Foreward & Executive Summary | Cities Alive: Rethinking Cities in Arid Environments

Foreward to ARUP's "Cities Alive: Rethinking Cities in Arid Environments" by Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Climate change and its effect on global water cycles will be a defining marker of the 21st Century and will significantly impact not only the natural environment but human civilization as we know it. Tackling climate change is the biggest challenge the human race has ever faced, because it requires a fundamental shift away from the economic model that has created huge material advances over the last two hundred years. But it is also an opportunity to create a different model of living that is both more sustainable and enables every global citizen to enjoy a quality of life that is today the preserve of only a minority. 

Cities are integral to tackling the global challenges or climate change and the water shortage for three primary reasons. First, cities are the major theatres of climate impacts such as drought and flooding. Second, because mayors more than any other group of political leaders have demonstrated a capacity to collaborate against climate change. Third, because cities are where the future happens first and so are the birthplace of the new, clean, climate-safe and equitable world. 

Arup’s Cities Alive series provides an overview of future trends that cities face and how we can best understand these trends in shaping more sustainable cities. Cities Alive: Rethinking Cities in Arid Environments marks an important step towards understanding the resilience of cities facing water scarcity. It underlines the importance of considering the unique social, economic, environmental and political characteristics of each city to identify tailored solutions for cities in an arid environment. 

C40 brings together the megacities of the world to turn the Paris Agreement into action. Created and led by cities, C40 is focused on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks.


Executive Summary by Hrvoje Cindrić, Associate, Middle East Urbanism Leader, ARUP

Arid environments are characterised by a natural scarcity of fresh water and precipitation. Currently arid environments cover over 30% of the world’s land surface, a percentage that is set to increase with climate change in the coming century. Cities in these regions face complex challenges such as water scarcity, inadequate infrastructure, rapidly growing populations, and impacts on public health from the effects of urban heat islands.

Yet most cities in arid environments are still planned and designed based on a global city making paradigm established during the middle parts of the 20th century. This one-size-fits-all approach, characterised by private car ownership and separate land uses connected by highway networks, fails to respond to specific climatic contexts and needs.

Planners, engineers and decision makers working in arid environments require climate appropriate design solutions to create sustainable and livable cities. Future responses must be tailored to specific social, economic, environmental and political conditions, combining the best of new technology with locally adapted solutions. 

This report capitalises on Arup’s pioneering work on projects in arid environments, daily the Arabian Gulf region, Southern Africa and the American Southwest. It contains ideas and case studies from around the world that showcase best practices in sustainable design for arid cities. 

Cities Alive: Rethinking Cities in Arid Environments proposes a strategic rethink of how we plan and design cities in arid regions. Unprecedented advances in technological innovation have opened up new opportunities to develop arid cities in a more sustainable and resilient way. At the same time, there are lessons that can be learned from arid cities that have developed district design vernaculars over millennia. 

The imperative to cities in arid environments to plan, design and build more sustainable and resilient cities is clear. Adopting strategies that combine technological innovation with locally adapted and climatically appropriate solutions can help cities and communities mitigate the effects of climate change and provide positive long-term social, environmental and economic benefits.

The report explores climate specific design strategies for arid cities together with case studies and reflections from leading practitioners who have experience implementing solutions. They include strategies for effective groundwater management, pioneering landscape and irrigation techniques, recommendations for innovative buildings and materials and sustainable urban design approaches. 

The strategies, case studies and reflections in the report were generated through a series of global workshops, have been grouped under three scales reflecting the wide ranging expertise of the contributors. The report is structured by level of deal from cities, to public spaces, to individual buildings. 

The report concludes with a list of possible actions on how the strategies, case studies and reflections can help shape the necessary re-design and development of cities in arid environments; making them more sustainable, healthier and better places to live. 

The actions are a first step and are intended to trigger debate and exchange between cities.