Designing for arid climates — insights from Benoy sister landscape architecture business Uncommon Land

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Contact Simon Grimbley, Director of Landscape, Uncommon Land

Approximately 30% of the Earth’s land surface area is classified as ‘arid’, with this figure set to rise as the climate crisis deepens. In these harsh, hot landscapes, where water and vegetation are scarce, people often seek the sanctuary of airconditioned interiors. So, how do we enable balanced, healthy outdoor lifestyles in such challenging climates? The answer, says Simon Grimbley, Director at Uncommon Land, lies in a symbiosis of architecture and carefully considered landscape.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, time spent outdoors is of huge value to people’s mental and physical health. By providing the chance to relax, recharge and reconnect with nature, outdoor spaces and experiences are essential to human wellbeing. 

But in parts of the world such as the Arabian Peninsula, where daytime temperatures can reach up to 55 degrees Celsius, opportunities to spend time outside are more limited. And with sweltering heat forcing people indoors for much of the year, the potential for sedentary, inactive and unhealthy living increases. Overcoming this challenge has become a major priority in the region. 

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Creating vibrant, habitable places

At Uncommon Land, through our extensive work in the Middle East, we’ve spent a lot of time devising creative landscape solutions for arid climates. In countries such as Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, our primary focus is creating exciting, habitable and sustainable outdoor spaces that extend the use-period through passive microclimate cooling. 

Our first step is to improve and promote thermal comfort. Looking to influence the region’s milder shoulder months’, we design landscape interventions that help to cool and control the local environment, creating microclimates that are conducive to human activity and outdoor living. 

These interventions begin early, at the masterplanning stage, where collaboration between landscape, urban design and architecture is critical. In particular, we explore options for shade creation in the built environment, using tight streets, courtyards, pergolas, squares and colonnades to create passive shading. These measures offer respite from the heat of day and mitigate the urban heat island effect’. 

We then layer in landscape elements such as water features and softscaping to cool the air through evaporation and transpiration, respectively. Deep, moving and shaded water features provide optimum ambient cooling, while misters can help to reduce dry heat. Tall trees, combined with low vegetation, enhance shading and ventilation and minimise solar radiation. We also work with prevailing winds to encourage constant airflows through urban centres. 

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A fine balance

As we strive to create cooler urban environments in the Middle East, the principal challenge is one of balance. How do we balance placemaking objectives and commercial imperatives with the principles of sustainable landscaping?

By taking a right plant, right place’ approach, it’s possible to select native or arid-adapted plant species that require less water and reduce the overall irrigation load. The use of recycled water, grey water and TSE for irrigation purposes also minimises the impact of projects in an already water-stressed region. 

Ultimately, the job of landscaping is to activate the spaces in between’ and react to the nuances of site, climate, geography and architecture. Through these approaches, we can promote wellbeing by enabling people to enjoy outdoor environments. At the same time, we can create powerful narratives of place and bring arid landscapes to life. 

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