Helicopter City

I find Sharjah where i’m now living a fascinating City.  You might not have heard of it but it’s the third largest city in the UAE after Dubai and Abu Dhabi, about half the size of those at around 900,000 population.  It is a more conservative place than either but is not dull and austere like one Gulf country I could mention, rather it is a buzzing metropolitan place much like the centre of any western or asian city with a high population density at its core.  If you want certain comforts you can get in England then go 15 minutes up the coast either east or west no big deal.

What surprised me , It is more densely populated, much more, than Dubai.  Dubai is not really one city it is 2, 3, 4, 5+more being added every day strung out along its ever lengthening freeway network, islands of gleaming towers, which are really separate and widely strewn cities, and an ‘historic core’ around Dubai Creek.  Dubai has its however but they are much less densely occupied than Sharjah where its often densely shared flats house those working in Dubai.  This leads to in Sharjah’s large (though not large enough) urban core shops and restaurants on almost every spare building frontage.

Sharjah though is definitely a single city, a harbour city constrained to its east and west and like most Harbour cities they shoot upwards.  It also has lots of towers along its waterfront corniche roads, which Dubai, unusually amongst major Gulf Cities, simply does not have as its waterfront was swiftly taken up by resorts, docks and expensive villas.

Transport is ‘interesting’ .  It is the most easy place in the world to get a taxi.  I have never waited more than 15 seconds.  Amazing.  The problem is that you often have to get into two or three as the drivers say they are new and they don’t know where Dubai or Rolla (the old city centre of Sharjah) is.  Once wonders how they make a living, it would be like a cabby in the City not knowing how to drive to Westminster.

One thing that Sharjah has way more of than Dubai is helicopter pads on the roof.  They exist in Dubai but are rare.  There are several reasons for this.  Plots in Sharjah are rectangular and small often developed high rise from ‘upzoning’ like in Vancouver say, which results in small square and narrow building forms which tend to have flat roofs.  Dubai is the land of megaprojects, bigger plots and architects who love spires and the famous ‘zoo’ of strange geometries.

More important though is the traffic congestion.  Before the crash of 2008 you could be stuck in the traffic driving in the morning to Dubai 15km away for 3 hours.  People used to drive at 4am in the  morning and sleep in their car at work.  Now it has eased slightly, there is a toll gate and lots of expensive grade separation, even lost of double decker bus on it, but fundamentally the Al Wadr road to Dubai suffers from too many original bad design decisions confusing local and strategic through traffic, it can never fully be fixed and the more you try without major new public transport links the more trips you induce.  The sea and Dubai airport, combined with political choices to limit cross border roads or even build them and not join them up, channel most traffic onto this one corridor.  It is a sight to be seen at what I call ‘check point charlie’ at Saharah Mall in the evenings where to avoid the 20 dinar Salik toll on taxi journeys people jump out of Sharjah Taxis and into Dubai taxis across a dusty no mans land (or vice versa) so you see an army of phillipino shop workers and Russian hookers all fighting for cabs – bizarre.  It could cause a border war (dont tell Putin) -(within living memory there were several border wars between the Emirates, dozens died, now it more by proxy with Dubai keeping 100s of millions of dollars from Salik charges on Sharjah residents).

So a fad developed for buildings with helicopter pads.  Seriously it was though of as a potential answer to transport problems.  One things of the fantasy cityscapes of 1960s planning full of helicopters flying over the plebs below.   But I have never seen one of these pads used, and there are hundreds of them, I counted over 15 within 200m of one building.  Some seem very dangerously placed in relation to other buildings.  Towers however often have big penthouses just below the pad, but real estate here is not that expensive, if I had twice my salary I could almost afford one, but I certainly could never afford a helicopter with 10 times my salary.  But the pads may certainly come in handy one day – pizza delivery by personal drone anyone?  Now that proposal I was going to send by Courier?


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