In Abu Dhabi, ‘Can Planners Get it Right?’

WITH PLANS AFOOT to create a car-free, zero-carbon community dubbed the world’s “greenest city,” and with construction proposed or under way on two famous museum franchises and a first-class NYU campus, Abu Dhabi has a unique opportunity to become the newest “Global City,” according to panel members discussing the desert city’s future at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School for Public Service.
 “Abu Dhabi is set up to be a test case,” said Hilary Ballon, the deputy vice chancellor for New York University Abu Dhabi. “Right now the story in Abu Dhabi is a good story…The question will be, can planners get it right.”

NYU’s planners will be included among those under pressure to “get it right” as they prepare to open the first full degree-granting campus of a “Western-style” university in this traditionally conservative Middle Eastern culture come the fall of 2010.
The NYU Abu Dhabi campus and the future of the Emirate were among the topics discussed April 20, 2009 during a panel moderated by NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall that included Ballon; Mark Gordon, director of design for the NYU Office of Strategic Assessment; Jamie Greene, founding principal of ACP + Planning; John Livingston, president of Tishman Construction Corporation; and Jeffrey Raven, director of sustainable planning and urban design for the Louis Berger Group. The discussion was called “Spotlight on Abu Dhabi: Challenges and Opportunities in an Emerging Global City.”
To start off, Schall described what is expected of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, saying the inaugural class will contain up to 100 “of the best high school students from across the world.” For the first year, she said, there are to be approximately 35 faculty members, creating a one-time, extraordinary student-to-faculty ratio of nearly 2-to-1.
For the first few years, the NYU Abu Dhabi will be housed at a downtown campus,  before moving to permanent buildings on Saadiyat Island (which means the Island of Happiness in Arabic).
Over time, she said, the enrollment is expected to climb to an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 students. Al Bloom, the outgoing president of Swarthmore College, is vice chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi.
“This feels like among the most extraordinary moves that a higher education institution can take,” Schalll said, adding it’s “not without its risks and not without its complications.”
Ballon said one of the single biggest challenges for the enterprise was ensuring that NYU maintain exceptionally high hiring standards, and not presume that any top-tier academic talent would be resistant to relocating.

The treatment of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates was also discussed.

John Livingston, president of Tishman Construction Corp., whose company has been doing business in Abu Dhabi for the past year, said that many laborers in Abu Dhabi are from Pakistan and India, earn an average $150 a month, and are housed in what he described as work camps, where they pay for their food but are not charged rent.
“I’m told it’s not terrific, it’s not squalor but it’s not terrific,” said Livingston.

Ballon said the University will work with its partners in Abu Dhabi to provide the workers constructing the NYU Abu Dhabi campus with working and living standards that are among the highest in the region.

For years, nearby Dubai was immersed in an unprecedented building boom, such as its indoor ski resort, that lacked a cohesive plan. But the global recession and credit crunch coupled with a drastic drop in oil and natural gas prices and tourism have prohibited or stalled billions of dollars in construction projects there.
Jamie Greene, whose firm has been doing work in Abu Dhabi for the past 18 months, says that not only is Abu Dhabi much wealthier than Dubai, but unlike its neighbor Adu Dhabi has an integrated design program for its urban planning called “Estimada,” which means “sustainability” in Arabic, as part of the overall “Plan of Abu Dhabi 2030″ that ostensibly should prevent some of the planning problems currently besetting Dubai.
When the panel was asked to predict what Abu Dhabi might look like in the future, Greene offered that, if nothing else,  Abu Dhabi will have “one of the most impressive public transportation systems in the world” including water taxis and high speed rails. The biggest question mark on the area’s potential for growth, Greene said, surrounds the ability to find a sufficient water supply.
Livingston said he was somewhat skeptical about whether importing culture will work but on the other hand, having all those great institutions in the same city is “pretty cool.”
“I’m not sure it’s going to be another Rome or New York or Shanghai but it might still be a great city,” Livingston said.

Raven said that the “ambition of the place is just awesome, you got the Guggenheim, you got the Louvre.” Dean Schall then gently reminded him, “you’ve got NYU.” 
Mark Gordon was asked for his opinion. “Wouldn’t it be exciting if it turned out to be the city that finally got it right?,” he said.