Not many of us think too seriously about moving to the desert. Hot, dry and extremely variable weather conditions make the harsh environment of the desert almost entirely inhospitable for humans. Temperatures are scorchingly hot during the daytime, reaching as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius). During the nighttime, temperatures can plunge as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). Rainfall is unpredictable, too, and most deserts around the world receive only about 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain each year -- sometimes none at all. This makes the land practically useless for food production, and plants and trees that humans need for survival simply won't grow.
But what if you could live in the desert, and even build an entire community around one? There are, of course, groups of people in some parts of the world known as nomads, who have lived for centuries wandering deserts. By looking for water and regions of semiarable land, they're able to survive, but their lifestyles are sparse, and they must keep moving to account for the desert's constantly changing environment. Because there's just enough rainfall to allow grass to grow in certain areas, nomads mainly rely on herding livestock for sustenance.
So building a town in a desert is out of the question, right? Maybe not. If a group of architects and researchers have worked out their plans correctly, people may soon be able to enjoy the cosmopolitan life on the edge of semiarid land. Xeritown, a small development with a focus on sustainability, will attempt to work town squares, shops and living spaces into the desert climate, using efficient design techniques to cut down on the use of heat, water and energy.
The neighborhood, as it turns out, will be built in Dubai, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. More specifically, Xeritown will lie on the outskirts of Dubailand, the massive complex that combines theme parks, shopping malls, and homes into one big land of excitement. The town is under development now and should be finished in 2009.
How does Xeritown's design make it possible to live in such harsh climates? Does it have anything to do with xeriscaping? And with all of the construction going on in Dubai, does Xeritown really make a difference?
Xeritown and Xeriscaping: Location, Location, Location
The architects behind Xeritown -- a collaboration between SMAQ in Berlin, X Architects in Dubai, Johannes Grothaus Landscape Architects in Potsdam, Germany, Reflexion in Zurich, Switzerland, and BuroHappold in London -- used the landscaping philosophy that has caught on in several dry parts of the world known as xeriscaping.
Originally developed for areas suffering from intense drought, xeriscaping offers landscapers unique ways to conserve water and reduce maintenance. By using native plants that have adjusted to an area's climate (bringing in exotic plants typically requires more water usage for upkeep) and arranging them in efficient ways to make the best use of water runoff, developers can create an area that extends important water supplies. On top of that, the xeriscaped areas are designed to look good, and they don't require a lot of work to maintain. It's caught on in many parts of the world, even in places where the climate isn't typically dry, mostly because people are looking for new ways to cut back on the costs associated with water and energy usage.
Xeritown aims to be efficient, but on an even bigger and broader scale that includes buildings, streets and the general infrastructure of the development. The desert elements of Dubai's inland region will work with the design of Xeritown, not against it. Instead of forcing a plan upon a dry area of land and having to waste lots of energy to make it hospitable, the neighborhood's architects are using natural and man-made solutions that promote cooling, water recycling techniques and energy saving.
The first major part of the plan that has an effect on the area's environment simply involves its layout. If you look at Dubai on a map, you'll notice it lies right off of the Persian Gulf. Many of the city's most infamous projects, including the giant man-made Palm Islands (viewable from space), of course, are located near the coast. To keep the entire area cool, architects have shaped Xeritown along a north-south axis. This takes advantage of cool breezes coming in from the sea, which are sucked in between "islands" of development. Hot wind from the desert, on the other hand, is pushed up and over the town by low rise buildings and towers to avoid heating Xeritown's inhabitants. As people walk through Xeritown, they should experience cooler air instead of a stifling, hot atmosphere.
Xeritown and Sustainability
So a breeze may cool you as you walk down the street, but what about the desert sun? Just because some wind is blowing through the town, that doesn't mean you'll be safe from the sun's dangerous rays.
Fortunately, the buildings and other important structures in Xeritown offer inhabitants more than enough cover from the hot desert sun. Most buildings are tall enough to block out the sun for most of the day, and walkways leading along shops and homes have significant overhangs, so people can walk in almost complete shade. In places where buildings don't block out the sun, big flat circles that look a little like large masses of lily pads will hang over walkways. The architects stress that palm trees or other plants won't provide shade in any way, since most vegetation in the United Arab Emirates is foreign. Bringing in extra plants would require extra water and energy to keep them alive, which would go against the entire principle of Xeritown.
Xeritown will be mainly a pedestrian neighborhood in order to reduce pollution, so the streets will have only two lanes to keep personal transportation to a minimum, and public transportation will be an important part of the area. To help generate energy, photovoltaic panels will be installed on top of the disc-like shading devices, which will absorb the sun's rays and convert them into low-voltage electricity for Xeritown. Street lamps will also use dimmable LED lighting at night.
Finally, architects plan to minimize water usage as much as possible. When water is needed for anything other than home use, grey water and industrial waste water recycling will supply irrigation systems. The landscape itself will be low-maintenance and promote the reuse of soil, and residents' homes will be equipped low water-use appliances.
Despite its best intentions, does the concept of Xeritown matter much when placed on the edge of Dubai? The city is world-famous for its incredible economic growth rate (in 2007 it was nearly twice that of China's at 16 percent), and construction cranes litter its skyline. When you compare the size of Xeritown -- less than one square mile -- with the size of Dubai as a whole -- about 1,500 square miles (3,885 square kilometers) -- it's hard to imagine the neighborhood making much of an impact. It's also located right outside of Dubailand, a place where excess, not sustainability, looks to be the keyword. For anyone concerned about the rapid growth of Dubai, Xeritown may provide a small blip of hope, but that small blip will have to spread far and wide across the rest of the city to make any significant impact -- 59 hectares (.23 miles) of solar power might not be enough.
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More Great Links
- Alter, Lloyd. "Dubai gets less dubious with Xeritown by SMAQ and X-Architects." TreeHugger.com. July 15, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2008) http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/07/dubai-gets-xeritown.php
- Colorado WaterWise Council. "Xeriscape Colorado." (Dec. 8, 2008) http://www.xeriscape.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=88&Itemid=145
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Desert." (Dec. 8, 2008) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/158992/desert
- Europaconcorsi. "Xeritown." June 27, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2008) http://europaconcorsi.com/projects/66437-Xeritown
- Harris, Richard. "Drought forces desert nomads to settle down." NPR.org. July 2, 2007. (Dec. 8, 2008) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11608264
- Hume, Jessica. "New town to keep heat at bay." The National. July 2, 2008. (Dec. 8, 2008) http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080702/NATIONAL/374577936/1022/NEWS
- University of California Museum of Paleontology. "The desert biome." (Dec. 8, 2008)http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/exhibits/biomes/deserts.php