Pretty Green City

Detail from Greater London Plan of 1944 (University of Amsterdam, Bijzondere Collecties)
Detail from Greater London Plan of 1944 (University of Amsterdam, Bijzondere Collecties)

“A flower in front of every house and a smile on every face”

—Attributed to Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi


Green, like no other colour, bears its own ideologies, its own universe of meanings. These can materialise as images, illusions and mirages. Green is political. Its palette has driven people to move land, sink wells and carve out mountains, all for the possibility that a delicate canopy of green might appear. Green is geopolitical.[1]

For its campaigns, green appropriates other colours: violet, magenta, bright yellow and deep red.

Brown is the only colour imbued with enough consequence to challenge green. Brown performs as green’s foil. A green city lives. A brown city dies. Or that is at least what some people say.

Shamans ‘correlate’ green with happiness. Together, the two are all the rage today, just as they were in the past, including in revered religious texts. Their partnership is, at once, clichéd, innate, moral, ethical and, now, scientifically proven.

Legendary despots have planted for themselves extravagant green gardens. Some of them they have given to their people. In the Gulf region, Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi tried to green his capital with millions of trees. Sheikh Rashid of Dubai is said to have built a ‘national park’ (including swimming pools) in a matter of months for ‘millions of dollars’.

In Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan’s planned pageantry of green was to have been the most widespread and the most systematic. It was inscribed by master planners, administered by technocrats and, in part, planted by labourers. Its rendering boded happiness, beauty, hygiene and bureaucratic order.

All at once, in the early 1980s, Sharjah had a lot of change to absorb: a second chance at oil wealth, a ‘skyrocketing’ property market, a ravenous rental market and a scarcity of water and electricity. The water shortage was partially caused by brown sand clogging up pipes that delivered water from deep below the desert. The electricity shortage was blamed on a city growing too fast.

Oil was the cause of and solution to every problem.

In addition to attracting industrial plants, business ventures and apartment towers, Sharjah needed to be beautiful. There were clean-up campaigns. Store owners were entreated to plant trees in front of their shops. Housewives were instructed how to manage household waste. There was, at least once, a parade of cars and trucks bedecked with cut flowers. Green in these instances was pretty, kind and volunteered.

One might ask if it were possible to make Sharjah green, as if it just took someone to care. Up until the 1980s, the city relied on underground sources for its water. Up until it couldn’t. To make Sharjah green, it took someone to pay.

Green, however, could no longer just adorn. It needed to ‘change the face’ of Sharjah. Green needed to be designed and, therefore, top-down technical. Green was a concoction of science (biology, botany, psychiatry, meteorology, climatology) at the urban scale. In its own act of narrative-making, science portrayed the city as a nursery of green under attack – not by its own machinations of pollution and consumption, but by something encroaching from the outside.

The Sharjah Green Belt was meant to bind the city together. Sharjah’s planners measured out the potential of the Green Belt in kilometres  – 150 metres wide and several metres high. It was supposed to wrap around the city’s new apartment towers, industrial districts, flyovers and shopping streets. With trees, shrubs, grass and flowers, it was planned to encircle Sharjah in order to treasure and protect it.

‘Green belt’ is a nifty term exported and sold the world over, first by British town planners. In the Greater London Plan of 1944, perhaps the most important document in urban-planning history, green belts were drawn as thick membranes around idealised circles of ‘New Towns’. Residents nested inside the city, inside the green belt. To leave a New Town meant traversing the green belt, maybe something like riding through an enchanted forest.

In the guise of a belt, green took on new powers. It could shape cities and determine regional economies. Its tones and hues performed as a social and financial brigade. Fastened around a British New Town, a green belt was designed to protect against urban sprawl, to keep buildings within them and speculative temptation beyond.

Ramparts protected many ancient cities. Some ramparts were cities in themselves, perforated by rooms and hallways inhabited by soldiers and animals. Damp and dark, these interiors existed for the purpose of preserving the city centre and holding the perimeter against the barbarians.

The Sharjah Green Belt’s adversary was not the barbarian, but the desert – once an ecosystem integral to Sharjah, but now considered a menacing force to resist. The green belt was to be armed with lushness and deploy ‘huge shade trees as fencing’. Like the ramparts, the Sharjah Green Belt was to host an inhabitable redoubt – ‘modern facilities in keeping with the traditional life of the people’. It was to have been ‘exclusive’, supplying ‘amusement facilities’, cafeterias and tiled walkways. Green’s primary sustenance, water, was supposed to course through fountain pumps and be thrust high into tree-filtered air.

When Sharjah was threatened with a water shortage, moisture seemed no longer like a natural state. It became a high-stakes commodity, a tick on the list of essential infrastructural ingredients. Behold a pretty and modern city.

Sharjah got its first desalination plant in 1981. Perhaps it has always imposed a price, but water from then onwards was a product. Like bolts of woven fabric or rolls of smelted aluminium, desalinated water was doled out as it left the plant in standardised units. Units of volume and time. Beauty was no longer just the masking of hard labour with a pretty face. It was an exorbitant luxury. And, as with any luxury, its ‘conspicuous spectacle’ suspended a pleasing, thickened surface over a deep, pervasive quagmire of environmental controversy. Sharjah got a distillation plant, but it never got its Green Belt.[2] Instead, the city seeped through and sprawled beyond the band’s intended path.

[1] See Gareth Doherty, Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-state (Oakland, University of California Press, 2017).

[2] The 735-metre portion of the Green Belt that was built is today called the Green Belt Ladies Park.


Originally printed in Making New Time: Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber