What Will Make Arab Cities Sustainable?

Published: Saturday, January 30th, 2016 by Ivan Bruce

Abu Dhabi is full of contradictions for the urban sustainability-minded. Luxury cars and big air-conditioned single family homes coexist with new green building technologies and energy innovation. The emergence of a younger and more globally oriented generation contrasts with growing suburbs of lower income households and limited public transit.

In the face of this pattern of urban development in the Middle East, Salim Rouhana, Urban Specialist at the World Bank Group reflected on key drivers for urban upgrading projects at the EcoCity World Summit 2015 held in Abu Dhabi in October last year, where Connect4Climate and World Bank Urban Specialists were invited to present. With hundreds of practitioners focused on eco-city development and low-carbon planning, the conference brought together researchers, the private sector, development organizations and students.

Salim also presented Connect4Climate’s collaboration with the Lego Group during their Build the Change workshop at the EcoCity World Summit in 2013, as well as a World Bank Group project in Djibouti that emphasized the benefit of integrating social, economic, environmental, and artistic angles in urban upgrading efforts for amplified impact. Salim’s snapshot of current and future issues for cities in the Middle East and North Africa outlines the challenge of transitioning to a smarter, more inclusive urban future.

What Will Make Arab Cities Sustainable?

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Salim Rouhana at EcoCities World Summit, Abu Dhabi, 2015

The current structure and development of modern Arabian cities seems to buck the current trend toward sustainability. The suburbs in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha have been driven, literally, by car-oriented growth, single family homes and gated communities. With rapid growth and a reliance on cars, urban sprawl has made for low density living – snarled traffic, affordable housing bunched at the outskirts, and limited public transit infrastructure to get people around.

It’s partially the case that previously tribal or rural societies go through this transition before reaching a social and spatial optimum for urban living. Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, have been and still are urbanizing rapidly, with their growth and transformation principally driven by oil. This urbanization was accompanied by massive public investments in infrastructure and service delivery. While these investments may be extremely useful, they could also be inefficient depending on the level of sprawl. The urban sprawl also affects the lower middle income and poor communities that can’t afford the long commutes from the suburbs to city center jobs.

Most Arab governments are torn between the need for efficiency and compact urban development, on the one hand, and the sprawl that comes from social preferences and behaviors. However compelling the environmental arguments are against urban sprawl, they aren’t enough to curb the spread of development. Only financial incentives and behavioral shifts will encourage new urban residents to live in more compact conditions.

Governments should look carefully at both demand and the positive impacts of density. On the first, developers and consumers alike have to be coaxed into vertical living with fiscal incentives, as well as other financial and non-financial stimuli. Better urban amenities can draw people into more dense communities, for instance.

Governments should also look for and nurture the positive impacts of encouraging this behavioral shift. Research illustrates that more dense and compact cities create the economies of scale that enable innovation. With proximity and clustering, businesses and employees can benefit from the networking and knowledge of their peers and competitors nearby.

That said, sustainable building dynamics take time to shift, and policymakers have to work simultaneously at both policies and behavioral changes to speed the transition. Common urban good, open space, environment and culture, are more appealing to younger generations. The opportunity is to make them not just participants but also drivers of this transformation. We can already see this in Europe and Latin America, where smart and inclusive urban development have driven renewal.

Making the Urban Transition

Masdar City Render. Photo Credit: Foster & Patners

Masdar City Render. Photo Credit: Foster & Partners

Changes, however, seem to be coming – none radical, but soft measures that could lead us on to better city environments. Governments are passing clear messages to citizens that subsidies for services and housing will be reduced, perhaps driven by the drastic drop in oil prices and lower oil revenues. Governments are also starting to benefit from and appreciate the direct connections between denser cities and sustainability, livability and competitiveness.

Abu Dhabi with the Masdar City Pilot is moving in this direction. It’s tailored to the rapidly growing younger generation shaping the future of today’s aging cities, a generation that’s more sensitive to our ‘collective’ future. This generation will live in the rapidly densifying and re-densifying cities, where individual space is traded for proximity to jobs, fun and services.

But this young generation will transform the face of Arabian Cities, if and only if, policies are in tune.