As global warming engulfs the planet, the Middle East is becoming increasingly uninhabitable.
Dubai Design Week, which is currently taking place, offers insights into how young designers in the region are trying to adapt to a hotter future. At the Global Grad Show, where design and architecture students share solutions for social and environmental problems, many of the ideas center on solving problems currently affecting the Middle East.
As COP26—the United Nations Climate Conference—continues in Glasgow, Scotland, tens of thousands of young people have taken to the streets expressing frustration with how world leaders are tackling (or not tackling) the climate catastrophe. Activist Greta Thunberg, for instance, argued that the conference was “exclusionary,” leaving out the voices of those most affected by climate change.
Young Middle Easterners already seeing global warming wreak havoc on their lives certainly fit into that category. Dima Banat, for instance, grew up in Jordan and moved to Abu Dhabi to pursue a degree in architecture. She’s in her early 20s and she’s observed that over the course of her own short lifetime, the temperature in the region has gotten hotter. As an architect, she’s been thinking about how global warming might change the landscape of cities, from trapping heat to causing floods.
For Samer Ibrahim, who is from Lebanon and recently finished his architecture degree, the onslaught of global warming is a source of great anxiety, but he has not yet given up hope that humanity can avert the worst disasters. “I am hopeful, but also I have my concerns,” he says. “People have been trying to tackle global warming for a long time, but I think it only takes one tipping point to cause change to happen quickly. As designers and architects, it is our responsibility to come up with effective, convincing solutions.”
Here are three standout ideas from the Global Grad Show from Banat, Ibrahim, and architect Danyia Najee that could help the Middle East adapt to climate change—and avert future disaster.
Green spaces in the desert
Banat was inspired by mangroves as she created her project, called Al Selah. The mangrove is one of the most important trees in the United Arab Emirates, known for growing in salty water, surviving harsh weather conditions, and filtering out salt and toxins through its root system. The resilience of this vegetation inspired Banat to develop a skyscraper that floats on the water in the Mangrove National Park in Abu Dhabi. The structure itself is inspired by the mangrove—the roots are represented by a base connected to the water, the stem is the central building, and the leaves are platforms full of plants and trees.
The purpose of the building, Banat says, is to bring the city of Abu Dhabi into nature, and simultaneously bring nature into the city. The structure is designed to house offices, homes, and shops. People who walk through it will be surrounded by lush vegetation, and also have a view of the park around it. Besides being beautiful, Banat has designed this structure to deal with some of the immediate effects of climate change. Abu Dhabi is a modern metropolis without much greenery; introducing greenery into these buildings could cool the city temperatures by providing shade and moisture, while actively capturing carbon.
Climate change is likely to lead to extreme weather patterns in the Middle East, including flooding, Banat says. This is why she strategically located the building on a body of water. “Researchers say that a floating community could be a possible solution to this looming crisis of flooding,” she says.
A place to preserve local crops
Global warming is creating harsher conditions for growing food in the Middle East, which will lead to more food insecurity and famine in the region. A majority of produce in the United Arab Emirates is imported, and over time, this could mean that some local crops may go extinct.
Anteseedent, a project by Danyia Najee, who recently graduated from the architecture program at the American University in Dubai, is a complex of buildings that contains a system to protect seeds in a vault under the soil until they are strong enough to penetrate the surface. The site would also serve as a place to educate the public on seed science and crop biodiversity so they can take an active role in preserving these crops for the next generation.
Bringing urban farming to Beirut
To tackle food shortages and also create more green spaces in the city of Beirut, Ibrahim proposes building a system of stunning vertical farms. The mixed-use buildings will feature residential homes and shops, connected by walkways that feature trees and vines, encouraging social interaction in the midst of nature. “One problem is that there is a lack of community in cities,” he says. “There is also a loss of connection between people and nature. My project is designed to solve the social, environmental, and economic problems in the city; it’s designed to benefit the planet but also the well-being of the people living on it.”
Ibrahim’s project, which he calls Beirut Urban Utopia, is designed to be a “vertical envelope” built around a tall building. The envelope will feature creeping plants and trees to provide shade and moisture, while allowing airflow to move strategically throughout the structure. Less energy would be required to cool buildings, in a region where air-conditioning is a must to be livable. Within these buildings, Ibrahim envisions a system of hydroponic farms that will be aesthetically pleasing, while also providing food for those living and working within the space.
Importantly, Ibrahim says that this envelope concept can be retrofitted onto any existing building, which is far easier than tearing buildings down and rebuilding them more sustainably. “As architects and designers, we have a responsibility to come up with solutions that don’t have an enormous carbon footprint to execute,” he says.