beyond the Emirates. As Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 was being rolled out, Helsinki’s top urbanists flew into Vancouver. Like U.S., French and Chinese delegations before them, they came to study the Vancouver Model, currently the red-hot paradigm for urban change. Why? In just 15 years, the city has experienced one of the most aggressive urban makeovers in North America. Since the early 1990s, Vancouver’s core-area population has doubled. More people now live downtown per hectare than anywhere on the continent, including Manhattan. And it’s due in part to the progressive development spearheaded by Beasley.
If you leave developers alone, they’re like hogs, says Nat Bosa, president of Bosa Development Corp., which has developed 50-odd large-scale projects in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. “We gotta be governed. A developer will take everything he can get.” Beasley’s plans have brought dense, mixed-use new neighbourhoods to the core. Developers — not taxpayers — have paid for new schools, daycares, rec centres and seafront parks in Yaletown and Coal Harbour. Versions exist in the Rincon Hill district of San Franciso, in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighbourhood and in Dallas. Indeed, San Diego is starting to look a heck of a lot like Vancouver. Soon, Abu Dhabi may, too.
A year and a half ago, Abu Dhabi’s new generation of rulers lifted a ban on property sales by citizens and introduced legislation friendly to foreign investors, triggering a real-estate boom and a cultural shift. (For years, following tribal custom, plots of land were simply given away by the sheik, who dictated that “not a single grain of sand be sold”; transferring ownership required his consent.) But the crown prince grew worried about the effect of the free-for-all growth — thought to top $200 billion. Abu Dhabi wants to modernize, but it doesn’t want Dubai: “The traffic snarls, the lack of graciousness, the overscale, and the frantic development,” says Beasley, whose first task was assembling a planning authority.
His most dramatic act was stopping a proposed 15- and 18-lane freeway — four days before the contracts were to be lit. Vancouver remains the only major North American city without a freeway, and Beasley likes it that way. “Congestion is our friend,” he told a visiting delegation of 117 civic leaders from the U.S. state of Georgia last year, because it forces people to get out of their cars and walk. In a hastily arranged, late-night meeting with the prince, Beasley explained how a freeway cutting through the heart of his historic city, along Salaam Street, would upset Beasley’s pedestrian-friendly plans. The crown prince listened, then sat still for three or four minutes — “which felt like a half-hour,” says Beasley. “He finally said: ‘You put enough doubt in my mind. Now go away and come back in three months with an alternative. It better be good.’ ” The downtown is instead getting a series of tunnels, expanded boulevards and a transit system “sensitive to Arab culture” — i.e. with separate cars for women. Clearly, Abu Dhabi is not Vancouver. In some respects, it may never be.
Over the next two decades, a half-dozen Vancouverites and a whole lot of petrobucks could nonetheless transform this quiet sheikdom into a cosmopolitan Arab city. But back in the lab, cracks in the model are beginning to show. Tourists love the pretty result, but locally, the Vancouver Miracle has been downgraded. Vancouver’s paradox is that too much nice is a bit nasty, says Julie Bogdanowicz, who recently produced the documentary film, Vancouverism in Vancouver. City planners certainly didn’t create the Downtown Eastside, but they haven’t improved its lot. The city’s core, meanwhile, is whistle clean — unnaturally so — and the rigid style that dominates huge swaths of the centre feels formulaic: an uptown take on suburban tract housing. Vancouver architect Bing Thom says his city’s new core functions as a “resort.” And all those shiny condo towers? Cash cows. Their return is almost five times higher than for an office tower; as a result, says the western Canadian architectural critic and urbanist, Trevor Boddy, “the last time an office tower was proposed was 1999.” A third of Vancouver’s head office jobs have since relocated, some to ring suburbs, like Richmond and Burnaby. Indeed, a reverse commute is the new normal: ridership projections for the Skytrain, Vancouver’s elevated rail system, have more people exiting for the suburbs in the morning, than entering the downtown.
If all goes according to plan, Abu Dhabi may find itself hoping the new light rail reaches Dubai.