Meet Dubai’s Green Families

Shatha Al Kaud still remembers the figure on her first Dewa bill after moving into her home in The Sustainable City in December 2016. ‘My husband showed it to me and it was only 27 fils,’ says Shatha. ‘I was in complete disbelief.’ The family – Shatha, her husband Yaroob Al Sayegh and their two kids, 11-year-old Seba and 7-year old Nasser – had just moved into their villa fitted with solar panels that December.

It was winter and there was not much use of the air conditioner. ‘But 27 fils! That was unbelievable. I wanted to frame that piece of paper,’ remembers Shatha, who has embraced a change in her lifestyle and that of her family’s after living in Dubai’s net-zero-energy community for the last one-and-a-half years.

Before moving to The Sustainable City the Saudi family lived in The Arabian Ranches. ‘We were happy out there but we were at that stage of life when we wanted to move to a bigger home.

‘We started looking for a place that would be closer to school and our workplaces. But around the same time, something within me was changing as well. I was embracing minimalism and wanted my kids to understand the importance of giving back to nature and community. When you live in a manmade city, you are surrounded with all the concrete and I was slowly beginning to desire a more basic and simple life.’ So, when a friend suggested that Al Kaud have a look at The Sustainable City just next door to the Ranches, she was pleasantly surprised.

‘I didn’t know about this car-free community, where you could grow your own food in a patch of land next to your home.’

One-and-a-half years later Shatha, an innovation consultant, is still in awe of the place. ‘I have always followed Dubai’s sustainable initiatives closely. Even when living in the Ranches, we used to carry all our used stuff in the car to deposit it at recycling points in the city. But living here I now know the value of growing your own food or buying local produce that reduces the carbon footprint of transporting and importing.

‘I can feel the joy of walking around for my basic needs, understanding that fitness is not just about hitting the gym but overall well-being. I love watching my children wander off without having to fear for their security, being comfortable in getting to know my neighbours and helping their families. This is something I didn’t experience before. I didn’t understand that society would be such an important part of sustainability,’ says Shatha.

Shatha and her family are not alone. Many residents in the UAE are consciously choosing to live more sustainably by moving into communities that support their beliefs regarding living responsibly. From The Sustainable City to Al Barari, that promotes conservation of bio diversity by using local species in landscaping and promoting pedestrian movement, and the low-carbon sustainable urban development Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, communities in the UAE are giving new meaning to the term sustainable living..

Richard Fenne, principal and studio chair at Woods Bagot sums it up well. A sustainable community, he says, is one that meets the diverse needs of residents – both now and in the future. They are not only environmentally sensitive but also provide a high quality of life, integrating social and economic factors.

‘As architects we place great importance on designing communities that provide a human-centered experience,’ says Richard, who has worked on the Etihad Eco Residences project at Masdar City – an award winning LEED Platinum rated building.

‘From the outset of the project at Masdar we followed an integrated design process involving all stakeholders to ensure the building design was cognisant of social, environmental, economic and cultural factors.’

Shatha and her family would agree. Lower electricity and water bills have not been the only blessing of living in The Sustainable City. ‘While our Dewa bills have gone down 50 to 60 per cent from what we were paying earlier, what have also dropped are our allergy issues. The houses are built in such a way that when you have the air-conditioner on in the corridors, you don’t need it in the bedrooms. And the less we’ve used our ACs, the healthier we’ve been.’

What has gone up is the family’s fitness levels. ‘We walk to the pool and gym. My children and I bike around more often. And because this is a mixed-use community, we get all our supplies here. Also little things like my daughter choosing to do her music lessons here, and me signing up for yoga classes in the community means we don’t have to drive out so often. This obviously helps to lower the carbon imprint,’ explains Shatha.

She admits that her husband was initially sceptical of the benefits of the solar panels. ‘He always said, in Dubai people will never leave their cars and go walking unless they believe in something. But after having lived here you realise that a lot of people share similar beliefs and there is that thread of commonality that binds us. This lifestyle is not what we had expected when we moved here but it has been life-transforming.’

The Sustainable City opened its doors to residents in 2016 and now has almost 510 families living here. While Phase 1 has been primarily residential (five residential clusters and 100 villas in each cluster) and mixed-use, Phase 2 (under construction) will have a hotel, school, hospital and innovation centre.

The community is completely car-free. Electric vehicles allow residents to move within the residential clusters. There are also 11 bio domes that run along the green spine of the City – areas that are used for growing herbs and vegetables. While residents get their share of fresh produce free of cost every month from these bio domes, the rest is sold outside at supermarkets like Zoom.

There is also an urban farming area where families can lease a plot of land on an annual basis and grow their own food, an animal sanctuary to rehome goats and donkeys, free range hens and ducks and beehives (the community recently purchased 250 new hives), an equestrian club and a dog park. The vegetation in The Sustainable City have been chosen for their ability to create shade, fix nitrogen in the soil, clean the air, create habitats and a cooler microclimate.

The community also produces 100 per cent of the electricity that it consumes through solar panels, which have been installed on the rooftops of every villa, and on the parking covers. It also recycles its water with two networks: one grey and one black. The recycled grey water is used in the productive landscape, which is the farm that produces herbs and vegetables, while the black-water network helps to maintain the community’s green landscape.

Kristen with husband Juan and daughter Maya inside a biodome
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Kristen Bocanegra, a fitness expert, who moved to Dubai from Washington DC a year and a half back with her husband Juan, daughter Maya and two large dogs, is another resident who feels totally at home here. ‘I think we got really lucky finding a home here. Most people in the community know my three-year-old by her name. That’s how close residents are. And it makes me feel so much safe and at home.’

Among the other benefits of living in The Sustainable City, what Kristen really enjoys is the luxury of the open space. ‘When you have a child, you just want to spend most of the time outdoors. So every day it’s like, ‘Maya do you want to see the ducks, the hens and the horses?’ We have several play parks, a pool and tot lots, and everything is within walking distance.’

The Bocanegras enjoy the outdoor area and the well-planned landscape
Anas Thacharpadikkal

The importance of having the support of the community is something Kristen appreciates. ‘Within the first few weeks of moving here, our neighbour, a former Danish triathlete, came visiting us. He was trying to start a triathlon training group and asked me if I would like to take care of the swimming component. There’s a lot of bonding that takes place here, and it’s up to you how you want to get involved. There is community gardening and garden parties where you can bring your own produce, families that offer to cook food for workers; someone I know makes Boomerang bags from scrap materials, like old clothes and curtains, that are collected when people move out.’

Clearly, the joy and bonhomie shared by the residents helped The Sustainable Community bag The Happiest Community award at the 2018 Gulf Real Estate Awards. From families inviting each other at Ramadan iftars to reading classes and volunteer programmes, the involvement of residents is truly amazing.

Kristen, like Shatha, admits a drop in electricity bills. She is glad to be able to monitor the AC in every single room, and as a family they recycle almost everything. ‘We have different coloured bins for plastic, glass and cardboard. Old toys and clothes are passed down to those who need it, and there is also a special machine that provides us with ozone-rich water to clean our homes with,’ she says.

Shatha agrees with Kristen about the reduce-reuse-recycle philosophy. ‘The Sustainable City has made it easier for us to recycle. My children are aware that something has to go out in order for something new to get inside the house. So they often sit outside with their boxes of old books and toys, arranging a quick sale, and people actually come and buy.

‘We also have community flea markets for old clothes and accessories, and I think people who come to live here have that mindset of using things that are pre-loved. Earlier I did not realise the waste that often happens in our homes, but I see it now and there are ways we try to reduce it.’

The Blakes – Melanie, Martin are delighted to be living in Al Barari
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Twenty minutes and almost 25 kilometres away, at the plush Al Barari, the Blake family is happy to have embraced good environmental practices with their choice of home in a city they have recently moved to. Martin and Malanie Blake, financial investors from the Suffolk-Essex border in England, moved to Dubai in December with their children Arabella, Clementine and Edward and their two dogs.

‘We lived in rural England, so in order to move down here we needed our home to be in a green environment. Also back in England we have been very conscious of our carbon imprint. So we did our research and were blown away by Al Barari and [the developer] Zaal Mohammed Zaal family’s philosophy,’ says Martin.

The Blake family’s villa in The Nest has an abundance of natural light
Anas Thacharpadikkal

The family’s beautiful villa in The Nest has an abundance of natural light and shade, and supports an energy-efficient home system where residents are encouraged to recycle domestic waste through the community’s underground waste collection system.

‘The first time we drove off the motorway and entered the community we felt as if we had entered an oasis of peace and calm. The landscape’s high density planting just makes it so much cooler here. We walk or cycle at ease almost everywhere and because we work from home, the only time we take out our car is for school pick up and drop offs,’ says Melanie.

‘We walk to the gym, and The Farm for a quick meal and because of the plantation and the network of gardens, the walkways are quite shaded.’

Melanie, who loves the communities focus on health and wellness, adds: ‘I think living here being surrounded by such a beautiful environment has made us better human beings. Imagine stepping out of the gym and getting to see a gazelle cross your path. Or a peacock. Also I am vegan and my family is part vegetarian so just walking down to The Farm and enjoying an organic vegan meal makes so much of a difference.’

Sixty per cent of the community is open green space, making Al Barari the UAE’s lowest density development. There are 425,000 square feet of naturally filtered lakes, freshwater streams, cascades and waterways. The community uses smart irrigation systems to ensure that plants are not overwatered and there are local species of plants with a focus on low-maintenance, varieties. There are pedestrian-only laneways and playgrounds and family areas.

‘For my children, it’s a great place to move around without us being worried about their safety. We have always been concerned about our carbon footprint and when we moved here we were even more conscious about it when choosing our home. Today it is so much more importance to separate your waste and reuse your food waste. We never use any plastic and all our leftovers go into compost. We have been so happy here that five months into living in The Nest, we have invested in a bigger villa in The Residences where we plan to move in another six weeks,’ says Martin.

Living in sustainable communities clearly help change attitudes, say experts. Karim Aljisr, executive director of the See Nexus Institute, the knowledge and consultancy arm of Diamond Developers at Sustainable City, makes an important observation when he says, ‘Good habits are contagious. So even if people don’t come in with sustainability in mind or don’t believe in neighbour to neighbour sharing, it all changes when they start living in a community that believes in these values.’

Shatha could not agree more. ‘I was always hoping for this lifestyle and I tried to create it in my house but doing it alone didn’t make much of a difference. It is only when you become a part of the community that shares your belief that things become possible.’