Saudi Arabia Plots out a Sustainable Future

Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us
Solar power farm in Saudi Arabia / Evwind.us

“If Saudi Arabia can do this, any place can,” said Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable consulting at multi-disciplinary design firm HOK, at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas. The conservative Muslim country is planning a move away from oil towards clean energy and a shift away from totally car-centric communities to those that offer public transit and encourage walking and biking. Saudi Arabia realizes it must go green to survive.

Saudi Arabian government officials see peak oil coming by 2028, with exports declining precipitously after that. This is a major issue for the Saudi Arabian economy because oil accounts for 80 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Saudi Arabia, with a population of 28 million, expects to have 35 million more people by 2040. This means the country needs to further diversify its economy away from the oil industry, which offers relatively few jobs, while concentrating population growth in cities as soon as possible. Landreneau said Saudi leaders recognize that “the economy will collapse” if they don’t move to a more sustainable approach.

Working with Saudi Aramco, which is tasked with leading a country-wide plan for sustainability and a new mandatory energy efficiency policy, HOK created new urban plans, including zoning schemes and low-carbon transportation systems, all vital parts of a more sustainable approach. Landreneau and her team proposed a set of sustainable urban development best practices to improve diversity and increase density for mixed-use developments. Saudi Arabia’s cities are now in the process of bringing their zoning up to HOK’s standards.

While HOK found that a new, sustainable urban development strategy could save 50 percent of the energy consumption and carbon emissions from the built environment, Saudi Arabia really wants to transform their cities in order to improve quality of life, safety, affordability, and health. Health is a major focus because obesity rates are around 35 percent due to the car-centric environment and sedentary lifestyles in the kingdom. These numbers are even higher than those in the U.S.

HOK and Saudi planners laid out plans that take aim at cars, finding that “there could be a 30 percent reduction in emissions with public transit.” But to get there, even bus stops will need to provide shade and air conditioning for a country with summer temperatures that top 120 degrees, and be designed to separate the sexes.

And even with widely-available mass transit, reducing car use will be a real challenge. A typical family may own up to 5 cars, in part because subsidized gasoline is so cheap. “Getting them down to 2,3 or just 1 will take cultural change.” Nevermind other ways to reduce car use: “car sharing was laughed out of the room, and the idea of charging for parking was like culture shock.”

Contrary to popular perceptions, “Saudis will walk” and the younger generation may bicycle. Traditional neighborhoods have pathways that act as shortcuts, which Saudis often walk. And corniches — seaside promenades — can attract pedestrians. “Designing a beautiful public realm will get Saudis outside.” As for bicycling, “the young generation will contemplate it.”

Saudi Arabian cities also need comprehensive water management strategies. While the country is often dry, flash storms can overwhelm and create flooding problems. “Shared green spaces could handle runoff.” And on the flip side, dealing with water efficiency issues, Landreneau’s team told the government “not to develop landscapes that cannot be irrigated with what you have.”

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