Beyond oil: Inside Dubai's Sustainable City
On the outskirts of Dubai, a shimmering metropolis built on buried oil, lies a small but similarly suave community looking at a new way of doing things. It is no small irony that the world's most brazen exemplar of fossil-fueled excess is also home to a cutting-edge example of more thoughtful modern living. But the carefully planned Dubai Sustainable City is a reminder that between the towering skyscrapers and petrol-hungry supercars there is plenty of environmental awareness to be found. As cranes hover at its edges expanding its footprint piece by piece, New Atlas ventured into the desert to see it all from the inside out.
What does it look like to build a sustainable community from the ground up? Anyone involved in the Dubai Sustainable City will be quick to tell you there is much more to it than sticking solar panels on the roof and sorting your trash from your recyclables.
At the very heart of it all is SEE Nexus, a company named after what its CEO Dr. Muawieh Radaideh describes as three essential pillars for sustainable living. The "Social" pillar, promoting health and happiness through sports, education safety and culture, the "Environment" pillar through smart practices around food, waste, water, energy and mobility, and the "Economy pillar," creating a way of green living that is financially attainable and rewarding.
"It's a three-legged stool," Radaideh tells New Atlas in his office at the Sustainable City, which overlooks the adjacent equestrian park. "If you knock one leg out, the stool will fall. I'm sure you've entered buildings that were LEED platinum certified before. You go into these soulless buildings and don't feel like you're at peace. So when you build green you have to also look at the economic and social values. You can't just look at one and leave the others."
Social sustainability is only one of those pillars, but it might just be the most visible, at least from ground level. The 500 villas and 89 apartments are laid out in a neat grid-pattern enclosed by what is described as a "buffer zone." This consists of an equestrian track running around the perimeter, along with a bike track, a running track made from recycled rubber tires and 10-meter-tall trees that purify the air and act as a line of defense against air contaminants.
Within these borders are solar-shaded communal carparks with EV chargers, placed in a way that forces residents to walk through at least some of the city to reach their villas. The narrow, six-meter-streets modeled on the alleys of old Dubai have no cars, traveled only by pedestrians and communal GPS-tracked electric buggies that residents operate with personalized ID cards.
Put this all together and you have an environment very much designed to draw people outdoors. Though we were lucky enough to visit in Dubai's cooler months, you didn't have to look far to see some of the city's 2,500 residents cycling, playing in the street, or enjoying its parks.
"I've been here nearly two years and there are lots of good things," says Jennifer Stelco, who moved to Dubai's Sustainable City from Australia. "I've got two very small kids and the best thing about it is how safe it is for them. Basically they can walk out of our front garden and they can sort of roam, there's no traffic, and there's these community events all the time that we really like as well."
It was in one of those GPS-equipped buggies that Landscape Director Phil Dunn showed us around the Sustainable City, starting from a plaza at one end consisting of a block of shops, restaurants, cafes and offices. This plaza serves as a sort of economic engine room, with some of the revenue siphoned off to entirely cover the city's maintenance and service costs, which would be known as homeowners association fees in the United States.
"It is good for the expenses," confirmed Peter, who moved to the Sustainable City from the Netherlands with his family a year and a half ago. "Our energy bills are less because of the solar, and it's good that the next generation is a little more aware of the importance of the environment."
The buggy ride takes us past a set of beehives, an animal sanctuary with rescued donkeys and up to one of the city's 11 biodomes, where a worker is loading small pots into the back of a delivery van.
This string of large greenhouses snakes its way through the center of the Sustainable City, hosting 30 different herb and vegetable species and rearing up to one million plants each year. They form part of the city's "Central Green Spine," made up of more running and cycling tracks, gyms, basketball courts, parks and an ancient Emirati irrigation system known as Falaj, which uses plants as natural filtration systems.
"You can build a sustainable city, but if people don't go there to live sustainably, then you haven't achieved your goal," Dunn says as he pulls the buggy up to a set of garden beds, each individual plot overseen by one of the city's residents. Through the urban farming club, residents get access to a garden bed, soil and free rein to raise whatever they want. The UAE imports 80 percent of its food, so an ability to grow local is important. To that end, through a voucher-based honor system residents also get eight pots of greenhouse herbs and vegetables per month to take back to their villas.
Those villas are topped with solar panels and are made from thick precast concrete, carefully oriented to keep cooling costs to a minimum. That means windows that face north away from the intense sunlight and openings that face north-east for breezy passive cooling. This together with high-efficiency appliances make for homes that use around a third of energy of the typical home in the UAE, according to Radaideh.
The 500 villas are all sorted into five clusters and at the center of those clusters is an outdoor playground area along with a traditional Arabian wind tower known as a barjeel. These collect air at the top and push cooler air through the bottom to make the outdoor spaces more comfortable. Though these modern renditions have been modified for improved performance, just like the narrow car-free streets they serve as an important example of cultural awareness.
"Don't forget about the local culture, the local habits and the local architecture," says Radaideh. "You can't put a sustainable community in place and have it look like an alien entity. It also has to work with nature, work with the culture and it has to inspire."
Dunn tells us that all the solar panels of the Sustainable City combine for total 6 MWp and provide around 40 to 50 percent of the total energy needs. The aim of the Sustainable City is to eventually become a net-zero energy entity over the course of a year, generating at least as much power as it produces.
The second phase of the project will see the addition of a school with green living practices weaved into the curriculum, a hospital and huge new innovation center billed as "the brain of the sustainable city," which is expected to produce 140 percent of its energy requirements over a 50-year lifespan. The city's expansion is expected to bring another 3 MWp online, and though Radaideh chose his words carefully regarding the progress towards net-zero energy, he expects this will put them on track to achieve their goals.
"We will be finishing phase two by next year and then everything will be in place, everything will be plugged in and hopefully you will come back and visit and we will show you our dashboard where we keep track of our energy consumption and other sustainability elements," he says.
The ongoing energy costs of the Sustainable City are part of the appeal, but also feeding into the "Economic" sustainability leg of Radaideh's tripod is the price of the homes themselves. A cursory glance at the options on local real estate website Property Finder tells us that prices start at AED$2,750,000 (around US$750,000). Sure, this is greater than what you'll pay for a three-bedroom villa in many parts of the world, but might not be all that bad for the lavish lands of Dubai.
"There's this thinking that sustainability costs more, that you have to sacrifice to live sustainably, but we've busted that theory," says Dunn. "The villas don't cost more, they're on par with competitors and you get so much more. The solar, no maintenance and service fees and the utility bills are slashed."
Dunn describes the Sustainable City as a living laboratory, where they are continually experimenting with new technologies couched in green living aspirations. One example of this is a shipping container adjacent to the equestrian park, where French startup Agricool tries to raise strawberries in the desert with greater efficiency than conventional farming practices, and without the use of pesticides and GMOs.
And this is where our tour wrapped up, with a crowd of families gathering on the lawn outside to watch on as an evening equestrian event played out. The fact that the Sustainable City was named the "Happiest Community" in the region at the Gulf Real Estate Awards earlier this year popped up more than once during our visit, and there is an undeniable Plesantville-esque vibe around the place.
"We've been here for three years," said Pernille Stroem from Denmark. "I like that it is so easy to make friends. In the evenings the kids can take their bikes and just go around the community. It's just so easy to find friends."
In saying that, there is a distinct lack of teenagers and young adults, suggesting that this way of desert living isn't for everyone. But the hope is that the lessons that continue to be learned at the Sustainable City will have ramifications far beyond its environmentally fortified walls.
"It is a proof of concept that building sustainably is possible, and that we made it possible in one of the harshest environments on Earth, in Dubai," says Radaideh. "The fact that it is here and is working is proof that building sustainably is no longer an option or a luxury, this is how we should build from this point on ... We hope that this will inspire new communities that are propagating across the planet to look at us and think 'you can build sustainably and you can build smart.' And by build smart I mean building in a way that actually contributes to the reduction of the greenhouse gases, rather than being a burden on this planet."
More information: The Sustainable City