By Alex Casanas Staff Writer 28 December 2018

The Middle East is beset by sustainability difficulties. Air pollution in the region is among the highest in the world. Climate change may make parts of the region uninhabitable. Additionally, the region is rapidly urbanizing, bringing a host social, environmental, and health challenges. Incorporating urban green spaces into urban development and city planning would go a fair way toward addressing all of these challenges. Urban green spaces—including public parks, rooftop gardens, and other such spaces where one has the opportunity to encounter nature in an urban environment—offer a plethora of benefits including reducing crime rates, filtering air pollution, and reducing ambient temperatures in the surrounding area.

Green space is a major component of contemporary thinking about urban sustainability. Opportunities to interact with nature are increasingly regarded as a basic part of urban infrastructure, and not simply a luxury reserved for more affluent cities.

Incorporating urban greening into development in the Middle East comes with its own set of unique challenges. The first major hurdle is the desert climate of much of the region. Due to the scarcity of water in the region, “greening the sand” bears a significantly higher cost than developing green spaces in more water-abundant climates. This problem does not have an easy solution, though Nezar Atta-Allah Kafafy suggests in “The dynamics of urban green space in an arid city” that enclosing and charging fees or membership dues for access may help the issue, albeit at a cost to equitable access. However, the environmental benefits would still affect the whole population even if benefits arising from general access may be more limited.

A second major problem is the piecemeal, project-based development of green spaces in the region. Rather than incorporating green spaces as a core component of urban development strategy, they are routinely given low priority compared to other kinds of development. This has led to an uneven distribution of quality and quantity among currently existing public green spaces. Urban green spaces must be made a more central component of city planning and development plans in the Middle East.

However, finding space to build green spaces in the densely crowded urban environments of the Middle East can be difficult. The public parks and gardens that do exist have been shrinking rapidly due to urban encroachment and urban graying (the concrete counterpart to urban greening). The solution here is two-fold: strongly conserve existing urban green spaces, and find creative ways to fit urban greenery into existing structures. Kafafy suggests incentivizing rooftop gardens and vertical gardens on buildings above a certain size. These more frequent, smaller pockets of greenery would improve distribution of access to the health and social benefits of green spaces.

Some may contend that the Middle East has bigger problems. With civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the resultant refugee crises from these conflicts, and the persistent threat of terrorism in the region, should we really be worrying about the number of bushes in Baghdad? This is a valid concern, to an extent. However, with the increasingly near and dire effects of climate change, it is time that we put environmental issues and sustainability on a similar level of importance to security issues. Urban greening will not solve climate change on its own, but it is an important tool in counteracting the effects of climate change, and the Middle East is in desperate need of a more robust urban greening strategy.

Despite the challenges, protecting and expanding urban green spaces in the Middle East must be a major component of sustainable development plans for the region. Certainly, more research needs to be done to most effectively pursue urban greening policies. Though green spaces have been a popular topic in sustainable development, their implementation in water-scarce environments is an underexplored yet vital topic. One specific area of research in this field would be the use of less water-intensive flora in green spaces in arid climates. However, given the documented benefits, urban greening should be given a more central position in sustainable development in the Middle East as soon as possible.

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Alex Casanas is an M.A. candidate in Middle East Studies specializing in international affairs and development at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He previously studied at Gonzaga University, where he earned a B.A. in international relations.