The Sustainable City in Dubai

“We have no choice but to design cities with sustainability as a central theme.”

At One Planet Journey, we’ve set out on a mission to facilitate necessary change in the travel sector by showcasing inspiring examples around the globe. Besides our own experiences and learnings along the way, we aim to bring you stories from people who’ve been initiating a change or are closely involved in driving sustainability globally. Dubai, a world-renowned tourist mecca, has recently made strides to up its green credentials. One of the more exciting developments is the neighbourhood called The Sustainable City in Dubai.

In this interview, we interacted with Baharash Bagherian, Director & Founder of Baharash Architecture, an award-winning studio in London passionate about building sustainable destinations, which has been the lead designer for phase 2 of Dubai’s Sustainable City.

Scale model of a new sustainable residential area in Dubai

Dubai Sustainable City

You’ve designed the 2nd phase of The Sustainable City in Dubai, which is one of the leading projects in the region, aligning with the increasing focus on Sustainability. Could you outline, for our readers, the concept of a Sustainable City?

A sustainable city provides the highest quality of life together with the lowest environmental footprint whilst ensuring the needs of future generations are not compromised. Although various aspects influence the quality of life, such as crime rates, health statistics, unemployment, income growth, cost of living etc., the built environment and the design characteristics of a city have a significant influence. Furthermore, they help minimise people’s impact on the environment.

How have you incorporated these initiatives within the project in Dubai? How has The Sustainable City been received?

The Sustainable City in Dubai is a project that covers 46 hectares with 550 residential villas, organic farms, educational facilities, and 600,000 square feet of solar panels. Each house within the city comes equipped with solar panels, providing residents with most of their energy needs. The project will also feature smart water systems that will reduce the water demand of buildings. In addition, grey and wastewater will irrigate plants across the city, and there will also be a waste recycling system.

In 2013, Baharash Architecture beat an international field of contenders to win phase 2 of The Sustainable City in Dubai. We saw off a shortlist of prominent international practices from the USA, Lebanon, Jordan, the UK, and UAE. The Brief for phase 2 was to design a Mixed Use Zone, A Juma Mosque, an Institute for Ecological Engineering, a museum & planetarium, a “Green” School for K-6, an Eco-Resort, Country Club and Equestrian Centre.

For phase 2 of the project, we approached the design from the ground up by creating a variation of green space solutions integrated with the innovative buildings we designed.

One of the key challenges when working on a sustainable project is at the early stages of the project. Fundamental design decisions such as orientation, density and form provide the most significant environmental gains, yet these require the least financial investment. So in the early stages, we can reduce a large amount of energy demand with little cost. Another key challenge was working with the client and consultant team from the beginning of the phase 2 project to develop a series of sustainable initiatives and targets. These targets helped guide the design in the pursuit of sustainability goals. We divided some of these targets into categories; Water, Health & Well-being, Energy, Materials, Pollution, Ecology, and Waste.

The project has gone on to achieve much success since revealing our phase 2 designs in 2013. Many notable international delegates, ranging from politicians to city officials and environmentalists, have visited The Sustainable City and continue to do so. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio visited the project in January 2017.

Which areas can you integrate with the Sustainability theme – for example, Environmental, Social or Cultural, in planning a city? Is there a particular emphasis on one or another?

It takes a holistic approach to design a sustainable city. The basic idea of this approach to sustainable development is to provide an entire solution, addressing all three key pillars of sustainability rather than just dealing with one part. Thus the three key pillars of sustainability – social, economic and environmental are considered from the very beginning without a deliberate emphasis on one over the other.

How do you view the focus on sustainability for the region as a whole? Are other Govt. ’s as future leaning in these initiatives, as is the one in Dubai?

Over the last several years, we have seen a growing trend amongst other governments towards sustainability. As such, we decided to launch a new hub dedicated to providing education and insight into sustainable development. Baharash Architecture became the first company in the MENA region to create a Knowledge hub for sustainable development. The hub will explore new solutions & strategies to facilitate the progress on sustainable thinking in the MENA region.

A modern eco resort in the desert

Eco Resort outside Dubai

Great architecture is more than buildings; it’s about creating resilient destinations that make people feel healthy to live in, inspired to work in and desiring to visit.

Besides Dubai Sustainable City, you’ve worked on several sustainability-focused projects. Can you outline some details around these and the impact you aspired to?

We designed the world’s greenest eco resort in UAE by Eco Resort Group. Some of the project’s environmental benefits include recycling waste water on site for irrigation, onsite waste management, enforcing a zero emission zone and 157,000 square feet of solar panels. We also worked for one of Dubai’s highest-profile individuals to design an off-grid home. This private home is entirely energy self-sufficient, using solar panels. It generates and stores clean power in several battery units. The retreat design harmonises with the pristine and untouched desert landscape.

In addition, we are also working at the early stages of truly unique projects not yet revealed to the public. Ultimately, every project presents an opportunity for us to do something new related to sustainability. There is a true sense of entrepreneurial spirit in our work, and innovation is our core strength. We drive each project in the studio by process of investigation, experimentation, and always asking, “What if?” The outcomes of these studies form the basis of the design. We do this to move away from thinking about architecture as “buildings”. We believe that great architecture is more than buildings; it’s about creating resilient destinations that make people feel healthy to live in, inspired to work in and desiring to visit.

Do you see demand, as witnessed in the Emirates, in other parts of the world, particularly in developing regions?

Public and private entities from various countries have already approached us to help them with sustainable projects. While some of these projects are in very early stages, the demand is certainly evident. This growing demand towards sustainable development is not one of choice. It has become one of necessity. Over the next decade, there will be a significant increase in population & urbanisation, severely impacting our cities’ infrastructures, resources, and the health and well-being of their inhabitants. To mitigate these effects and provide a higher quality of life, we have no choice but to design with sustainability.

How critical is it that sustainability forms a central theme to ‘Smart City’ projects undertaken globally?

Smart Cities can significantly shape the sustainability objectives of projects. The integration of sensors is an excellent example. For example, indoor lighting and temperature can automatically be adjusted based on various variables. These variables include the number of occupants in a room, the time of day, exterior weather, and light conditions. In addition, embedding sensors in buildings to detect motion, temperature, noise, moisture, fire, smoke, etc., will provide real-time data and help improve operational efficiency, safety and security.

Once these sensors connect to the IoT [Internet Of Things], buildings can communicate real-time data to various departments within the city. For example, only collect waste upon receiving automatic notification that the containers are full. Analysis of real-time user data should provide an estimate of the day and time for waste to be collected. This will maximise efficiency and ensure that services are available exactly when needed.

The possibilities of integrating sensors into many other “things” are endless. City officials and applications can provide more efficient and improved city services. IoT will help reduce errors, increase efficiency, boost sustainability, and ensure real-time delivery of these services.

Which cities globally, excluding the ones in the Middle East, are ideal ‘role models for this theme?

At a neighbourhood scale, Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden, has been widely studied as a good ‘role model’ for sustainable development. At the very early stages of the project, a ‘closed loop’ infrastructure strategy came into force, including new public transport routes, district heating and cooling and an underground waste collection system for the development as a whole. Although the project adopted various passive and active strategies, I believe the best models of sustainable cities should focus more on passive solutions since these provide large environmental gains combined with the least financial investment.

Water walkway in Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm

Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm, Sweden

One of the critical successes of the Hammarby Sjöstad project was the collaborative process between municipal authorities, urban planners, developers, architects, landscape architects, engineers, and energy & water companies. This holistic approach to master planning created a special place for Stockholm, a vibrant, healthy and sustainable location. Other success factors include the participation and education model created for district residents. For example, a 50 % reduction in water consumption results from increasing environmental awareness among residents and workers. The same goes for pollutants; raised awareness of the impact of detergents and other household activities leads to a 50 % reduction in use.

Lastly, what is your favourite destination and why? Is there something sustainability related that stands out there?

My favourite destination is Italy because of its beautiful scenery. I also love Italian food and eating in locally-owned places that rely on tourism as a green economy.

Thank you, Baharash. And to our readers – what is your favourite city to visit? What aspects of sustainability has it gotten right? Share in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from travel tips, interviews and inspirational examples of sustainable travel.

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