The future of cities, Youth and Regenerative Development are key to achieving sustainability

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‘I am alarmed – albeit not scared – by the enormity of the climate and environmental challenges that face us in comparison to the modest efforts we are collectively making’ writes Karim Elgendy an award-winning architect and sustainability consultant as well as the founder and coordinator of Carboun, an advocacy initiative promoting sustainability in Middle East cities. Goumbook caught up with him to ask for his analysis of the future possibilities of sustainable cities in the region.

Can you explain how Carboun was started and why?

I founded the Carboun initiative in San Francisco about a decade ago. It was envisaged as a platform to promote the ideas of sustainable cities in the Middle East context, which was a novel idea at the time. Its pan regional nature emerged from my conviction that the region’s cities share more similarities than differences, and face many of the same environmental and socioeconomic challenges, and thus could benefit from a region-wide discussion of what sustainability means in their built environment.

What is the key challenge to making sustainable cities of the future?

The challenges are many but two key challenges stand out as barriers to this transformation globally. First is the difficulty of retrofitting cities given the complexity of their layered systems. After that comes the inertia presented by stakeholders with vested interests in the status quo.

We have seen some positive stories related to the impact of the pandemic, i.e., reduced pollution, and carbon emissions, but are these positives short lived, how sustainable is this adapted life and will it all go back to how it was before?

By virtue of its very nature, all environmental benefits caused by the pandemic are forced on humanity, and are therefore different from the civilisational transformation many of us are calling for. We are seeking a way in which our cities can function within the planetary boundaries of this blue marble that we are entrusted with, and not some temporary respite for nature from the onslaught we direct towards it. With regard to the post corona recovery, I can easily envisage a scenario where this recovery will abandon all environmental efforts in the hope of quick return to ‘normality,’ regardless of how unsustainable or unjust it was.

Do you think ‘decoupling’ is possible in terms of urban development i.e. economic growth not having a detrimental environmental impact?

I have always found this idea of continuous economic growth to be both fascinating and troubling. Apart from modern economics, what other discipline do you know of which works on the basis of something growing forever, while somehow overlooking the idea that resources are limited?

Luckily a new generation of economists are questioning this and are developing a new economic model that aims to achieve human prosperity within the planetary boundaries. Their ideas and those of many environmental advocates, have inevitably trickled down to the built environment in the form of principles such as the material circularity and biomimicry, which are far from ubiquitous but are making inroads in part of the world.

Have you seen a shift in the architecture, design process over the years to include more sustainable design or is it still just an afterthought?

A decade ago, I had written at length on the different approaches to sustainable design in the MENA region and how it evolved over the decades before.

Back then I had identified 2 approaches by what I called Revivalists and Progressives, as well as a third hybrid approach. In the years since, I had seen a coalescing towards the hybrid approach, which was a positive development.

However, I have also observed another trend of commodification of sustainable design in buildings with the proliferation of green building rating systems with prescriptive approaches, which was a less welcome development in my view.

What excites you about the future and what scares you?

I am alarmed – albeit not scared – by the enormity of the climate and environmental challenges that face us in comparison to the modest efforts we are collectively making.

Cities need to think less about less harmful development, and more about regenerative development that leaves the environment better than it was. The absence of this vision as a benchmark is what alarms me most.

On the other hand, I am quite encouraged by the new generation of young professionals who joined the workforce with great energy and commendable sustainability ideals. In a young region, a generation that is unburdened by inertia, could prove to be a key component to fixing the region’s cities.

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Karim Elgendy is an award-winning architect and sustainability consultant based in London, with experience practicing design and sustainability in the United Kingdom, the United States and the Middle East.

Over the past two decades he has helped create sustainable buildings and urban environments across four continents, and has advised design and engineering practices, UK government, management consultancies, and think tanks.

Karim’s interests include developing sustainable and resilient cities, and assessing the role of policy, economics, urban planning, urban mobility, and building design in reducing the impact of cities on resources and the environment.


As a regular speaker and writer, Karim is a public advocate for sustainability. He is also regularly cited by mainstream media including the Financial Times, Reuters, Aljazeera, and Forbes, as well as academic publications.