Toward regenerative cities in the Gulf

At the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF’s) side event on sustainable cities, experts presented information on the ecological footprint of the Gulf and ways to regenerate cities in the hopes that region, with its resources and great potential to develop rapidly, will choose a path of development that is sustainable. Members of the panel agreed that, with the numbers of urban dwellers projected to rise rapidly, worldwide, the urban environment is a critical focal point in the context of climate change discussions. They stressed that terminology must shift so that cities are not only viewed as sustainable but have a regenerative element to them and that the Gulf has the potential to lead the way in this new approach to urban development.

Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s Global Climate Initiative, moderated the side event summed up the perspectives here: 

An architect by training, Najib Saab, Editor-in-Chief of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development), the leading pan-Arab magazine on sustainable development and Secretary General of Arab Forum for Environment & Development (AFED), presented findings of two reports—one on the impact of climate change in Arab world, and the other, a survival report. The information in these reports is from an independent, credible group of experts and leaders in the environmental field in the region, he said.

Saab discussed how sea level rise will impact many populated areas and said the challenges facing the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) are the same as those faced in the Gulf and MENA region at large.

“What we have found is that even if we experience only a half meter of sea level rise, the consequences will be great because most of the electricity plants are on the shore and are no higher than one meter,” he said.

In terms of land area, sea level rise of one meter will impact between 1 and 3 percent of the land area in Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Tunisia. In Egypt, he said, the same level of rise will mean a loss of 6 percent of GDP as it puts 12 percent of the agricultural land there at risk.

He said AFED’s survival report caused him to wonder if the figures were real or imagined. The study found that in the past 50 years, the GDP in the Gulf has increased four times but the biodiversity has decreased by half, and water available per capita has decreased by one quarter of what it was.

Najib Saab points to hope amidst the challenges of resource degradation in the Gulf

Najib Saab points to hope amidst the challenges of resource degradation in the Gulf

“Just in terms of GDP, Arabs have done very well,” he said, “but they have lost their natural habitat. In 1961, most of the region had ecological surplus; in 2008, the only place that had ecological surplus was Mauritania and Sudan. This represents one of the biggest drops in the world,” he said.

The ecological footprint has increased in many places but he ecological deficit has not decreased to this extent elsewhere, he continued. “If the whole world lived like an average Arab, we’d need 1.2 planets. Like an average Qatari, we’d need 6.6 planets. Like an average Morrocan, ¾ of a planet.”

Stefan Schurig, Climate Energy Director at World Future Council, talked about urban environments in the context of climate change, saying that the way cities run now deserves a critical look since they contribute to a perpetual cycle of increased GHG emissions as more people move into this lifestyle.

“We have to learn how to manage cities or we will be in trouble,” he said. “We’re on track for 2/3 of people living in urban environments. Cities are 100 percent linked to combustion of fossil fuels.”

Pointing to a map of cities around the world, he pointed to the obvious challenge that most are close to the sea and at risk in the cases of hurricanes and tropical storms. “Cities are both causing and most exposed to the problem—even in the US, people know that storms [like hurricane Sandy] are linked to global warming.”

Schurig emphasized that since cities have proceeded to suck a lot of resources and create a lot of waste, the idea of sustainability is not aggressive enough to tackle the issue of climate change to the degree that’s warranted—“It’s not just about sustainable cities but regenerative cities. These cities will regenerate the same amount of resources they absorb … positively enhance ecosystems rather than undermine the ecosystem … they’ll require strategic choices  and long-term planning.

A basic image of development and resource use presented by Schurig

A basic image of development and resource use presented by Schurig and the World Future Council

He said that understanding the different needs of each place is critical to establishing regenerative cities, and he listed six key steps toward making them happen, anywhere:

*Explore factors for individual strategies that are location specific;

*explore energy efficiency from within the context of each individual location;

*address the lifestyle and consumption patterns of the location;

*create carbon sinks, like parks and green campaigns, which also increase life quality;

*make the economic case;

*identify the political mandate—“many cities do want change, but they don’t have the political will.”

The co-founder of the World Future Council, author of ten books on sustainability and sustainable cities, and recipient of the UN 500 award for outstanding environmental achievement, Herbert Girardet, picked up the discussion with the local context and some visionary suggestions about where to the Gulf is heading and how the region might step forward in the field of sustainable development.

“This is an area people used to emigrate from rather than settle in,” he said of the Gulf. “You had fishing, pearl diving and date palms—the urban environment rose out of a need for coping with the climate and experienced a dramatic transformation with the discovery of oil.”

To draw contrast to the way locals used to live in the Gulf, and to emphasize the disconnect now at play between people and the energy they use and waste they produce, he asked “how does sustainability and regenerative thinking fit into a shopping center like Dubai?”

The picture of waste in cities is hidden, he said, and this precludes the measurement of energy resources and how they are used. He cited the Masdar project in Abu Dhabi as an example of how architects and planners learned from traditional urban forms in the region, based on compact design, shading from other buildings and narrow lanes—all hallmarks of traditional development zones in the region.

With the surge in wealth, some Gulf countries have tapped and expended resources in a way that proved impractical for the long term. Girardet spoke of the “extraordinary dependence on fossil fuel energy supplies,” citing a desert-based, irrigated food production system in Saudi Arabia.

“Until 1998, Saudi was exporting wheat to Russia,” he said. “This stopped by 2008—water was running out.”

In the Gulf, he said, 120 desalination plants demand 25 percent of the energy used. Yet he emphasized the region as one at a crossroads: “It’s important to realize that there’s a change of mind beginning to take place here. Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia has made large investments in renewables, and important intellectual and financial initiatives are well underway.”

Girardet explains that just by designing the urban scape with buildings closer together, as was tradition in the Gulf, the radiating ground temperature can be reduced significantly

Girardet explains that just by designing the urban scape with buildings closer together, as was tradition in the Gulf, the radiating ground temperature can be reduced significantly–in this case study from 57 to 33 degrees C

As a model regenerative city, Girardet spoke of Adelaide Green City in Australia, which gave a functional picture of solar bus transportation, the recycling of biological nutrients–waste sorting and replenishing soils with organic waste materials–based on models found in nature, as well as the separation of biological and technical (synthetic) cycles so that reuse and recycling could occur most efficiently in both.

“Organic waste is dumped into holes in the ground in the Gulf … in Adelaide, organic waste is used for food production,” he said. “Plastics are long-living material and they can be turned into furniture, fence posts—we have seen this in Australia, in Adelaide … it’s a fundamental transformation of a city, and that is really relevant here.”

Highlighting the speed of information and knowledge transfer made possible by the internet, Girardet concluded: “We can learn from each other about how to make regenerative cities.”

One thought on “Toward regenerative cities in the Gulf

  1. Pingback: The Science of Urgency–Reflections on COP 18 « qscience.the blog

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