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Future Proofing Gulf Cities

Summary of an expert workshop held in Dubai, 20-24 September 2012

Visiting cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, Jeddah or Kuwait City one could be forgiven for thinking one was hallucinating or experiencing a desert mirage. How can these huge, gleaming cities exist in a landscape devoid of water? And how long can they last?

For time immemorial, water scarcity and severely limited food supplies have curtailed population growth in the Gulf. The few small urban settlements were concentrated on the coast. A few sheikhdoms controlled vast desert areas, including several oases.

Everything changed when oil was discovered in the 1930s. Today the Gulf nations produce about a quarter of the world's oil and gas. The vast revenues have been fossilised into half a dozen new cities and one of them, Dubai, has become a global financial and transit centre.

But all is not well. The ever-rising expectations of the newly-urbanised local population are set against the inevitable depletion of oil and gas supplies. But the structures that have been created – tall glass buildings, stunning villas and hotels, and vast road systems – are ‘gas guzzlers’ utterly dependent on a daily dose of cheap fossil fuels and desalinated water.

In contrast, the architecture and layout of the old coastal towns was very different. Houses and their cooling towers were constructed to counter the hot summer winds. Gypsum facades reflected the sun’s rays and thick external walls kept the cool in and the heat out. Narrow streets and lanes assured shading and lowered external temperatures.

In today’s Gulf cities these narrow pedestrian streets have given way to multi-lane urban motorways where the car is king. The new Gulf cities weren’t built to be sustainable – they may be the world’s least sustainable places. According to the World Bank, Qatar has the world’s highest CO2 emissions, 49.1 metric tons per person/year. Kuwait with 30.1 tons is second highest, closely followed by the UAE with 25.5 and Bahrain with 21.3 tons, then Oman with 17.3 and Saudi Arabia with 16.6 tons. (The U.S. and Australia emit about 20 tons per person/year).

The ecological and economic externalities of Gulf cities, and their vulnerability to global financial upheavals, need to be addressed. As oil and gas supplies peak, and as the climate becomes hotter, mainstreaming high energy efficiency standards and implementing cost-effective renewable energy technology is urgently called for.

One project, Masdar eco-city in Abu Dhabi, is aiming to show the way: Masdar is intended to become the world's most sustainable new low-carbon city, powered by solar energy. Inspired by traditional Arab architecture and urban planning, Masdar features walkable streets; thick-walled buildings with shaded windows; courtyards; and wind towers. The narrow streets of the first section of Masdar are up to 15 degrees cooler than city streets in downtown Abu Dhabi. Masdar’s concepts are now being copied in Abu Dhabi’s Estidama policies – Estidama is the Arab word for sustainability.

More and more decision makers in the Gulf are realising the vulnerability of their new cities and the need for integrated planning. Energy supply and management, transport, housing development, commerce, food and water supply need to come together in a new integrated process if the Gulf’s newly-created urban civilisation is to become future-proof.

These are the solutions that were discussed in our workshop:

  • Well-integrated urban planning and management
  • Land-use planning in favour of compact urban form
  • Efficient use of water and reuse of waste water
  • Routine composting and reuse of organic waste
  • Recycling and remanufacturing of all other waste
  • Maximum energy efficiency in buildings
  • Renewable energy production and smart grids
  • Transition to efficient electric transport systems

The awareness to initiate such changes in the Gulf is growing fast. But actual implementation has hardly begun.

Herbert Girardet

International consultant on sustainable and regenerative planning and co-founder of the World Future Council.

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