Think of Dubai – the city founded on oil wealth – and you picture gleaming skyscrapers, highways filled with petrol-guzzling cars, luxury resorts and endless malls. Not exactly the prototype of a sustainable city… and yet…

Words: Michel Cruz

Think of Dubai – the city founded on oil wealth – and you picture gleaming skyscrapers, highways filled with petrol-guzzling cars, luxury resorts and endless malls. Not exactly the prototype of a sustainable city …and yet…

Words: Michel Cruz

Let’s face it, the world has been slow to change its ways. People have been talking about the same stuff since the environmental debate first became a mainstream topic in the 1970s. That’s half a century ago, and all we did in the meantime is become more oil-dependent, drive more and bigger cars, consume and fly more, double the world population and waste time on endless philosophical debates.
To be truthful, the track record of the West in this regard is shockingly poor, so it has fallen not to ‘progressive Europe or Australia’, nor to ‘advanced North America and Japan’, but to ‘less-enlightened’ places such as China and the UAE to take the first firm steps towards creating sustainable city prototypes that should inspire a new way of thinking for the (near) future. Of course, such things are easier to move forward in more autocratic regimes, but all the same…

An Existing Track Record

The UAE already has some pedigree when it comes to this, having launched the pioneering Masdar City project near Abu Dhabi as early as 2006. Masdar City is a fascinating study in how to create an enjoyable, social living environment in a hot desert location without excessive use of energy-driven cooling. Instead, the revolutionary setting is courtesy of design concepts developed by Norman Foster and his team, and it provides many possible answers for an energy-efficient, largely car-free society in which roads no longer separate living spaces and people can interact within modern urban areas inspired by traditional vernacular architecture.

The Sustainable City

Probably inspired by this, Dubai-based Diamond Developers launched a somewhat less futuristic project in 2015 named The Sustainable City. It’s described as the first net-zero energy development of a residential nature in Dubai, and while a little less ambitious than Masdar City this is a very real new suburb where people live and work. Uniquely in vehicle and road-crazy Dubai, it is also car-free, taking inspiration from Masdar City, and elevating the concept beyond most comparable initiatives in other parts of the world. Though still moderate in size, the very name ‘The Sustainable City’ hints at the ambitions of a developer keen to pioneer better, cleaner living.

Indeed, there is space to grow, and before long more zones will be added until the present suburb becomes a city in its own right – and one that could well serve as an example to the rest of the world. At present, The Sustainable City is a mixed-use extension of the Dubai metropolis that consists of 500 villas, 89 apartments and an area made up of offices, retail spaces, healthcare facilities, a nursery, and hospitality and F&B outlets. In addition to more homes, parks and public spaces, the second phase will also contain a school, luxury hotel (this is Dubai, after all) and an intriguingly named ‘innovation centre’, a concept that of course fits right in with a green town.

Spread over almost half a million square metres of land, this shining new example of a city of the future has moved away from the standard, American-inspired methodology of Dubai, where cars, highways and glass towers dominate urban life. The Sustainable City is delightfully human in scale, partly because it is low-rise, has lots of green zones and is not dissected by busy roads. Here children can roam around safely, as there are only roads encircling and providing access to the suburb, all of them leading to parking zones. Once you reach these points, you either walk, cycle or (if really necessary) take small electric buggies around leafy streets, squares and green parks.

Let’s face it, this is residential living as it should be, with cars standing in parking spaces under the shaded cover of solar energy panels. They and their counterparts installed upon the roofs of homes and commercial buildings provide hot water and electricity, while the parked cars plug into recharging stations. Peak production thus generated reaches 10MW, with townhouses covered in UV-reflective paint that minimises the heating up of the structure. Waste water is recycled, with separated draining for grey water and black water, and natural materials such as papyrus are used to filter it.

Such solutions have been around for a while, but their combined implementation in a project of this scale is truly inspiring. The rejection of cars, for one thing, has led to the creation of a more resident-friendly environment that prioritises pedestrians and cyclists, while providing attractive green leisure spaces and also public amenities constructed with the help of recycled building waste. The Sustainable City shows the world the way forward, above all because it is one of the first residential projects of any scale that truly attempts to close the circle between human needs and reduced environmental impact.


Though Diamond Developers’ CEO, Faris Saeed, cites the West Village campus of the University of California Davis in the USA as one of the main sources of inspiration for the design and layout of The Sustainable City, in terms of aesthetic architectural styling there has been a concerted attempt to move away from the glass and steel towers of the recent past and back to the intimate feel of vernacular Arabian architecture. In this case, the direct reference is Dubai’s own historic Bastakiya quarter, whose classic Gulf styling, decorative detailing, shaded pathways and little squares encourage social interaction while also providing a cooling environment.

Sports facilities, including an equestrian centre, combine with squares, parks and other green zones to make this one of the most pleasant living environments in Dubai, and indeed all of the Middle East. Other parts of the world can and should also take note and learn from what has so bravely been achieved at The Sustainable City – a truly inspiring example of how we can (and should) be living in the 21st century, even if this means a partial return to our roots in different parts of the world. In this sense the concept also ties in with the km-zero philosophy, and this is visible in the eleven biodome greenhouses used for organic food production and plant nurseries.

The latter use natural resource inputs and are cooled using a passive method that works with fans and pads. The overall concept has been successful, ensuring that The Sustainable City will continue to grow and also form the basis for others to come, including already new projects in the UAE’s Sharjah, but certainly also beyond.

In announcing plans for Sanad Village, the world’s largest rehabilitation centre, Faris Saeed said, “Through Sanad Village, we want to assure that The Sustainable City continues with its plans to evolve into a complete society that provides the UAE and the world with innovative ideas, not only on different aspects of sustainability, but also the initiatives and projects that target all segments of society and its different needs.”

In other words, a fine example of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) thinking!

Expo 2021 Dubai: About Sustainability

Delayed a year by the coming of the Covid-19 crisis last year, Expo 2020 Dubai looks more openly to the future than many an event of its kind has done for some time. The official theme, ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, says as much, and now more than ever there is an urgency about the concepts and technologies being displayed here.

In a location such as Dubai, there is of course no shortage of ambition and visual impact, all the more so because this Expo falls on the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s independence, and over the 182 days of its duration, this amazing tech-based event will feature an average of 60 live events per day, as well as multiple pavilions and exhibitions set within almost five square kilometres of grounds, complete with educational and entertainment elements and 200 food and beverage points representing 50 world cuisines.

192 countries – each with their own pavilion – will be participating in a spectacle with purpose, where the bottom-line motto is: Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability as interconnected drivers of progress. This, the largest event ever organised in the Arab world, is squarely aimed at finding new methodologies, new solutions to the challenging problems of our time, and in this technology will be the star performer for everything from energy-efficiency and new transport systems to agriculture and how to design the cities of the future.

Opportunity, Mobility And Sustainability

The cited objective, quite apart from the fun elements, the promotion of the host location and the global business and networking opportunities of a World Expo, is to “…create new perspectives, and then plan the path forward for urgent action.”

In other words, the 2020 Dubai Expo is one of the first ever whose purpose extends beyond the mere exposition and promotion of ideas and ideals to the actual search for practical solutions – with a view to finding and implementing the best options available as soon as possible.

This sense of urgency never seen before will be channelled through visual technological and conceptual displays, multilevel discussions held among academics, public officials, business leaders and technology experts on topics such as water, soil, space and energy-management, logistical and transport developments, smart and sustainable cities, food production and liveable environments. Those who visit the spectacle will be in for just that: high-tech marvels, architectural and engineering wizardry, living rainforests, vertical farms, and a whole new level of AR and VR experiences.

The World Expos have always looked to the future, first with brazen confidence and now with the trepidation of societies and environments that feel a little broken but, given this newly defined role, their importance is perhaps greater than ever, and in bringing together so many people from across the globe in numerous relevant and related fields, the 2020 Dubai Expo is setting the tone for all subsequent events of this kind to come. Gone is the purpose purely to entertain; as of now a World Expo is a fantastic and precious opportunity to help get things done.

Using A World Expo To Promote Action

The UAE backs this initiative with what it calls a “…collaborative and people-centred strategy”, and at the heart of the Expo’s focus on rebuilding our natural world with the use of sensible technologies are three pavilions that allow us to rediscover the wonder of our planet in all its savage diversity, dynamic equilibrium and splendour. The designers have ensured that travelling through these pavilions really does feel like exploring the mysterious depths of untouched nature.
Building on the natural world is technology – the manmade element that has allowed us to destroy it and which remains our only true hope to return it to health – and naturally the many glistening new tools of modern science and the digital world are on display in tech-orientated pavilions, both in the form of current innovations, new ones and futuristic concepts. It is really the latter two categories that the 2020 Dubai Expo seeks to find in plentiful supply.

The Main Themes Include:
Climate & Biodiversity, including space; urban & rural development; travel & connectivity; health & wellness; food, agriculture & livelihoods, and water
Innovation & Technology
Architectural marvels – such as those of the Expo itself
MULTI, the world’s first ropeless elevator for skyscrapers
The BlocExpo & World Blockchain Summit
Egypt Pavilion’s Time Machine
Robo-Beethoven at the German Pavilion’s Culture Lab
Future automotive manufacturing
Ukraine Pavilion’s cross-country e-bike
And much more!
1 October 2021 – 31 March 2022