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July 2016

Over the last century, urbanisation has been increasing at a dramatic rate, and is expected to keep growing significantly for the remainder of this century. A fast-growing urban population, coupled with climate change, has created significant challenges on how our cities can improve the quality of our lives, whilst also reducing our impact on the environment. The creation of sustainable cities is no longer a choice…it has become a necessity.

Sustainable cities

A common definition of a sustainable city is one that provides the highest quality of life together with the lowest environmental footprint, whilst also ensuring that the needs of future generations are not compromised. Although there are other definitions of sustainable cities, such as the three pillars of sustainability, social, economic and environmental or the three Ps (People, Planet and Profit.) I believe that the backbone to the next generation of sustainable cities is about empowering people, it’s about creating empowering cities.

The current system for urban planning is essentially a ‘top down’ system. They are usually initiated from the perspective of central decision-makers, and tend to neglect the people at the bottom who tend to have the best knowledge of the needs and demands of their local areas. While this top-down system does little to encourage community involvement or ownership of proposals, it is also a waste of resources due to a lack of understanding of what’s really happening on the ground, as each community will most likely have different needs. What if we could flip this model, and empower people from the bottom-up?

Bottom-up entrepreneurship

If cities focused on investing in young companies that offered innovative products or services in various sectors such as health, water, agriculture, education or renewable energy as a few examples; they will be nurturing entrepreneurial spirit from the bottom-up. This inward investment will create more green jobs and will most likely result in a new way of thinking about cities.

A good example of this bottom-up entrepreneurship is UAE-based Eco Resort Group, founded by a new generation of eco-minded entrepreneurs, all focusing on creating the world’s greenest eco resorts in the UAE and the MENA region.

The newly launched Oasis Eco Resort will be located in Abu Dhabi’s Liwa region, and is scheduled to open in 2020. The project aims to be one of the world’s greenest eco resorts; some of its environmental benefits include recycling waste water on site for irrigation, onsite waste management, the enforcement of a zero emission zone and 157,000 square feet of solar panels.

The restaurant and bar will provide guests with organic ingredients grown on site. Guests are also able to forage organic produce from onsite allotments or catch fish from the spring that runs through the resort, and with the help of a chef, incorporate the ingredients into a delicious meal. A wide selection of fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy and local meat will also be delivered from farms in the nearby village.

This Oasis Eco Resort will be a significant step for Ecotourism in the UAE and the entire MENA region. It’s significant because uncontrolled conventional tourism causes harm to natural areas, by putting excess pressure on the area which can lead to impacts such as increased pollution, soil erosion, loss of natural habitats and endangered species. It puts pressure on water resources, and it can force local populations to compete for the use of critical resources.

Eco Resorts, such as this one, have the potential to create beneficial effects on the environment by contributing to environmental protection and conservation. This Oasis Eco Resort will raise awareness of environmental values through educational programmes and experiences. The resort will also serve as a tool to protect the natural area and increase its economic importance.

Whilst Eco Resort Group are a good example of this bottom-up entrepreneurship, I believe that there will be a growing trend in the development of eco resort destinations in the UAE. Some of these eco resort destinations can make a significant contribution in growing a green economy and growing the UAE’s ecotourism sector. Sometimes young eco-minded entrepreneurs are the key to achieving a sustainable future, and that’s why we need to invest more in grass-roots.


The UAE is home to some of the most stunning and natural attractions. There are many spectacular landscapes to experience such as beaches, mountains, deserts, wadis and the sea. People should make the most of the natural beauty here whilst minimising their impact on the environment.

The UAE also has an ambitious goal of becoming one of the most sustainable countries in the world. By 2021, the UAE is expecting to welcome 45 million people, of which 31 million will be international tourists. Transforming this rapidly growing sector into a green economy by creating eco resorts, will place the UAE at the top of the growing ecotourism market whilst diversifying its economy. Ecotourism captures USD 77 billion of the global market and is experiencing double-digit gains that are likely to accelerate as concern about global warming rises.

Ecotourism provides more than environmental benefits, such as economic and socio-cultural benefits. Another benefit of Ecotourism is the creation of job opportunities for locals, creating a more diversified economy. Ecotourism also helps preserve the region’s heritage and provide greater interaction with the native population.

Whilst Ecotourism provides a great opportunity to invest in at grass-root levels, there are many other areas of opportunities where young eco-minded entrepreneurs can contribute to creating a sustainable future. These include urban mobility, renewable energy, water conservation and affordable housing to name a few.

Ultimately, designing for a sustainable future is less about a top-down approach to design or city planning. It is about fostering an entrepreneurial culture from the bottom-up, where even the youngest of businesses can play an active role in transforming our cities into vibrant places, that make people feel healthy to live in, inspired to work in and want to visit.

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Baharash Bagherian is a designer working holistically at all scales, designing for a higher quality of life whilst also protecting the environment. His award-winning design studio, Baharash Architecture, have worked on projects in various scales, from master plans and landscape design to smaller scale such as interiors, furniture and products. Recent projects include the Oasis Eco Resort in Liwa and phase 2 of Dubai Sustainable City.