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Dubai: Great With Details, but Overall Design Needs CPR

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Energy & Environment

Forget the solar panels, the smart grid and the LEED certification. So much about sustainability, especially within the built environment, is in the design. Take a look where the sun is in relation to the building, think about where your windows are located, allow for air flow and plunk that office near a transit hub--just as a high-level point from which to start. The details will follow.

When it comes to details, Dubai is a global leader. Business zones like the Dubai Silicon Oasis that permit businesses to operate seamlessly bring stability to a region rocked by the Arab Spring. Buildings like Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa blow the mind in every corner and in every open space cause the jaw to drop. Malls that may be obnoxious to some are actually fascinating places to people watch and enjoy the diversity in Dubai that diminish San Francisco and Hong Kong to podunk provincial villages.

But the overall design of Dubai contributes little to its residents’ and guests’ well-being, commuting efficiency and also foments wasted fuel and time. My favorite example, or most maddening mini case study, is arriving at Dubai Mall and Fountain from the nearby Metro station. The station works well enough; but try arriving at the mall from the station. The walk is about one kilometer, with sidewalks occasionally missing or under repair. Feeder uses sometimes show up, and sometimes they do not. Then try entering the mall: the first time I was a human pinball in the parking lot, zigzagging to find my way to an entrance. Pedestrians in the know still walk up ramps that are great for SUVs but bad for two legged creatures whose only car is the reliable Dubai taxi service.

Examples like this are all over Dubai, head scratching in the least and infuriating if you forgot to take your happy pill at the most. If Dubai is ever going to become sustainable, then some serious CPR is in order:

C: Cultural expression: While Dubai’s cosmopolitan veneer is part of the city’s charm, architectural elements found in Arabian architecture could thrive here with a modern twist. Examples found in Abu Dhabi’s Masdar are a prime example: buildings placed close to each other, modern wind towers that suck in hot heat to cool the air below, thick walls and crisscrossing alleys that prevent anyone from traipsing too long in the heat. The recent development in Jumeirah and newer sections of Dubai, with wide streets and few crosswalks, have created a Dubai that may appear modern at the surface but make what is already a harsh environment several months a year even more unbearable. Future developments like a new development in nearby Doha that embrace elements that can withstand temperatures that approach 50˚ and occasional brutal winds can make life along the Arabian Gulf more comfortable and less energy intensive.

P: Policy: Politics can get in the way of smart policies anywhere, but ideas for long term sustainability have found roadblocks--even in a region where change and initiatives often come from the top. Emiratis and expatriates frequently remind me of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s directive that all new buildings include green roofs. The new green building policy did not last long as many property developers complained about the cost. But policy in this region can make a huge difference, as long as the regulations are clear and that businesses who wish to build and invest in Dubai can build with confidence that rules are not going to change at the last minute. And while the relatively new Metro is a strong start, additional measures that will encourage more walking, less kilometer-long u-turns and a love affair with automobiles that make Los Angeles blush are in order.

R: Respect: With the massive paving of the Arabian desert, the rampant consumption of desalinized water and free or subsidized electricity, there is little incentive to respect the fragile ecosystems within the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf Region. But what look like heaps of sand in the Middle East at first glance is actually a thriving landscape that once hosted ample supplies of groundwater as well as nature. Respect for what the desert is and a desire to turn it into something that it is not would be a start.

But outsiders who screech about Dubai’s extravagance and excess also have to respect the fact that this is a country only 40 years old, its people are outnumbered six to one by foreigners and that Dubai developed in 20 years what took the West two centuries. The evidence here suggests that more residents from all walks of life know Dubai has got to take a turn towards improved environmental (and social) management. But the change has got to come from Emiratis. After all, no one likes outsiders telling them what to do. And let us recall that in the United States, it took a lake to catch fire in 1969 for Americans to understand how fragile the earth really is. Celebrating what is traditional and works about Arab Culture (C), improved and consistent policies (P) and respect (R) will paint a strong starting line from which Dubai can move forward.

Leon Kaye is currently spending a month in the Middle East; next week he is in Qatar. He is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Earth911.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo of the Burj al Arab atrium (above) and yet another photo of Dubai's development (below) are courtesy Leon Kaye.