Integrating sustainable urban development with the unique culture of the region will be critical to transforming Arab cities. The biggest takeaway from this panel was that a balanced approach that looks to the past as well as the future and that looks at social, environmental and cultural issues as well as economic ones works best. “The cities we are born into now will not be the same cities we die in,” Ms. Dergham said. “How do we depict the shape of these cities? What will future generations say? It will be different than we think, not just about the beauty of the buildings.”
The UAE is in many ways a role model for the future. The Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development works with a diverse group of industries and government entities and has conducted workshops throughout the country to discover the best way to set their agenda. What they found was that although cultural entities have a need for spaces, building new facilities is not always the best solution.
“We have places such as the distinguished Louvre Abu Dhabi, but we still have a limited number of cultural spaces,” H.E. Al Darmaki said. “But it is not necessary to build new infrastructure every time. How can we utilize the buildings we have? Some say the country was only established in 1971. For such a young country how do you have heritage? This country is leading the way. We are working on a list of our heritage sites to show that the UAE has a long-standing history. And we are asking ourselves how we can preserve the buildings we have now.”
The Ministry’s interest in history has led to projects across the Arab world that are focused on reconstructing important infrastructure. The UAE designated this year as the Year of Tolerance, and in homage to this the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, H.E. Noura Al Kaabi, announced the UAE would fund the restoration of two churches destroyed by ISIS in Mosul. Together with the United Nations, Abu Dhabi is currently restoring the Al Nuri mosque in Mosul, which H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, took particular interest in.
“His Highness wanted to give the residents of Mosul hope,” H.E. Al Darmaki said. “Also, because it is a heritage site, it benefits the entire world. But even with this project we focused on sustainability. The rebuilding has created a thousand job opportunities, and when it is completed tourism will flourish, so it is good for the community.”
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum of urban development, the Hyperloop is a concept that aims to transport passengers at high speeds using pods traveling through sealed tubes that are free of air resistance. Because the system uses no electricity, it would be considerably cheaper to build and maintain and would put less strain on the environment. Mr. Gresta leads a team of 800 professionals in 40 countries, including the UAE, where they are building a five-kilometre prototype “track.” Although the project is very futuristic, Mr. Gresta believes that understanding the past is crucial to his team’s success
“When we talk of sustainability, we need to look to the past so that we do not create 10 new problems for just one solution. We need to change our mindset and embed sustainability as a design criteria.”
The Hyperloop project received some good news at the South by Southwest conference held in Austin, Texas in March when the U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that the federal government is looking into deregulating new forms of transport. Hyperloop also announced that they would offer stock in the company to people who volunteer their time to work on the project. “The project is very complicated,” Mr. Gresta said. “The reality is if you really want to do it well you need technological expertise, so we thought we would crowd-source it.”
This bottom-up approach to problem-solving was also a theme of Dr. Iskandar’s talk. Before she served as Egypt’s Minister of State for Urban Renewal and Informal Settlements, Dr. Iskandar worked in deprived areas of the country. She believes that the residents of these neighbourhoods have much to offer to urban planners but are often ignored. She noted, for example, that the spirit of entrepreneurship can thrive in informal settlements, but manifests itself in unusual ways. “These people do not see ‘waste,’ they see opportunity,” she said. “They do not recycle, but rather harvest material. In doing so they create seven jobs for every ton of material.”
She has the support of current Prime Minster, Mostafa Madbouly, who started a program that pairs residents of informal settlements with NGOs, academics, and legal experts to provide support for their businesses. And urban developers in Egypt are new being reminded that for every new neighbourhood they plan they need to consider people’s livelihoods. “We have built new neighborhoods in the past at great cost, but we didn’t provide spaces for informal settlements,” Dr. Iskandar said. “We must not repeat this. Cities are not just about housing, but spaces for SMEs, mom and pop shops, and other livelihoods.”
An example of a city that successfully integrated its past into current designs is Chefchaouen in the northwest of Morocco. Known as “the Blue City” for the predominant color of its walls, Chefchaouen has also transformed itself into an environmentally friendly city that has cut its electricity usage by a third in the past decade. Mr. Sefiani was elected mayor of the city in 2009, and has overseen the urban renewal. His first order of business was talking to residents and businesses and getting them to collaborate on solutions. It turns out many of the answers came from the city’s past.
“Before innovation, we looked at local creativity, as they understand their own heritage best,” he said. “The citizens had a tradition of painting the walls of their houses blue. Even when it comes to sustainability, the locals have a beautiful respect for the environment that comes from their Andalusian ancestors.”
Ms. Dergham wrapped up the panel by asking each of the speakers to highlight their immediate focus.
“Translating ambition into reality,” H.E. Al Darmaki said.“We are proud of our achievements, but we are focused on implementing our cultural agenda for 2031.”
“Our cities should be inclusive and have no inequality,” Dr. Iskandar said. “There is a disturbing trend of the affluent living in compounds, while the less well-off must cope with transport that is not great and separates them.”
“After one year working with a top insurance company, we have discovered the Hyperloop is safe and insurable,” Mr. Gresta said. “Now we are working with stakeholders in the 11 countries that have invested in the project to design a framework for regulation, which we want to do in a way that makes it safe and affordable.”
“We must remember that while there are places that are in a good place, there are also places that are in pain,” Mr. Sefiani said. “I hope we don’t forget them because they are our heritage.”