Middle East Green Building and China’s Sustainable Urban Clusters

By Frank Teng

Frank Teng is a current MBA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco and is on the board of Sustainable Silicon Valley. He works with Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services firm, to manage global energy and sustainability programs for corporate clients in the technology and financial services sectors. Please note: Frank's views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.

How are two world leaders of growth faring in relation to smart cities?

China’s future of sustainable urban clusters

It goes without saying that even at its best, a smart city is only one component of a regional, national, and global system of cities that seek to interact and exchange goods, services, and information. In China, while much is discussed about the explosive growth in cities themselves, recent analysis shows that the nationwide trajectory will evolve more toward sustainable urban clusters, according to Jonathan Woetzel at McKinsey & Co. These urban clusters will comprise 10-50 million people, creating a map akin to Europe’s close collection of countries rather than North America’s dispersed urban islands.

Since China’s significant infrastructure investment—8.5% of GDP since 1992, compared to 2.6% in the U.S.—will only continue as an economic driver, future focus will be on improving infrastructure productivity, or the time and cost of how that infrastructure gets something from point A to point B. This is particularly important for China since McKinsey estimates that currently China’s infrastructure productivity is half that of other industrialized nations. So the focus isn’t necessarily on hatching new cities, but densification and interconnection of existing cities into clusters.

The challenges to this growth are already clear: China’s environmental reality is increasingly in headlines, acknowledged by leaders, and pushed by the people, with demands for additional accountability, transparency, and investment occurring through the media and even grassroots protests. With an additional 300 million Chinese becoming urban residents by 2030, they will also consume four times more energy and two and a half times more water per capita than rural Chinese, according to Elizabeth Economy with the Council of Foreign Relations. The green agenda doesn’t just apply to the cities though, but also where to locate manufacturing and its associated pollution in relation to cities—close to workers and coastal markets while aggravating health effects, or in the western interior areas near ecologically fragile regions? Qi Ye at Tsinghua University suggests that this tension is something the policy makers will need to grapple with. Perhaps a third path of heightened regulations and enforcement is necessary.

China’s approach has been to follow a pilot-based model of testing low carbon economic development in various cities, such as Shenzen’s  new carbon trading system. It expects to expand public transit lines significantly in 35 cities, reaching 150 million people. And it will begin to seek new designs for cities that raise quality and cultivate its human capital, perhaps by tapping into traditional values such as the home with a four-sided courtyard, while leveraging technology to increase productivity and improve the environment.

The Middle East’s embrace of green building

Meanwhile in the Middle East, Qatar, Kuwait, and UAE leading the World Bank’s list of highest CO2 emissions per capita. Qatar leads the way with 44 metric tons per person/year, whereas the U.S. has 17 metrics tons and the OECD average is 10 metric tons. Jones Lang LaSalle’s latest quarterly Global Sustainability Perspective, points out the specific best practices, trends, and challenges for sustainability in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) that are trying to resolve the energy-hungry growth. For example, electricity and cooling account for 40% of total operating costs for Grade A office buildings in UAE, and two-thirds of water in the region is supplied by oil-powered desalination plants. Much of the progress is currently driven by heightened adoption of green building, which is slowly building toward holistic vision around more sustainable cities.

65% of all certified green buildings in the MENA region are in the UAE, often encouraged by local policies:

  • Abu Dhabi – The Urban Planning Council’s Estidama system (“sustainability” in Arabic) utilizes a Pearl Rating System (PRS), on a 1 to 5 scale. All new buildings and community developments must meet one Pearl sustainability requirements, while government buildings are required to attain a two Pearl rating. More than 230 developments have been rated in this system.
  • Qatar—Adapted from international rating systems to suit local needs, the Qatar Sustainability Assessment System (QSAS) has certified more than 130 buildings.
  • Egypt—The Green Building Pyramid System  (GPRS) was developed by the Egypt Green Building Council (EGBC) with three levels of certification, with 80 buildings currently accredited.


Several visionary models of city development have been tested or proposed:

  • The well-known Masdar City in Abu Dhabi has a city-wide energy management system , currently powered by a significant share of on-site renewable energy. Streets are designed to be walkable with narrower designs to accommodate shading and oriented for passive wind cooling. They are also piloting Personal Rapid Transit and Freight Rapid Transit systems that utilize all-electric, automated, single-cabin vehicles, support the overall goal to ensure no destination is more than 300 meters from public transport. The goal is to achieve 3,000 PRT vehicles serving 130,000 trips per day.
  • Dubai Sustainable City is under construction to be completed in 2015, including an organic farm, environmental sciences university, 50% of power from solar farms, and electric vehicle transportation system.


However, these positive steps are only a fraction of the growth experienced in the region, and though sustainability ambitions and experimentation are high, sometimes outcomes fall short of expectations.

Together, these two regions pose interesting questions of how infrastructure will evolve to meet the productivity, environmental, and social needs in mixed use and energy-intensive future cities.

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