Solving urban challenges in the 22nd century

Solving urban challenges in the 22nd century

Solving urban challenges in the 22nd century
Solving urban challenges in the 22nd century
Short Url

Throughout history, dense human settlements have been trading centers, drawing more and more people in. However, despite centuries of human development, unplanned urbanization has usually been the norm. 

This is often characterized by human sprawl, inefficient land use, poor connectivity, and a lack of adequate municipal services wherein municipal authorities struggle to maintain and build suitable infrastructure for growing cities. At the same time, contemporary cities are designed primarily around individual transportation needs with expansive road networks that overtake the natural environment, having become synonymous with traffic congestion, increased pollution, and high energy bills. 

The scale of modern urbanization is astounding. While only 29 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 1950, it is estimated that by 2050, almost 70 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas. The world is projected to have 43 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants by 2030.

The reality of the modern world, therefore, is that people will be centered around cities, bringing questions of land usage, environmental protection, health and longevity, infrastructure, and transportation to the fore. This means that we need to reconsider our cityscapes and work with policymakers, investors, and businesses to ensure that these growing cities are inclusive, sustainable, prosperous, and provide the quality of life needs of the generations to come.

Tackling these issues head-on today is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where cities are being challenged and reconceived in more than one way. Given the impact of urban economies on the national economy, urban areas are more than just centers for productivity. In Saudi Arabia, by 2020, 85 percent of the population was living in urban areas. However, similar to countries all around the world, urbanization in Saudi Arabia over the years has usually meant horizontal expansion. Between 1990 and 2014 the built-up area of Riyadh grew at an average annual rate of 9.4 percent, from 30,305 to 95,861 hectares. Some 92 percent of the city’s population currently depends on private transportation, which puts pressure on the city’s extensive road network.

It is important to note that in line with the objectives of Vision 2030 for quality of life, investment into transportation to meet the country’s needs has seen Riyadh’s road network expanded and the development of integrated public transportation, ranging from a public bus system to the first metro network. It is expected that in time, public transportation will become ubiquitous and the main mode of transport for the city’s populace.

These challenges — population growth and land use, transportation and mobility, pollution and climate change, infrastructure and connectivity — have been at the heart of our work in developing and operating the King Abdullah Financial District. Rather than expand outward, or horizontally, while building a business district in which people can work, live, play, and learn, KAFD was designed as a vertical city across a land area of approximately 1.6 sq. km. Today, it is Saudi Arabia’s first vertical city solution to urban growth and prosperity, and a leading regional business and lifestyle destination with over 1 million sq. meters of Grade A office spaces, approximately 344,000 sq. Meters of apartments and over 330,000 sq. meters of retail, entertainment, and food and beverage spaces. Comprising five distinct asset classes within its distinctive portfolio, KAFD’s 95 buildings provide the public with their workspaces, luxury living, exclusive retail and hospitality offerings as well as a lively entertainment calendar while promising educational opportunities for our youth community.

A smart, sustainable, and eco-friendly 10-minute city, we have created a walkable urban environment in which all necessary amenities are within 10 minutes of home and work. Our mixed-use building model means that everything is integrated, combining office and residential, as well as shops, restaurants, and entertainment options in addition to educational facilities, all within the complex and a climate-controlled 10-minute walk, with the aid of over 40 sky bridges, electric scooters and a ridesharing mobility solution in addition to a monorail, spanning a distance of over 3.5 km.

Globally, cities account for between 60 and 80 percent of energy consumption and generate as much as 70 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. 

Conscious of the existential impact on urban populations, we have been integrating green infrastructure into the design of streets, street networks, and open spaces in an effective way to enhance their flexibility and multi-functionality. Indeed, creating networks of green areas and green spaces will allow better responses to future pandemics while also providing co-benefits for climate change mitigation, adaptation, and health by restoring and regenerating natural ecosystems. At KAFD, over the last two years, we have planted over 4,000 trees and 150,000 shrubs in addition to groundcover plants, seasonal flowers, and much more.

Similarly, our central Wadi, a pedestrian zone that connects all the areas, was cleverly designed and built 5 meters below the surrounding city’s street level. This ensures that the Wadi maintains a cooler temperature than central Riyadh, through a cleverly designed master plan by the Danish architects Henning Larsen, making this central zone a comfortable space throughout the year. Embodying innovative climate solutions, KAFD has revolutionized urban living, altering the dynamics of how communities inhabit, work, and recreate.

While the city was designed with sustainability in mind, ranging from energy consumption to water usage; in addressing climate change, we have introduced a range of innovative solutions like the use of Solar Heat Reflective coatings on surfaces to reduce heat absorption and energy consumption, minimizing the heat island effect and enhancing the comfort of our tenants, employees, and residents. Our buildings are, on average 10-15 percent more energy-efficient than conventional buildings due to the high Solar Reflectance Index maintained. Water conservation is another crucial aspect of our sustainability efforts. KAFD buildings are designed to be 20-30 percent more water-efficient than conventional structures. Gray water is recycled in a majority of our buildings. We operate the city with a keen eye to the vulnerabilities associated with climate change and are constantly testing new technologies to enable us to better measure and ensure efficiency to decrease our energy consumption levels.

As a result of this undertaking to build and operate a new urban solution, our efforts have been recognized internationally. KAFD was the first district in the Kingdom to be awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development Stage 2 Platinum certification in 2020, the highest possible accreditation from the world’s leading authority for green buildings — the US Green Building Council. It is the largest mixed-use financial center in the world to be recognized for its commitment to sustainability with over 40 individual Silver and Gold LEED-certified buildings ranging from office towers to residential and landmark buildings. We believe this model represents lessons for designers, architects and developers, municipal experts, and many more.

Urbanization is the future of humanity and cities have to be smarter than ever about how they position their neighborhoods and economies for the maximum benefit of all residents while also creating quality, decent, and productive jobs, safeguarding the environment, and improving their city’s quality of life. This is a challenge that we, as developers, urban planners, and government authorities can address, and indeed, are addressing in the Kingdom for a better urban future for our communities. The type of solutions that KAFD offers provide many learnings for our cities’ present and future, wherever we are in the world.

  • Gautam Sashittal is CEO of the King Abdullah Financial District Development & Management Co.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view