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A sustainable city in the desert

Dubai’s Sustainable City is an award-winning property development born out of the global financial crisis. Its success, according to Diamond Developers CEO Faris Saeed, lies in acknowledging the importance of economics and human engagement.

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When the financial crisis hit at the end of 2008, Dubai was known for its skyrocketing property prices and high-speed growth rates. At this point in time Dubai also produced one of the world’s largest ecological footprints. For Diamond Developers it became clear that business as usual was about to change dramatically. “We realised that we needed to come up with a new model which is more sustainable, which can last in front of any financial crisis, and at the same time can be eco-friendly and cater for the needs of human beings,” co-founder and CEO Faris Saeed explains. The result was Sustainable City – an award-winning proof-point for property development driven by economic, environmental and social sustainability. 

A green backbone
When most people think of sustainability they think of the environment. And, right from the first impression, Sustainable City simply appears green. It’s a desert oasis in-line with Dubai’s goal to reinvent itself as a global hub for clean energy and the green economy: trees buffer the perimeter to purify the air and create a breeze and a park that doubles as an urban farm creates its green spine. Take a closer look and each aspect of the development has been planned to reduce emissions from the CO2-producing elements of food, energy, water, building materials, mobility and waste. 

The result is a low-carbon business model for mixed-use property development that now houses the representatives of the World Wildlife Fund in the Emirates. Buildings are constructed from eco-friendly materials and cleverly positioned and insulated to significantly reduce air-conditioning requirements. Up to 85 per cent of waste is diverted from landfill, subsidies encourage electric car ownership and 50 per cent of residential energy is generated by on-site solar farms. The city even supplies energy back to the grid, with its Innovation Center being the region’s first energy positive building. 

A focus on finance: sustainability is good economics
While Sustainable City holds the title of Dubai’s first operational zero net energy city, Saeed knows that regardless of any accolades or awards received, long-term success requires financial sustainability. During the planning process, the team found that people prefer to finance what they’re already familiar with. And, according to Saeed, previous attempts at similar projects failed to work through the financial pillar in such a comprehensive and detailed way. “This was the prejudgement and perception from everyone, that the minute you say ‘sustainable’ it means it is very expensive and it will never work,” he explains.

However, now that the project is operational and has high rates of occupancy, attracting funding is much easier. In addition to achieving construction costs on par with a traditional development, Sustainable City reports lower than average utility bills as a result of energy-efficient design. Additionally, all maintenance costs are paid by the development – as opposed to its residents – with expenses more than covered by income generated from the commercial malls, rental apartments and retail and office spaces.

The sustainable social experiment
In terms of infrastructure, Sustainable City offers facilities to support wellness, wellbeing, fitness, spirituality and cultural interests. Inclusion is taken seriously and a specially-designed autism center provides support to both live-in residents and day-visitors. However, despite four years of research and careful planning, the one element that could not be pre-engineered was the reaction of people to the project. “The human factor is the most challenging as it is unpredictable,” Saeed explains. “People normally resist and are against what they don’t know – so this is something you need to deal with.” 

In line with their thorough approach to planning, the team has been studying the success of their community-building efforts. In addition to ongoing social events, residents can participate in a sustainability education programme and are connected virtually through a smart-phone app. Sustainable City has been named the “The Happiest Community” in the Gulf Cooperation Council for the third year running by the Gulf Real Estate Awards and Saeed believes that community involvement is key: “The best way is to engage the stakeholders from the earliest days of design, because they will be supporting you instead of resisting what you want to do”. 

Plans for Sustainable City 2030 are set to launch later this year. And, while technology will feature strongly in this future city, so too will the championing of a simpler and more community-focused lifestyle. “When it comes to producing energy from solar power and other engineering tasks, I am an engineer and I know how to do it,” Saeed explains. “But when you get people closer to each other, this is an art, this is something I consider the biggest achievement we have done in the Sustainable City and this is something I am so proud of”.

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