Cityscape Dubai 2007

A celebration of sustainability, walkability or futility?


As was expected, the overall theme of Cityscape Dubai 2007 was sustainability.

Everyone seems to have their own version of what sustainability means and which components in a building or development make it sustainable. Likewise, the 'green' building movement showed itself to be similarly opaque and seemingly ambiguous during the conference.

Khaled Awad, property developer and director of the Masdar zero-carbon city in Abu Dhabi, was among the first at Cityscape to challenge the notion of the green building. "The first question we should be asking is, 'How smart is green?' I'm not picking on green buildings here, I'm just saying that you can talk to any developer and they'll all claim they're green," says Awad.

His stance became even more poignant on the last day of the conference when, in his talk on Building Environmentally Friendly and Sustainable Projects in the Region, he insisted that 'green', as a building concept, has been "overused, misused and abused".

'Green-washing' is the term we use for developments that claim they are green just because they put a PVC panel on the roof or put a sensor for lighting control in a room," says Awad.

The Emirates Green Building Council (EGBC) has its work cut out for it in trying to define Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) guidelines in a region that suffers from severe temperatures and an even more severe water shortage.

Until that rating system is in place, and is globally congruent, every developer who uses simple louvers for shading or incorporates balconies into a structure can claim a level of 'green-ness'. Strolling from booth to booth at Cityscape, it was immediately apparent that this architectural cynicism wasn't without merit.

However, Mario Seneviratne, director of the Green Technologies Company, member of the EGBC and approved LEED consultant, remained optimistic.

"There is a drive for green buildings primarily because it is the right thing to do. Green buildings are energy efficient and they make business sense. They are not a fad; they're not just fashionable; [the green movement] is real and it's happening," he says.

Self-sufficient mega-developments

While many architecture firms at Cityscape were showcasing free-standing buildings, the clear trend was the self-contained, self-sufficient super-community. Designed to be compact and all-inclusive, these developments promise to provide everything for everyone, thus negating the need to drive long distances to find housing, employment or entertainment.

Manama's Bahrain Bay and Durrat Al Bahrain, Dubai's Palms and City of Arabia, Qatar's Pearl City, Abu Dhabi's Al Raha Beach and Yas Island, Um Al Quwain's Marina and Saudi Arabia's Economic Cities are but a few examples of mega-developments in the works.

"Things seem to be moving from single buildings to larger, mixed-use developments. The transition is good because it creates synergy and density, both of which are good for sustainability," says Chad Oppenheim, founder of Miami's Oppenheim Architecture+Design. When people like Shaun Lenehan, head of environmental design for Nakheel, and Julie Taylor Mills, associate director of the Sustainability Advisory Group refer to Manhattan, London and Tokyo as some of the world's most sustainable cities, they're referring to this idea of compactness.

All of the large mixed-used developments at Cityscape were designed around the idea of reducing carbon output by getting people out of cars, buses and trains, and onto pedestrian walkways and bicycles. They all promise a vast range of hospitality, entertainment, commercial, educational and residential space within a reasonably walkable area.

The outlook to some, however, is cause for concern. "In the next decade, we're looking at more than US$ 1 billion of development in the region, and this is a conservative figure," says Awad of Masdar.

"That translates into 500 million tonnes of seawater for developments, or five million m³ per day - most of which will need to be desalinated. All of this will require 160 million megawatt hours of energy," he says.

Are developers unaware of these statistics when they create their vast masterplans? Are they ignoring the numbers and simply expecting the government and utility companies to have the energy and the water they need, when they need it?

While the developments themselves promise to be green, what about their construction?

Without a doubt, the models and themes presented at Cityscape were striking, but questions remain as to the clarity of moving forward with sustainable developments that incorporate green buildings when neither 'sustainable' nor 'green' has been properly defined.

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