August 19, 2022

The big interview: Rudayna Abdo


Rudayna Abdo, past director of planning at Otak International, discusses the origins of Otak as well as the major challenges and opportunities facing development in the region.

You’ve been in urban planning for 20 years – what made you want to take it up as a career?

I started my academic training as an architect but, by the end of my undergraduate studies, I became interested in larger scaled projects and the social implications of the built landscape. I was also attracted to the multidisciplinary aspects of urban planning, so making the transition seemed the natural next step for me.

You grew up in Lebanon and Greece, studied in the US and Canada and have since worked in the US and the UAE. How do ideas and methods differ from country to country?

There are subtle and profound differences on either side of the Atlantic, such as the attitude towards density. In Mediterranean countries, it is an exception rather than the norm for people to live in single-family homes, even for those with an economic advantage. This is not the case in North America, where space is abundant.

The UAE – which is a very young and newly developed country – has incorporated practices from both the east and west. For instance, early influences on city planning, such as the predominance of roundabouts to manage traffic movement at junctions, had its origins in Britain. The ‘superblock’ city structure, meanwhile, is an American influence.

More recently, Vancouver in Canada has been touted as the model to emulate, with the formation of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council and its resultant Plan 2030. This was under the guidance of Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s ex co-director of planning.

What are some of the most notable changes you have seen in the UAE over the years?

Working in the UAE for the past eight years has highlighted to me how unique this place is. When I was an intern architect in Dubai in the early 1990s, the emirate was still a young emerging economy. When I returned two decades later, I was truly impressed by how much the country had developed, not only in its urban fabric but also its social fabric. There is now an abundance of healthcare and educational offerings, alongside a diversifying economy reaching beyond the petrochemical industry.

What are the biggest challenges you face in the Middle East?

The speed of projects. While at times we may get frustrated by slow decision making in North America, it is often taken to the other extreme here, where things move too fast. This sometimes means there isn’t sufficient study or assessment of the implications of decision making. Indeed, consultants are pressured by their clients to move at breakneck speeds with the clients in turn pressed by market forces or powers that be to move at an aggressive pace.

From my point of view, the best outcome comes from a truly collaborative relationship between consultant and client – one in which there is a true sense of partnership and respect on both sides of the table, and where both parties take ownership of the process and support one another. I find this latter condition to be sometimes lacking in this part of the world.

As a planner in Abu Dhabi – and coming in at the same time that the Urban Planning Council was created – I know how invigorating it is to work in conjunction with an inspired vision, supported by strong leadership and ample resources. The economic crisis of the past few years has somewhat dimmed that euphoria. However, the scale and pace of projects here is still very stimulating.

What training did you undertake and what qualifications do you have?

I was an undergraduate in architectural studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, and achieved my Master’s in urban planning at McGill University in Canada. I’m a certificated urban planner in both countries.

I have been at practice in Canada, the US and the UAE in the private, public and non-profit sectors, including working for the American Planning Association. I am a comprehensive planner, but my work has focused on master planning, transportation planning and housing, as well as some policy work.

What is the business structure of Otak?

Otak was founded in 1981 during the depths of a recession in Oregon, as a multidisciplinary design company with expertise in design, engineering and planning. Otak is headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Abu Dhabi is our current international base while we look to open offices in Dubai and

Saudi Arabia. Four years ago we merged with HanmiGlobal, a South Korean construction and project management company. We jointly serve public and private sector clients from 18 offices, employing 1,000 staff.

How do you think the planning industry could be promoted more within the region?

I think a real growth area could be public transport systems. Public transit has the potential to be one of the major growth segments in the region and is one that is seeing significant public investment. Doing more to introduce transit systems also means we’re significantly changing the use of the public realm, which will mean a move away from private vehicles. With pedestrian activity increasing in line with this, the public realm should be improved to make it safer, more comfortable, functional and appealing. Simply bringing transit infrastructure into transit corridors is not sufficient enough to facilitate this shift, so I think there should be a big rethink about how we use and design our public realm. We also need to keep a close eye on emerging technological changes such as driverless cars and advances in intelligent transport systems – these are things which could really affect us.

How did you get involved with the Future Landscape Summit and what does it involve?

I was invited to speak at the February 2015 summit and asked back as a conference advisor for the 2016 event. I worked with the event organisers and fellow advisors to devise a programme that addresses various aspects of public realm design, while bringing in a focus on technological applications.

Is all the work undertaken in the Middle East office for projects based here?

Given that we have seven offices in the US and one Middle Eastern office, the general practice has been that our Middle East office is dedicated to our local projects. It does sometimes get support from our US offices, however.

What do you find the most rewarding part of your job?

I love it when my team is humming with energy and passion for our work. It’s also great when we work with a client who is equally passionate and supporting us as a team – sitting on the same side of the table with us, as it were.

Can you think of one favourite project you’ve been proud to be associated with?

Otak was lead consultant for the creation of the Abu Dhabi Urban Street Design Manual. The most important goal was to bring attention to the ‘contextual’ considerations when designing any segment of a street. The idea was to flip the priority so that the most vulnerable users – that is, pedestrians – are paid the most attention.

The manual was commissioned under Plan 2030, which aims to see Abu Dhabi transformed into an example of a walkable, sustainable Arab city. We’ve started seeing changes in street design and driver behaviour as a result of the manual, and our work has received numerous international awards and been referenced by the World Health Organization.

If you could choose your dream project, what would it look like and what would it bring to the region in which it was built?

Something involving a broad range of collaborators. I really get energised when I work on problem-solving with people from diverse backgrounds, such as technology, education or design – not just skills from my own profession. I am intrigued by how little we have changed our relationship with our built environment, as well as how material science and new technologies can potentially be applied to that environment. I would love to work on the massive challenge to address the adaptability of our built form to the environmental, climatic and space efficiency issues we encounter.

What do you think the future holds for the industry in the Middle East? What do you see as the next big trend in urban planning?

Thanks to digital technology, the world is becoming remarkably flexible in many ways. This includes how we learn, communicate, read, work, and travel. There are so many options available to us today.

With that in mind, building construction and infrastructure technologies seem to be lagging behind in allowing us to live as flexibly as perhaps we could. We consume the same amount of space in the structures we inhabit, whether we need it or not, because we live in fixed boxes with inflexible boundaries. Unless we work at home or are homebound for health reasons, the majority of this space is used, at best, 50% of the time. If our needs change, we remodel or move – or we carry excess space or squeeze into discomfort.

This has resulted in a huge inefficiency – our consumption of real estate has simply not kept up with our highly mobile, modern lifestyles. Something like Airbnb (a website for people to list, find and rent accommodation) has created a tremendous disruption in this arena, and the concept of movable walls and truly flexible spaces within buildings is starting to emerge – but we still have a long way to go.

I think we’re on the verge of a massive overhaul in urban planning practices to permit more experimentation into not only new technologies, but new ideologies and practices in living. The Gulf is one of the most urbanised areas in the world, which gives us the opportunity to potentially be at the forefront of such changes.

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