With 7.8 million vehicles contributing to 32 percent of air pollution, Egypt’s capital Cairo is a typical petropolis, meaning that all its key functions – production, consumption, and transport – are powered by massive injections of non-renewable energy. This is just one of many points that Helmy Abouleish, CEO of SEKEM, made in his keynote speech at the second edition of Design Build Breathe conference in Cairo last month.

In his talk, which highlighted the need for urban communities to reconnect with nature, Abouleish also noted that Cairo, the second largest city in Africa and the fastest growing city in the world in 2017, could benefit from regenerative city models.

Over the course of two days at the end of October in Cairo, Design Build Breathe brought players from Egyptian civil society, the private sector, urban planning, and government together with urban planners and architects from Europe and the Arabian Gulf, to discuss sustainable and green building. The conference included talks on ecological urbanism, housing and urban regeneration, sustainable communities, the social impact of open spaces, improving sustainability within existing Cairo neighborhoods, governance and policy-making, and regenerative city models.

The idea that cities can be regenerative is a relatively new concept that was first introduced in a 2010 report by the World Future Council. The main emphasis lies on cities’ role to both sustain and regenerate natural resources being consumed and wasted. The regenerative city concept aspires to adopt a circular rather than linear model of resource consumption, by shifting to local and renewable energy sources.

Bulskampveld, Belgium. CC by: Thomas Lambert (2017)

Cities are projected to house 66.3 percent of the world’s 9.5 billion inhabitants by 2050. By then, it is expected that they will generate 70 percent more waste – from 2.01 billion tonnes to 3.4 billion tonnes. That, coupled with the fact that cities are responsible for 75 percent of CO2 emissions, indicates that it may be time to look beyond sustainability. 

Regenerative interventions can range from micro-level gardening to macro-level upgrading. They run counter to the linear metabolic systems that are so common in most cities today.

Linear metabolic systems are systems where non-renewable resources are consumed and transformed into products and services, with the rest going to waste. Regenerative city models tend to emulate nature’s circular regenerative model – where an organism’s output is an input for another. In this way, the living ecosystem is sustained.

In his remarks at Design Build Breathe, Deputy Minister Ahmed Kamaly highlighted some of the steps that Egypt has taken to become more sustainable. As an integral part of the national strategy, Egypt has established a 2035 Energy Strategy. He claims that, by 2022, renewable resources will generate 20 percent of Egypt’s power, reaching 37 percent by 2035.

The ‘Agropolis’ Model. CC by: Herbie Girardet/Rick Lawrence

The ‘Petropolis’ Model. CC by: Herbie Girardet/Rick Lawrence

Regenerative Cities & The Circular Economy    

Our current economic model relies on finite resources like oil and natural gas, where levels of consumption reach 41 percent and 53 percent, respectively. This means that consuming less is not a long-term solution.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has written extensively on regenerative cities, recommends that the global economy shift from the traditional ‘take-make-dispose’ approach to a process that utilizes assets of the built environment instead.

More recently, the circular economy has become increasingly popular as a regenerative and restorative economic system. In contrast with the traditional linear model, it reduces waste, emissions, and energy leakage through long-lasting design, maintenance and re-manufacturing. Circular models aim to create a sustainable world that preserves both the revenues for manufacturers and the life quality of consumers.

On a macro level, regenerative cities should have a symbiotic link with their local hinterland. As Abouleish pointed out in his remarks, this significant relationship between urban areas and their rural territories is the core of the regenerative vision. Regenerative city models work to improve the health of the ecosystem by reusing waste as a source of value.

The Regenerative City: From Theory To Practice

Urban philosopher Henri Lefebvre called the city a ‘second nature,’ a statement based on the fact that every aspect of the city, including inhabitants, originate from nature. It posits that exposure to nature is an important contributor to human mental health and physical well-being.

Yet, rapid urbanization makes accessing natural areas more challenging. Moreover, chipping in the fight against climate change adds more friction to the process. Thus, the question is: Can nurturing the relationship between humans and nature reverse the negative impacts of climate change?

Egyptian Architect Amira Ayoub, founder of the Tree Green Academy, who delivered a talk about biophilic design at Design Build Breathe, claims that there is an indirect relationship between biophilia and climate change.

Biophilic design‘ – a term coined during the 1990s by American Professor Stephen R. Kellert – centers on building places to bridge the gap between people and nature. It’s an architecture of life that promotes healthy and productive habits.

In an interview with progrss, Ayoub explains that the non-profit International Living Future Institute (ILFI) created the Living Building Challenge rating system in 2006 as a measure of sustainability in the built environment. Similar to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), although more rigorous, the Living Building Challenge is a measurement of sustainability in buildings and neighborhoods.

In 2017, Ayoub worked collaboratively with ILFI and other initiatives to establish the first Egyptian registered Living Building Challenge project in the MENA region at Al-Tarfa community centre, which is located 30 mins away from St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. “What if we looked at buildings as living organisms that need nourishment to care and grow?” Ayoub said to progrss.

Biophilic design creates living buildings by connecting them with nature. CC by: Kevin Laminto (2018)

Greening the City

According to a report by German development agency GIZ, Cairo’s flat rooftops provide suitable conditions for urban farming, and could be utilized in greening the city. The report went on to note that there is approximately 0.33 square meters of green space per person in Cairo – one of the lowest ratios of people to green space in the world.

Speaking at a panel on regenerative cities at Design Build Breathe, Soraya Abouleish, founder of Bastana Life Learning Space, explained that one of the biggest challenges in modern cities is the lack of connection with rural areas. She added that city dwellers have lost their connection to how their food is grown and produced. Abouleish emphasized the role of urban farming as an means to integrate rural resources within cities to grow local healthy food, either on rooftops, balconies, or gardens.

As part of the same panel, Tarek El Akkad, architecture professor at The American University in Cairo (AUC), noted that any vision of regenerative cities must first and foremost include an integrated approach between different players. He also pointed to the need for legislation and financial to establish green roofs in Cairo.

He added that green roofs can play a key role in mitigating the challenges created by cities, as they introduce natural, evaporative cooling and air filtration properties to the urban landscape. El Akkad noted that architects and planners can use green roofs in Egyptian cities to improve sustainability and biodiversity and reduce urban heat island effects and greenhouse gas generation.

Beyond Mere Sustainability          

The conclusions drawn by the panelists and participants at Design Build Breathe are an important acknowledgement that aspiring to create sustainable communities is not enough. According to the 2012 Living Planet Report, Earth’s total biocapacity in 2008 was 1.8 global hectare (gha) per person, while the human ecological footprint was 2.7 gha per person. This translates into an overrun of the ecological checkpoint. The report heightens the figures by claiming that our planet takes 1.5 years to fully regenerate renewable resources.

In his 2010 book Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, Timothy Beatley explains that human beings have an innate need to connect with the natural world. Thus, any vision of a sustainable urban future must place its priority on the proximity of features of the natural world.

Sherif and Tarek Hosny, co-founders of Schaduf and organizers of Design Build Breathe, believe that sustainable and regenerative building can and should be decoupled from wealth. “It was apparent from the conference that building in a smart and sustainable way does not have to be linked to wealth. Examples in less fortunate countries presented at the conference have strengthened this notion,” Sherif says.

Using the right tools, regenerative cities can lead the way in preserving a healthy and prosperous planet that enhances the lives of its dwellers.