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Dubai and Shanghai examples
of wasteful urban development

By Darryl D’Monte*

15 December 2007: The danger of treating climate change only as a man-made phenomenon that impacts nature’s systems is that it posits the problem in some distant remoteness and absolves all of us of immediate responsibility. The facts tell us that three-quarters of the carbon dioxide in the world, which is the biggest greenhouse gas, is emitted by cities. Dubai and Shanghai are models that ought to be avoided, as they are examples of environmentally wasteful urban development.

One has only to remember that half the population of the globe is urban today. Half this carbon dioxide is contributed by buildings, which need to heat or cool their interiors; the rest is generated by motorised transport, which is growing exponentially in this country. This puts quite a different spin on climate change: it locates the problem squarely in our midst, as urban-dwellers.

As a recent issue of Down To Earth, the fortnightly magazine from the Centre for Science and Environment, puts it, cities are “earthscrapers”, rather than pockmarked only by skyscrapers. They consume inordinate amounts of energy and materials and are thus parasitical by nature. Cities account for one-sixth of the fresh water the world guzzles, a quarter of the wood harvested, and two-fifths of the material and energy flows. According to the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the most authoritative source on the issue, cities are responsible for 26 per cent of direct greenhouse gas emissions.

As is painfully evident from city after city in this country, urban development here is highly unsustainable. Many of the most successful architects revere the ghastly monstrosities of Shanghai and Dubai; some indeed have put up dizzy skyscrapers in the latter. A recent BBC-Travel and Living channel documentary extolled the (man-made!) wonders of Burj Al Arab, the hotel in the Burj Dubai complex. The highest tower in the complex will be 50 per cent taller than any other construction in the world. One of the hotel’s highlights is a water fountain in the foyer, from the core of which emanates a flame even as it cascades. While the programme waxed eloquent about the ingenuity of the designers who could harness the molecules of oxygen present in water to put to this wondrous use, any sensitive architect who is conscious of the need to reduce the impact of a building would squirm at the very idea. The Palm Islands site in Dubai is shaped like the fronds of a palm tree and consists of reclaimed frond-like strips which extend into the sea.

Indeed, city-dwellers would do well to study their ecological footprint. If all the productive resources on land and water were equally apportioned to each human being on earth, every person would be entitled to 1.2 hectares as a footprint - the area from which he or she would obtain natural resources. Each American, who is no exemplar when it comes to sustainable development, occupies around 10 hectares. The UAE is actually one worse - the world’s biggest offender, consuming resources from far beyond its national boundaries. No wonder, when one hears that it is proud to host snow sports -- bang in the middle of the desert! Global architects like Sir Richard Rogers, on the contrary, are always conscious of trying to reduce the footprint of their buildings.

As for Shanghai, which Mumbai wants to emulate, the less said the better. The high-rise financial district of Pudong has come up on paddy fields in the island off the famed bund or river front, but the buildings lack any identity and are enormously wasteful of energy and materials. China, in fact, is the very epitome of everything that has gone wrong with urban development. Only one per cent of the country’s 560 million city-dwellers breathe air considered safe by European standards. The International Energy Agency estimates that China will surpass the US as the country with the biggest greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year; the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency believes it has already breasted the tape.

Thus, both Dubai and Shanghai are models that ought to be avoided as they are examples of environmentally wasteful urban development. Not that our cities are success stories. None of the speakers at the Mumbai climate change conclave made any mention of the need to take a cold, hard look at the way cities are spinning out of control. Two factors - excessive reliance on private motorised transport, and the terrible tendency to go in for glass and concrete construction for high-rise buildings, which tend to trap the heat rather than shield the occupants from it - should be enough to understand that the problem doesn’t lie out there. The fault, to paraphrase Shakespeare, lies not only in our forests and mountains, but in ourselves.

*Darryl D'Monte was Resident Editor of The Times of India and The Indian Express in Mumbai. He writes a column on environment and development, which is published in several Indian newspapers and websites. His book Temples or Tombs? Industry Versus Environment was published in 1985. He is the chairperson of the Forum of Environmental Journalists in India. (Source: InfoChange News & Features)

Comment on this article
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...and 15 years later

China must learn
Author: Justin, Tel Aviv & Melbourne.
Submitted: 30 January 2008

Thank god! Someone has finall woken up to the absurdities of Dubai and Shanghai urban development.

I have been speaking these sentiments for some years now, it was almost as if you were reciting my thoughts.

You did neglect to mention of course Dubai's fantasmagorical 'the World' project, which is nothing less than the epitome of wastefullness and decadence - a throw back to Western planning culture now accepted as unsustainable.

How is it possible that China on the othet hand - with its fast paced development refuses to learn from the mistakes of the west - which we are now trying to rectify.

Take the Shanghai Deep Sea offshore port situated mid-ocean and connected to the city by a series of bridges spanning rediculous distances. The mind boggles at not only the amount of landscape degradation the port project required for its siting on the islands, and the waste of resources for the bridge construction - but the gasoline - how much gasoline is required to transport the goods arriving at the port!

On other pages
Cities are not the problem, but the solution in the battle for biodiversity
Disproportionate growth of the world's urban population could result in further loss of many forms of life on Earth, warn experts in the sciences of climate change and biodiversity. Nearly 200 years ago, London was the only city in the world with more than one million people. Today, across the globe, there are more than 400 cities of at least that size.

While these cities occupy only two per cent of the planet's surface, according to the United Nations report, World Population Prospects, their residents are responsible for at least 75 per cent of the resources consumed by the global population, including a huge quantity of fossil fuels. Climate change is one of the main forces responsible for the enormous loss of biodiversity on Earth, say scientists specialising in these fields. Long-term changes in average temperatures can dramatically alter the habitats that provide life support for plant and animal species. With more than 3.2 billion people residing in the cities, for the first time the world's urban population now exceeds the number of those living in rural areas.

Since their appearance on earth, human beings have never destroyed the web of life as much as during the past 50 years, according to the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report. It shows that before the industrial era, nearly 47 per cent of the Earth's land surface was covered with forests; today the planet is left with only 10 per cent of that.

"We are consuming more natural resources than can be regenerated," says Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. "We are living beyond the means and capacities of our planet." More