Complex Made Simple

Green cities, red alert: Are GCC’s sustainability efforts paying off?

GCC cities have big dreams when it comes to sustainability. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha have already taken the lead with ambitious plans and admirable actions. But if the findings of a new report are any indication, the efforts of the cities on the Arabian Peninsula are yet to pay off.


In the 2016 rankings of the most sustainable cities in the world, compiled by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) for construction consultancy firm Arcadis, no GCC cities landed a spot in the top 50, a stark reversal from last year.


Dubai and Abu Dhabi have emerged as the two most sustainable cities in the region on the 2016 Sustainable Cities Index, but their global rankings are 52 and 58, compared with last year’s 33 and 34, respectively.


The latest figures also show that the positions of Doha (72), Jeddah (81) and Riyadh (76) significantly dropped from last year’s 41, 43 and 44 respectively. This year, Kuwait City and Muscat also featured in the rankings.


The study examined cities on the bases of three core pillars of sustainability – social (people), environmental (planet) and economic (profit), to develop an indicative ranking of the 100 leading cities of the world.


The research showed that cities are not effectively balancing these three pillars of sustainability. Instead, many demonstrate split personalities, taking the lead in some areas but often underperforming in some other elements of sustainability, which negatively impacts their overall performance.


Startlingly, Dubai, which topped the seven cities of the region that are covered in the rankings, came 96th globally in the planet index, which ranked cities on energy consumption and renewable energy share, recycling and composting rates, greenhouse gas emissions, natural catastrophe risk, drinking water, sanitation and air pollution.


However, the emirate landed in fourth place globally – well ahead of other major business hubs like New York, Paris and Tokyo – on profit indicators, which examined performance from a business perspective, combining measures of transport infrastructure (rail, air, traffic congestion), ease of doing business, tourism, GDP per capita, the city’s importance in global economic networks, connectivity in terms of mobile and broadband access, and employment rates.


Dubai came third in the region and 55th globally on the people sub-index, which studied various indicators of quality of life, such as rates of health (life expectancy and obesity), education (literacy and universities), income inequality, work-life balance, the dependency ratio, crime, green space within cities and housing and living costs.


Meanwhile Abu Dhabi ranked second in the region and 58th globally among the most sustainable cities.


“Energy consumption and carbon emissions do remain high in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, largely due to the climate, the volume of development and the traditional reliance on fossil fuels. This is an area that both cities are actively looking to address, though, and it forms a key part of the UAE’s Vision 2021,” said Ben Khan, client development director at Arcadis Middle East.


“The focus on improving the energy efficiency of buildings through rating systems like Estidama and Al Safat will help, as will planned investment in upgrading the water and transport networks in both cities,” Khan added.


People to drive sustainability

John Batten, Global Director of Water and Cities at Arcadis says city leaders need to “put people at the heart of their sustainability plans” in order to improve their sustainability.


“This journey begins with a clear assessment of where a city is today, identifying the outputs, positive and negative, arising from the interplay between the city’s physical, social and economic systems. This will help cities achieve a better balance across each of the pillars,” says Batten.


Many cities in the region score lower on income inequality due to the disparity between the mega-rich and the blue-collar expatriate communities and lower income workers.


Batten further notes that to achieve their goals the cities need to create a sense of community from built and natural assets.


“This is visible in the multiple neighbourhoods of which cities are comprised. Each has its own style and distinct sense of community. Scale is important, as it enables people to feel a strong connection to their core neighbourhood community and, through that, with the wider secondary community of the entire city. A successful city, therefore, is likely to have many different neighbourhoods with their own unique sense of themselves, but which, together, can form a common identity,” he says.


“Taking steps to ensure that all people enjoy at least a basic standard in the quality of life, with water and food, a dwelling, education and health and a sense of opportunity, is critical in binding a city’s diverse population together,” he adds. “By doing so, citizens understand that everyone has their own role and responsibility in the city. Greater equality in a city drives a sense of inclusion in its people. When people feel included, they start collaborating, taking responsibility for their own areas and achieving greater wellbeing,” Batten concludes.