Matthew Kitson on how Cityscape’s Green Day conference showed that sustainability has survived the downturn in the UAE, but only just

The build up

The world economy has been through a difficult time over the past year as a direct result of unsustainable banking activities across the globe.

The Middle East, like any other world geographical region, has been affected by this downturn, especially in the property sector, and for me it has been an interesting week at Cityscape to see first hand what the real impact as been.

Continuing on with the theme of sustainability today was Green Day at Cityscape where I was asked to sit in on a panel discussion regarding sustainable communities. Again for me this would also be a further test of the market to see if sustainable design had survived the downturn and was alive and kicking.

The day started early with a 6:30am car pick up from my Abu Dhabi hotel which unfortunately was the only transport option, apart from flying, between the emirates - which was not a particularly sustainable start to the day.

At least I was car sharing on the way back. The addition of the Abu Dhabi Etihad railway (currently under construction), which will eventually link to the Dubai transit system, cannot come soon enough.

As I passed through Abu Dhabi, I thinking about sustainable urbanism. There is something to be said for the good urban grid layout of the city, which works well, apart from the countless traffic lights which seemed to change every time we approached.

The green spaces, community hubs and cultural identity were also very evident, although slightly spoilt by the large number of cars.

The conference

The Green day was reasonably well attended with around 70 delegates and consisting a range of professions from government, academia, architects and consultants.

The sessions were a mixture of open panel discussions interlaced with more formal PowerPoint presentations.

The main messages for the day were as follows:

  • The property industry represents 10% of global GDP and is worth $4.7 trillion per annum - one of the highest yields of any global industry
  • The "Enpack" masterplan in the UAE has produced $100 million of savings through green community planning
  • LG are leading the way in low energy consumer products (LCD TV’s, etc.)
  • Limitless (a Dubai-based developer) estimates a 30% annual saving in energy on its projects through raising air conditioning set points by 3 to 5 degrees celsius above current design briefs (common practice/legislation in countries such as China and France)
  • The Middle East could cut its energy consumption through charging more for energy, water and waste
  • A cultural change in attitude toward energy efficiency should be explored
  • Proximity of developments near to work is required
  • Only 6 out of 550 LEED registered schemes have been certified by the USGBC (must try harder)
  • LED lighting technology is now commercially available, offering large savings in lighting consumption both for buildings and street lighting
  • The UAE has three sustainability assessment methods; LEED, BREEAM Gulf and Estidama (Pearl)
  • Moving forward the financial bottom line will be the key to the uptake of sustainable developments
  • The end user must be consulted more as to what do they want from buildings

My session on green communities was probably the most debated session with a good range of thoughts and philosophies. My contribution to the green communities session was as follows:

  • Green communities or sustainable urbanism is an essential part of any successful city
  • A sustainable city must have a good balance of cultural identity, economic stability, sustained levels of employment, and community health and wellbeing
  • An unsustainable city is typified the example of Mexico City:

One of the largest cities in the world

Grown through sprawl with little thought on transport and infrastructure

As a direct result there is a major traffic problem

It has an average traffic jam waiting time of two and a half hours

It has the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the world

  • Green communities have a direct benefit to health
  • A sustainable transport plan is essential for any city (a typical London tube train when full is the equivalent of 6km traffic queue)
  • Key to a successful masterplan is to provide attractive and safe places where people can live, work, shop, play and prosper
  • The basic sustainability parameters for any city should consider environmental stewardship (transportation strategy, water conservation, energy efficiency, etc.), social diversity (community mix, public spaces, etc.), cultural identity (community involvement, education, etc.) and economic vision (job creation, business focus, technology hubs, etc.)
  • For the developer, there are a range of economic returns from creating communities as families will be more inclined to move to the area and invest, which in turn will provide a quicker take up of available property

It was clear from the debate that any city in the Middle East needs a framework for delivering sustainable urbanism which will require clear government policy & legislation (defining clear goals from the top down), masterplan codes, clear city visions (2020, 2030 and 2050 plans) and a number of incentives for developers (e.g. quicker planning routes).

In summary, it is fair to say that sustainability in the UAE has survived, but only just. It will take a long time to convince developers that it’s just good quality design that makes economic sense.

And that’s it. I’m off to car share …