In talks with Ceylan Belek Ombregt, Associate Director, Martha Schwartz Partners

Ceylan Belek Ombregt will be speaking at the Urban Design & Landscaping Expo this November. She is the Associate Director at Martha Schwartz Partners and will be talking on Transforming the public realm - developing smart and sustainable urban environments for citizen happiness at the ​ Urban Design & Landscaping Summit.  

How does urban design and soft landscaping in particular contribute to citizens’ happiness?

Successful urban design projects promote places for people of different ages and demographics. Mixed use urban design forms lively, vibrant social places where people have the opportunity to come together and socialize and create a bond and form a community over time. But successful urban design also has to do with providing spaces where people are able to do simply what they want - freedom of choice, such as sitting on a bench reading your book quietly or playing football with friends. Landscapes form frameworks for such flexibilities to occur. 
Soft landscapes in particular create an antidote for accumulated stress in today's cities, which is caused by congestion, pollution, increased urban heat and lack of open space and resources. Soft landscape cools down the effects of global warming. Trees and in particular bamboos and grasses reduce carbon sequestration by removing these particles from the atmosphere. They can be part of sustainable urban drainages systems which capture and harvest rainwater reducing flood risks caused by occurrences of more water in shorter durations. Tree roots also break down soil into a finer grain, increasing their capacity to withhold water. With this way, water is able to recharge aquifers for reuse. All these improve the wellbeing and quality of life for a city's inhabitants. 
What we lack in our cities is nature and through increasing soft landscape, trees and shrubs, we bring nature into our cities and this improves mental and psychological health.

What are the key elements that make an urban design project a driver for happiness?

Mixed use that promotes diversity of spaces with programs responding to specific needs of the people is a major drive for happiness. Some examples of these diverse spaces are parks, sports facilities, gardens, community gardens, where people can grow their own good quality food, art and crafts salons, cultural places, playgrounds and educative facilities. Being close to nature and other living beings is important to people. Therefore, urban design should provide habitats for faunas and floras, preserving diversity in our living environments. These concepts should be integrated into education systems to inform new generations on these important issues.
Another key element for urban design as a drive for happiness is to create spaces with well thought patterns. This means repetition of certain elements such as streets. Continuity and alternation of these formal elements between architecture and landscape would allow recognizable spaces to be formed. As Christian Norberg-Schulz describes in phenomenology of architecture, with such orientation we feel we are oriented within the space. Man only dwells if they can recognize where they are, where they feel safe and there is abundant of resources. First rule of dwelling is to know where you are. So that one can get back to where they are. This is called genius loci, spirit of place. Later on over time, this becomes a cultural place. 

How does the above apply to an arid environment like the one of Dubai and the broader Gulf region?

Every place has a specific requirement. In a warm environment like Dubai and Gulf region, we need to absolutely design to climatic conditions. As water is scarce, we need to design with care with drought resistant species, sustainable drainage systems and consider user comfort. 
We must create places where people can cool off, we need to design for higher amounts of younger population and we need the design for different times of the day, such as for evening time to stroll.

How can urban designers combine soft landscaping and sustainability within an arid environment?

First of all we need to make room for green in our designs. Soft landscape is an ideal medium for the integration of sustainable urban design, such rainwater gardens as part of sustainable drainage systems cleaning our storm water or planting to reduce urban heath or selection of correct species that are indigenous and do not need irrigation. Irrigation would be required at the first months but once they are established the species would not need irrigation unlike palm trees and lawn areas we observe often in designs in this region.

How do you see the urban design evolve in future and what are the key challenges right now?

Key challenge is climate change and an ever growing global population. 
​In many parts of the world natural resources are scarce, polluted or reduced such as water. This creates major pressure on urban environments. Primary problem is the mega cities where these populations aggregate and the organization of the mega cities -water works, waste water treatment, waste disposal and the pressure that these cities are putting onto natural resources mainly along the urban peripherals where we observe sprawl. Therefore, planning and design practitioners with policy makers, should limit and reverse the urban migration, encourage people to stay in rural areas. We should design to make the village life more attractive so the urban migration stops. Population control should be encouraged. Growing population also requires more infrastructure transport networks to be accommodated because most of these were built to handle lesser amount of people. Their infrastructure too old and too costly to convert and they continue to grow. Urban design should also respond to new technologies such as electric cars or automated cars with renewable and sustainable energy sources. These technologies would free up space where we can utilize for more green. 
Life is becoming more unbearable with poor health care and poor standards of living. The products we consume become lesser healthy. The food we consume is a major problem. Artificial food exposes us to serious sicknesses such as cancer and health care is requiring more resources. Urban design and landscape architecture can help with improving wellbeing of people by altering the denser areas to introduce more green, environmentally friendly accommodation with varying natural habitats. Another challenge is to be able to create social spaces where interaction can be provided and where people can meet because our societies are becoming more and more individualized.

About Ceylan Belek Ombregt -

Ceylan Belek Ombregt is a practicing registered landscape architect, researcher and lecturer with more than fifteen years of international experience. She resides in London and practices at Martha Schwartz Partners (MSP) as an Associate Director. At MSP, she has led several international projects including the award-winning Beiqijia Technology Business District in Beijing China and the Moscow Children’s Route in Russia. She is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (MLA), the Istanbul Technical University (MSc), and the University of Istanbul (BLA); and is a Ph.D. candidate in sustainable design. Ceylan also taught the graduate studio modules and led the Master’s Programme in Landscape Architecture and Garden Design at Writtle School of Design.

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