Policies to Buildings: The UAE’s Emergence as the GCC’s Sustainability Leader

UAE Map

Karim Elgendy

Settling along the shores of the gulf

In the barren deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, people have always settled in locations that provided freshwater and enough natural resources to enable trade and economic development. Human settlements in the southern shores of the Gulf, in what we now know as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are no exceptions to this.

For the last four centuries, the Bedouins of the Banu Yas tribes have settled a strip of land along the northern edge of the dune fields of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter. Drawn to its plentiful ground water resources they established what is now known as the Liwa Oasis and developed date plantations which provided subsistence. But when fresh water was discovered on the Abu Dhabi Island in the late 18th century, Al Bu Falah branch of Banu Yas moved to the coastal location which – in addition to providing fresh water- also allowed them to develop pearling industry and trade.

In the early 19th century, another branch of the Banu Yas, known as Al Bu Falasa, moved from the Abu Dhabi Island to settle near a natural creek 90 miles east of the Abu Dhabi Island. In addition to ground water and pearling, the creek – now known as the Dubai  Creek- allowed the establishment of a port which facilitated trade with neighbors across the gulf and beyond. They quickly established a settlement on the western shore the creek – known later as Bur Dubai – but had to abandon it two decades later and move to the eastern shore after a smallpox outbreak. By the end of the 19th century, the combined advantages of fresh water availability, the natural port, the pearling industry, and the good geographic location, were sufficient for the new settlement to endure a sweeping fire that burnt through most of it dwellings. The Bedouins that have settled in Dubai sought no other location and simply rebuilt their settlement.

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How Sustainable is Your Oasis?: A Review of Water Resources in Middle East Cities

Karim Elgendy

Liwa Date Farm, UAE. Copyrights: Google

Liwa date farms benefit from some of the freshest ground water in the UAE. Copyrights: Google

Those who visit the Middle East and North Africa from more temperate climates are often struck with how hot and dry the region is, and how scarce its rainfall. Some wonder why cities became established here, and how they continue to exist despite the lack of renewable freshwater.

These concerns are not entirely groundless. Yet these cities’ existence is not in any way miraculous: it’s merely an example of what can happen if cities fail to strike a sustainable balance between growth and limited resources.

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Two Unsustainable Urbanisms: Dubai and Gaza

Karim Elgendy and Joumana al Jabri

An infographic comparing the two extreme urbanisms of Dubai and the Gaza Strip. While the two urban regions demonstrate surprising similarities when their geographic and demographic data are compared, their political and socio-economic conditions have produced urbanisms that are radically different and equally unsustainable.

A  version of this infographic was first published by Portal 9 Magazine under “Reading Gaza Through Dubai”. Copyrights for the infographic are reserved for the Authors above. No reproduction or republishing of theinfographic or any part thereof is permitted without prior written consent from the authors. To discuss this infographic, please join Carboun’s  discussion group on Linkedin. For news and updates on sustainability in cities around the region, join Carboun’s Facebook page or follow its Twitter feed. Continue reading Two Unsustainable Urbanisms: Dubai and Gaza

Sustainable Transportation in the Middle East

Karim Elgendy and Wissam Yassine

Developing transportation networks and facilitating access and mobility are major constituents of the economic development of any country or region. Yet transportation also poses great economic and environmental challenges as a major energy consumer and a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

In the Middle East, the transportation sector is challenged on both fronts. On one hand, its underdeveloped and inefficient networks continue to hinder economic development. In addition, the transportation sector represents a major consumer of energy in the region and a primary contributor to carbon emissions. In 2008, the transportation sector was estimated to be responsible for 31% of the region’s total energy use – a relatively high proportion compared to the global average of 27% – while the road sub-sector alone was responsible for 18% of energy use – compared to 14% globally.

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Passive Cooling: Responding to Electricity Demand in the UAE

Wissam Yassine and Karim Elgendy

During the 1990s and the early 2000s, the UAE, and the city of Dubai in particular, witnessed a rapid rate of growth in its built environment driven by a real estate bubble. In the span of a few years the city’s unprecedented rate of growth, which was driven by both demand and speculation, completely transformed the city. But such growth came at a price.  Driven by their need for quick returns, developers cared little beyond delivering a building on time and on schedule. Speed of construction often came at the expense of quality, and issues of performance and energy use played almost no role in the design and construction processes. Common disregard of performance was also fueled by the fact that most buildings were commissioned for developers – rather than owner/occupier clients – since their focus lied solely on reducing initial capital expenditures without considering operating costs that are typically borne by tenants.

Figure 1. Photo of the Masdar Institute Courtyard showing the wind tower, and the layered facades of residential units. Copyrights: Nigel Young/ Foster+Partners

These commercial forces, coupled with relatively cheap electricity across the UAE, and a lack of demanding building regulations have paved the way to the development of unsustainable design practices over the last decade. A typical office building in the UAE today is a predominantly glazed high rise tower. Basic design decisions such as orientation, massing, and envelope design are usually made without much regard to their impacts on the buildings’ energy performance, and passive cooling strategies are rarely considered.

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Dubai Experiments with Sustainable Development

Karim Elgendy

Throughout the last three decades, the city of Dubai has not been known for its emphasis on sustainability as guiding principles for its development. Not only did it adopt an unnatural rate of growth by middle eastern and global standards, it has also long disregarded the environmental and social consequences of its rapid urbanization. Dubai’s growth relied on -and was economically fueled by- a development model which imported inappropriate and inefficient building forms and planted them in its extreme climate. The result was a 1,500 square miles city (3,885 square kilometers) with isolated island buildings that are not only divorced from their environments, but which also require a great amount of fossil fuel energy to remain habitable.

Image 1. Aerial View of Xeritown showing massing and landscaping. Copyrights: X-Architects and SMAQ

The city of Dubai also has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita in the world, and even though this footprint is partially a result of energy intensive water desalination processes on which the city relies for its potable water, Dubai’s carbon footprint remains higher than that of other gulf cities including Saudi cities which also rely greatly on desalination.

In many ways, it is fair to argue that the Dubai’s model of development has been, in essence, the antithesis of sustainable development over the last three decades. In other words, Dubai has come to represent the climax of an obsolete development model in which humans attempted to subjugate their environment rather than coexist with it.

In contrast to this un-sustainable development pattern, Dubai’s neighboring city of Abu Dhabi has long adopted a measured and less extravagant development model. Over the same three decades, Abu Dhabi’s development model was generally characterized with a more sustainable pace of development. In the last few years, Abu Dhabi has been attempting to champion sustainable development in the Middle East by establishing a sustainability oriented framework for its development over the next 20 years, and by establishing the Masdar initiative which includes the world’s most progressive sustainable city project at its outskirts with ambitious zero-energy and zero-waste targets.

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