As an Architect I have always been fascinated and intrigued by the sheer simplicity of design, how it can weave form and function together seamlessly, coexisting with multiple dimensions of complexities. The dynamism of the urban fabric and a quest for creating ‘livable cities’ has certainly challenged designers and master planners alike, especially considering the macro scale of development as well as focus on resilience in the face of impending climate change. With a discernible increase in the occurrence of extreme weather conditions such as intensified heatwaves, droughts, cyclones, and blizzards along with a rise in overall temperatures and irreversible damage to ecosystems, climate change has most certainly revealed how vulnerable the human population actually is.
According to the statistics presented by the United Nations Development Program, in the year 2018, 4.2 billion or 55% of the world’s population was living in cities. With urban population expected to surge to 6.5 billion by 2050, it is evident that a substantial amount of resources shall be required to cater to their basic needs, including infrastructure, energy, clean water, healthy living areas, and optimum recreational spaces. Natural resources are limited and therefore inadequate to accommodate a rising population. This has propelled accelerated urbanization wherein governments are taking action to embrace sustainability as a key aspect in planning future city models.
As cities and communities inch towards attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals, specifically number 11 to make human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, the bid to balance the social, economic, and environmental aspects is conspicuous. There are clearly defined targets and indicators within this critical goal, including establishing safe and affordable housing, investing in public transit systems, creating inclusive urban spaces, protecting natural and cultural heritage, minimizing the impacts of natural catastrophes, mitigating the environmental impact caused by cities, and providing access to safe, healthy and green public spaces for all inhabitants.
Located in Asia at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has an arid climate, characterized by very hot, humid summers with temperatures reaching over 50 degrees Celsius for a majority of the year, and annual precipitation below 100mm. While the country is well adapted to these conditions, climate projections reveal the occurrence of extreme conditions that are expected to impose overwhelming stress on the environment with a sharp rise in temperature and humidity levels, prolonged summers, water scarcity, more intense rainfall, rise in sea levels, and an increased likelihood and scale of extreme weather events such as storms. Profoundly responsive to the great extent of damage that climate change could cause, as well as the role which fossil fuel-based economies are playing in exacerbating this threat, UAE has been a front runner in the paradigm shift towards diversifying its economy and encouraging a more sustainable model of development. Several of the country’s key development initiatives are aligned with Vision 2030 which aims to build an innovative, inclusive and resilient economy, focuses on environmental protection whilst embedding sustainability in the core of all businesses.
To achieve an equilibrium amongst the three pillars of sustainability i.e. social equity, economic viability, and environmental protection, the UAE government is incorporating a holistic approach by investing in developing “smart, sustainable cities” that have less of an impact on the environment through passive design, intelligent utilization of raw materials, energy efficiency, water conservation, locally available food, inclusive public transport options as well as open spaces for all residents.
Case Study- The Sustainable City, Dubai
A city transformed from a quaint fishing village and trading port to one reliant on oil production and real estate, Dubai is now at the crux of changing the narrative to portray itself as a city with a comparatively lower carbon footprint per capita by the year 2050 (UN Development Report 2003). It is an ambitious goal for a city that relies on automobiles for transportation, food imported from overseas, uses energy-intensive process for desalination, and utilizes extensive air conditioning to cool built structures for a majority of the year, 24*7.
To counter these challenges and pave the way for more eco-friendly construction within the Emirate and the GCC region, Dubai is consolidating efforts towards achieving the objectives outlined within its Plan 2030 by investing in resilient communities. A peculiar example is The Sustainable City is the first operational net zero energy city in wherein the three pillars of sustainability- ‘people, planet and profit’ that are targeted through intelligent planning and design as well as viable implementation methodologies. While social sustainability is achieved through several intra-city amenities, outreach programs, spaces for assembly encouraging community cohesion, environmental sustainability is accomplished through active and passive design strategies, establishing spaces for local produce and economic sustainability is facilitated by focusing on operational efficiencies whilst passing on the monetary savings to residents.
Fig 1. Master Plan
Each residential cluster consists of different typologies of living spaces making them inclusive for all. Solar panels are installed on the rooftops of all the villas to provide energy for use within. Additional PV panels are installed over the shaded carparks which are capable of producing 3MW of energy, sufficient to power street lighting, electric vehicle charging stations, greywater treatment plant as well as the urban farm, thereby helping the City achieve ‘net-zero energy status.
There is a 30-meter wide tree belt or a buffer zone on the periphery of the City consisting of approximately 2500 trees of an average 10m height, thereby improving the microclimate through purifying the air, creating a comfortable breeze, and minimizing the entry of dust and pollutants whilst also reducing the noise pollution from adjacent areas and roads.
The Sustainable City provides pedestrians adequate spaces for walking, jogging, and cycling thereby supporting and encouraging an active lifestyle with minimal reliance on automobiles. In addition, electric-powered buggies and shuttles are available to make transit within the city convenient, and residents can access all facilities without the need to walk long in the sun or drive themselves.
The residents have access to an urban farm and outdoor permaculture gardens which run the length of the City, promoting the accessibility of open areas and a sense of community. Spread over 3000 square meters, 11 greenhouses are set up within this farm to make conducive environments for growing a variety of fresh produce throughout the year, decreasing reliance on imported food. The ‘green spine’ uses recycled greywater from the villas which are treated in an underground treatment facility within the site.
Apart from promoting local organic produce within the City itself and reducing the emissions from freight, urban farming also reduces wastage arising from long transit hours, improper storage, and spoilage.
There are several community facilities provided on-site such as an equestrian center, parks and gardens, place of worship, innovation center, mixed-use space, retail outlets, schools, and a visitor center. Such spaces are essential for the social fabric and establish connections as a part of social sustainability.
The UAE is truly pushing the boundaries of innovation to adhere to its commitment to UN’s SDGs by encouraging pilot projects such as the Sustainable City in a bid to attract investment and diversify its economy for the long haul. Having said that, it is imperative that the country captures its energy requirements from natural resources especially solar power, and expedite its switch to renewables. Even with an arid climate, extreme weather conditions, scarcity of water, and energy-intensive buildings; if the UAE can make strides towards transforming into a green oasis – other cities can certainly derive inspiration from this unique yet powerful change.
- UNSDG Goal # 11- Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable (https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/cities/)
- Sustainable City, Dubai data (https://www.thesustainablecity.ae/inside-the-city/)