Questo articolo è stato scritto per Domusweb, qui in italiano.
Like all the cities of the Gulf, known as the Arabian Gulf in these parts (given the geopolitical clout of the peninsula, which steals the thunder from the mouth of the Tigris, the Euphrates and the many other rivers of Ancient Persia), Doha has grown fast and is changing every day.
A road used up to yesterday is today barred as a new building site opens. One of the many barriers blocking your path and view suddenly disappears and a new portion of city opens up to the gaze and exploration.
One of the latest transformations in this “city under construction” is the opening of a new park, this time stretching inland of West Bay (the administrative/financial heart of the new Doha), that exceptional sequence of public spaces structuring the city’s presence on the sea. An uninterrupted seven-kilometre promenade links the original city area (the former port zone today home to Pei’s beautiful Museum of Islamic Art and its park) with the pedestrian Corniche, dotted with colourful weaves of paving and palm trees, and continues with the park on the West Bay sea to the area between the monumental Sheraton Hotel and the recently opened Convention Center.
It is an exceptional whole, not just in terms of size but because every feature seems designed to overcome the constraints of nature and technology. It redesigns the flat desert landscape and the once linear coast with architecture and jagged urban scenes that trace new geographies, multiplying the diversity and areas exposed to sun and sea.
In this context, where glistening steel/glass towers rise like mountain peaks beneath the tropical sun, repeatedly renegotiating the boundary between land and sea (West Bay, The Pearl and the, still under construction, Lusail City are all built on artificial ground), and there are flowerbeds and English gardens in a country where the only freshwater is desalinated seawater, the Arup Landscape project had no choice but to up the ante.
The Park is a triumph of plays of water, acoustic fountains, waterfalls and even a large sheet of shallow water crossed by inviting walkways, seeming purpose-designed to turn into a pool to play in.
An irregular diamond grid crosses the 7+ hectares of ground with a network of routes circumscribing areas with different features, intended for picnics and weekend relaxation in the shade, unlike the road, of two large grass-covered hills (reiterating the design of the already familiar hills of the MIA Park on the other side of the bay). Beyond the hills – ideal for a little exercise, rolling down or enjoying the unusual cityscape of skyscrapers towering above them like flowers on mountain meadows – is the predictable play and sand area, flowering pergolas and more paths through a system of stepped flowerbeds, water basins and waterfalls, playing with level differences linked to a large carpark (serving the new conference centre) extending beneath the whole park area.
For West Bay which, as well as banks, offices and ministries, is home to a fair-sized residential density and, more generally speaking, for this city where parks are one of the few points of encounter for a mostly very segregated population (i.e. split by residence permits offering hugely differing degrees of freedom and living standards), this park undoubtedly represents a new positive element, a new large open-air and unenclosed playground that will make adults and children happy, free as they are to romp and play with the water in all sorts of ways.
In terms of its general urban metabolism, namely the system of matter and energy flows constantly entering and leaving a city, these lawns will increase the water consumption of a region that already has the sorry record of nearly 600 litres per person/day. However, Doha seems to be moving in this sense too and many innovations are in the pipeline.
As well as launching a major communication campaign to raise awareness on the importance of saving water, the local authorities are investing 4.5 billion dollars in the experimentation and construction of new desalination, freshwater storage and waste-water treatment plants. This investment is more than four times that allocated to build new stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
Water is already also Qatar’s blue gold, right now.
Surface resources have disappeared (the original Doha settlement grew up around a river that is still visible in photographs of the early 1950s but has now completely dried up. The other wadi in the region have suffered similar fates) and resources deep in the ground cannot be used because of their high mineral content. Today, Qatar can rely only on the desalinisation of seawater, a process that consumes large quantities of energy and is ecologically challenging. It is achieved by recycling the heat produced by power stations to heat water and make it evaporate (it then recondenses in the form of freshwater). The leftover salt is thrown back into the sea, altering the Gulf’s ecosystem.
The search for more efficient methods of desalinisation, funded by the nation with the creation of a new experimental plant, focuses on so-called reverse osmosis, by which seawater is pressure-driven (lower energy consumption than boiling) through a membrane which withholds the salt. The other essential front for the reduction of the water footprint and make desalinisation more sustainable is saving, by reducing consumption flows but also and primarily by reorganising them, adopting waste-water treatment methods that allow it to be channelled into watering gardens, air-conditioning systems, building sites and agriculture.
A far deeper bond exists between water and food than we often imagine. There are 140 litres of water behind a cup of coffee and 2,400 behind a hamburger, the quantity required to irrigate the fields and for production processes. At the moment, nearly all Qatar’s food arrives from nearby countries (with greater water resources and still able to irrigate such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Lebanon) and by cargo ship from more distant parts of the world (in this case with a very high eco-footprint linked to the food sector). The possible reutilisation of treated water fuels the hope of local low-cost farming with a small environmental impact.
Reorganising the plants and networks of what in every city worldwide is the major flow of matter in the urban ecosystem is a technically and culturally complex challenge. Qatar is working to define a new integrated masterplan for the management of the entire water cycle and has just opened the first water-treatment plant employing UV radiation technology rather than the traditional (and polluting) chlorine treatment. It is the first to produce high quality treated waters, for irrigation. There is still a long way to go to reduce the water footprint and, indeed, the eco footprint of the region as a whole but the level of investment poured into this resource demonstrates, yet again, the capacity for vision of this little country surrounded by sea.
While the plays of water and the large plaza-pool of the Sheraton Park, playful and monumental, add another small gem to this city’s artificial landscape and public space, we can only hope that the new water-efficiency plan is also translated into reality, soon.
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