Shrink to Fit

by C-Lab (Yukiko Bowman, Benedict Clouette, Julianne Gola, Jeffrey Inaba)

The desert has historically been a space of experimentation. From the nuclear tests carried out in the deserts of Nevada, Xinjiang, Algeria and southern Australia, to the experimental communities of the American southwest, such as Drop City, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, and Biosphere II, the desert has been a test site for a variety of purposes. Desert experiments are premised on the notion of the desert as empty and isolated from human populations, and therefore expendable. Technological experiments such as weapons tests treat the desert as a physical and biological emptiness, devoid of life or natural resources that would be endangered. Social experiments treat the desert as a place that, removed from existing social norms, lends itself to the invention of alternative models of community. In either case, the desert is understood as external to urban settlements, offering a zero condition for technological and social experimentation. By conceiving of the desert as absolutely separated from the city, experiments can be carried out without concern for their consequences on inhabitable areas.

But in the Gulf region, the desert is not external; it is home. Experiments on the desert ecology of the Gulf must be undertaken with caution because resources are not easily recuperated, and the effects of experimentation will be necessarily urban and have immediate consequences on large populations. Given the scarcity of life-supporting systems, in particular fresh water, there is an urgent need for environmentally-focused innovation. Yet the potential of such experimentation, which could inform a new approach to sustainability, is limited by a risk factor: mismanaged experiments could jeopardize the already scarce supply on which the Gulf’s cities rely for their survival.

The result is that the discourse and practice of sustainable design in the Gulf thus far has been mostly reliant on a technocratic mentality that diminishes perceived risk by focusing on quantitatively measurable efficiencies in building performance. This standards-based approach, while often tailored to regional ecosystems, assumes the use of technologies that have proven efficacious in less ecologically extreme urban environments such as those in North America and Europe. Although such standards should be part of a broader effort to minimize resource consumption, they overlook the more critical question of what sustainable desert urbanism in the Gulf could be in the future. The Gulf, still in an early stage of urbanization, may have the opportunity to develop an entirely different model of sustainable urbanism and utilize other technologies.

This guideline approach has encouraged the growth of its own resource-intensive industry that seems, in the short-term, like a viable economic solution to diminishing oil reserves. Not only does such technology reaffirm global investment in a well-developed construction and real-estate industry, it also serves as a highly visible showcase that invites visitors to flock to the region, further consuming scarce resources and encouraging heavy infrastructural development. The assumption that sustainable technology alone will support the indefinite growth of Gulf cities creates a situation in which the solution to the problem exacerbates, rather than addresses, the underlying and long-term problem of resource shortage and population growth.

Sustainable technologies become a central focus in city-branding efforts that are designed to attract more growth and investment, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. The marketing of high-profile 'green' projects, including Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, illustrates such attempts by developers to attract capital through displays of advanced 'sustainable' technologies. This technological spectacle generates an image of the Gulf that combines the conception of the city as destination and the city as the new ambassador of environmental responsibility, and represents a shift in the Gulf cities’ marketing priorities that is both necessary and paradoxical: in an attempt to extend the possibility of more growth, Gulf cities strategically employ technology to project themselves as leaders in sustainability, even if further growth may prove to be unsustainable from both economic and environmental perspectives.

Such a strategy is upheld by the current professional notion of urban sustainability which focuses attention on the hardware of the city (infrastructure, building performance, utilities). However, approaches that emphasize the improvement of 'hardware' are not adaptive strategies in the context of the Gulf, because these strategies build upon the logic of the city as a physical entity that has the capacity to reliably replenish its resources with a relative degree of constancy. In contrast, Gulf cities literally draw from an increasingly dry ground in which oil is nonrenewable and slowly diminishing. Water is also scarce; ground water and aquifer levels are dropping, resulting in increased desalination efforts that are costly and further degrade water quality in the Gulf.1 While desalination allows UAE cities to temporarily expand by supporting urban utilities and agricultural production, continued reliance on this technology may be limited by both economics and environmental quality. [See Interview Excerpt 1]

In models of sustainable urbanism that focus on improving the quantity and quality of a city's hardware, the task of urban planning is fulfilled by experts who specialize in alternative energy solutions, innovative waste and water management, and effective transportation systems. Such models abet a project of city building without reconsidering whether population growth is necessary for UAE cities to prosper. Unlike traditional cities, the Emirates was historically less dependent on concentrations of large urban populations and functioned primarily as trade settlements whose growth was curbed by supply, demand, and resource limitation. Spurred by incentives to develop non oil-based industries, superlative population growth in the UAE is a phenomenon of recent history. The 'sustainable' practices involving advanced hardware like those employed by Masdar and other projects are intended to offset the ecological impact of this rapid population growth without questioning the logic of growth itself. [See Interview Excerpt 2]

Resource efficiency is clearly important in any urban environment, yet it might be better to ask whether the UAE should emulate this growth model of non-desert cities, or whether a less 'people-intensive' economy might be a more relevant way of addressing urban desert ‘sustainability’. In other words, Gulf cities may need to invent an approach to sustainability that transcends a conception of urbanism that assumes the physical concentration of a large population and requires growth in the number of its inhabitants to fuel its economy. This would in turn reformulate an understanding of urban fitness as one not driven solely by place-based aggregation, but by a city's ability to effectively manage the activities that connect it to a global market. Such exchanges might be financial, educational, digital, cultural, or scientific in nature, but their innovative deployment would be reliant on their coordinated collection and redistribution, similarly to cloud computing models.2 Rather than emphasizing Gulf cities as physical destinations upon which tourists and business people descend, the Gulf could function as a virtual trade center that pools and redistributes global resources, reducing the need for much more hardware investment in this ecologically fragile region.         

Furthermore, developing the Gulf's ability to function as a virtual interchange for global resources would encourage its capacity to strengthen relationships between various off-site agents and the flow-patterns that connect them, thereby emphasizing a sustainability model that is reliant not only upon calculable, near-term technological factors but also upon long-term international collaboration. In such a model, the advantages of UAE cities acting as a single collective entity become apparent; in addition to jointly managing scarce physical resources such as water, their focus on further developing regionally-minded comparative advantage would utilize the benefits of pooling infrastructural and human resources relative to the global community which it would serve. This cooperation would discourage redundant and resource-intensive hardware development and encourage maximum virtual exchange, strengthening the UAE's role in promoting global interactivity, relationship development, and transparency of knowledge.3

If the historical vocation of Dubai was to manage the flow of goods between Asia and Europe, it is in such a capacity that Dubai and other Gulf cities could continue to best perform. The current potential for innovation in the Gulf lies in its need to balance population growth with a lasting global role. This would promote the UAE's ability to broadcast itself as a service provider rather than as a destination area to be consumed and depleted. Such an urbanism could offer a new model in which a city's robustness would not be measured by a geographical concentration of a critical population mass, but by a critical lightness that enables remote users' easy access to its services. [See Interview Excerpt 3]

The growth of cities is based on speculative investments in place-based industries that assume that if you build it, people will come. This attitude requires Gulf cities, like other Global Cities, to brand themselves through the perpetual generation of images of a sustainable, technologically supported future. But the implications of such a model based on the accumulation of a large urban population in the desert climate of the Gulf is more problematic than in cities existing in less extreme climates. If Gulf cities are to maintain their environment, they will be presented with the unique challenge of seeking strategies that embrace a demographic shrinkage and virtual growth.

1. The concentration of salt in the Gulf’s water supply is rapidly increasing and may become so elevated that desalination is no longer feasible. 'Desalination threat to the growing Gulf', The National, Abu Dhabi, August 30, 2009.
2. In cloud computing, users access data and computing functions regardless of the physical location of the hardware that stores the data. The hardware-driven capabilities are collectively shared and utilized on demand, further minimizing actual hardware requirements.
3. Such a model might combine offshore resource management, such as that found in Switzerland's financial industry, with liberal trade policies encouraging the coordination of global resources that extend beyond the financial sector alone.

Interview Excerpts:
1. Upmanu Lall (Alan & Carol Silberstein Professor of Engineering, Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering & Department of Civil Engineering & Engineering Mechanics; Senior Research Scientist, International Research Institute for Climate & Society; Director, Columbia University Water Cente)r: Let me start with the water crisis that most people keep talking about – the lack of access to drinking water for 2.8 billion people. This is a major issue but something that we know technically how to solve; it’s just a question of people spending money and doing what’s needed. More challenging in my view is the issue of pollution because in many cases in the world you have incremental pollution coming in from the landscape and from different industries. You accumulate pollutants in both space and in time: the spatial accumulation occurs as pollutants encroach upon the watershed and the temporal accumulation occurs when these pollutants enter the sediments and continue to release contaminants into the ground water or in the river channels long after the issue of disposal has been solved.
2. Mohamed Raouf (Program Manager, Environment Research at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai): Of course, desalination has some significant environmental impacts, and needs a lot of money. Now they have a lot of money from oil revenues so they can desalinate water, but desalination is not very effective so they need to work on many fronts in order to reduce the cost of desalination. They need to cooperate between countries because some of the underground aquifer water is shared by the GCC. If the water situation got very bad, we would turn to underground water, but we would need to do it with cooperation, otherwise it might be a source of conflict.
3. Upmanu Lall: The number one thing is to limit your population. To contain the population and have more water … There is no other way!















Al Manakh Cont'd