Dubai’s Sustainable City May Provide a Blueprint for Cities of the Future

By Matthew D. Batista

I. Background

SEE Development. Faced with a changing climate, the need for smarter development is clear. Unfortunately, cities in the U.S. and across the planet have developed without social, environmental, and economic foresight. This result is some combination of inefficient design, extensive energy demand and carbon emissions, tremendous waste, negative health outcomes, etc. The solution to this problem is SEED, which stands for social sustainability, economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and design. Adoption of these principles as a systematic approach to development is expanding across the globe. The United Nations, for instance, issued its most recent Environmental, Social, and Economic Sustainability Framework in January of 2015. Failing to take all these concerns into account is inherently unsustainable and leaves cities and populations across the globe vulnerable.

Dubai. Thinking about sustainable development, you would be forgiven if Dubai was not the first city to come to mind. Like many cities in the region, Dubai’s primary economic catalyst has been oil.
Dubai’s accumulation of oil wealth transformed the city, from a small fishing village to a land of manmade islands, indoor ski resorts, massive skyscrapers rising out of the desert sand, and near complete dependence on energy intensive desalinated water. However, Dubai is faced with serious problems, namely exacerbated drought, heat, and a lack of fresh water, that are only going to get worse in the upcoming years. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund found that the United Arab Emirates, as a single country, had the highest per capita ecological footprint. Not coincidentally, since 2006, the United Arab Emirates has begun shifting towards a sustainable development to protect its economy, promote social wellbeing, and ensure the city’s long-term viability. Hoping to produce 75% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2050, Dubai aims to become the city with the least carbon footprint per capita. To accomplish such a feat, projects such as The Sustainable City (just outside the  Dubai city center) may act as a model for the Middle East and the broader globe moving forward.

II. The Sustainable City

Overview. The Sustainable City is a $354 million-dollar, multi-use real estate development by Diamond Developers. Diamond Developers is a UAE based real estate development company that has partnerships with familiar institutions, including Siemens, General Electric, LG, the World Wildlife Fund, and UC Davis. The design of the community is, at least in part, inspired by UC Davis’ West Village. As of October 25, 2018, occupancy in the community was at 99%.

Social Sustainability. Though social sustainability is fluid in definition, the general principles are bringing together diverse populations, social cohesion and engagement amongst communities, the ensuring of a high quality of life, and promoting stable communities free from conflict. The Sustainable City provides a diverse range of experiences for its 5,151 residents of 63 different nationalities. The city hosts extensive events, including community picnics and concerts, triathlons, and community soccer leagues. A large equestrian center, running paths, sports fields, parks, and other recreational areas span the community. The community is primarily pedestrian oriented, as vehicles are not allowed outside of designated parking areas. The community also boasts a country club, school, science museum, Mosque, and sustainability center. These and other features of the Sustainable City advance the social fabric across age groups and generations.

Environmental Sustainability. The Sustainable City aims to be the exemplar of sustainable development over its 5,326,366 square feet of developed land. The community recycles all the water it takes in. It does this by collecting storm water runoff and wastewater, and then diverting the water through man-made rivers for on-site water treatment, irrigation, and reuse. Even papyrus insulates the central river system to aid in water treatment. Energy production is also entirely local and self-sustained. Solar panels on roofs and designated parking areas generate all the electricity to power the entire community. The solar system has a total capacity of 10,217 kWP. Residences and buildings are painted with UV-reflecting paint and face northward to reduce the energy requirements of running air conditioning units. Localized air pollution is greatly reduced since automobiles are only allowed in one central parking location. Electric golf carts are provided to each household for intra-development transportation. Air pollution is further reduced by the approximately 10,000 trees in the development. Even the waste from the construction has been repurposed. Excess wood, for instance, was used to construct picnic tables and planters, which populate common areas.

Another fascinating feature of the development is the series of bio-domes that run the span of the central park. These bio-domes, in the middle of the desert no less, house what nearly amounts to community subsistence farming. To accomplish such a feat, without requiring massive amounts of energy, the bio-domes employ a low-tech solution. Inside of each dome, a set of fans — powered by the community solar panels — blow air out. This creates a system of low pressure, drawing in outside air. The outside air passes a “pad” soaked with treated water runoff from the community. This low-tech system allows temperatures to fall from approximately 122 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, the community is able to enjoy a thriving agricultural supply, while selling any excess at the market.

Economic Sustainability. The Sustainable Community exemplifies economic sustainability by “taking advantage of operational efficiencies and passing on the savings to our residents.” Economic efficiency and sustainability are necessary in any development. To achieve such ends, the Sustainable City also has an expansive commercial zone. This commercial zone generates revenue that offsets the cost of service and maintenance fees across the spectrum of the city’s uses. Therefore, residents do not pay extra money for infrastructure maintenance, facility maintenance, trash service, etc. Additionally, to encourage a reduction in carbon emissions even outside the city, the commercial zone revenue allows the developers to offer a $10,000 USD subsidy toward the purchase of an electric vehicle, to all residential purchasers.

III. Blueprint for San Diego

Green City. San Diego in many ways is one of the most energy efficient and sustainable major cities in the country. The San Diego City Council approved the climate action plan (CAP) as currently constituted and with endorsement of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, in 2015. The CAP sets ambitious sustainable goals for the city, to be achieved by 2035. For instance, the city’s goal is to source 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2035, up from a 2010 baseline of 11%. As of 2017, renewable energy sourcing is at 45%. For its efforts in sustainability, San Diego has been named the number 2 solar city in the nation (for total installed solar power) and a Top 10 “Future Proof City.” Since 2010, the baseline year, San Diego’s gross domestic product has increased by 35% while overall greenhouse gas emissions in the city have reduced by 21%.

The Sustainable City Model to Achieve Climate Goals. However, to reach the aggressive goals the city has instituted, more is likely needed. The Sustainable City, rising out of a water-starved desert with regular temperatures of at least triple digits, could be a model for developments around San Diego and many other cities going forward. Although San Diego is a city of many distinct neighborhoods, it would not be surprising to see communities, such as North Park, start transforming into more Sustainability-type neighborhoods and developments over the next couple of decades.

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