February 14, 2008

French City Mysteriously Appears in Arabian Desert

35. 0214

A bit of good news about prospects for green cities comes from an unlikely place—Dubai. In itself, Dubai is perhaps the most unsustainable place on Earth, a city lavishly built with oil money where everyone’s air conditioner runs full tilt 24/7/365.

That’s what’s so amazing about the recent International Herald Tribune report about plans for a large new development in this Middle Eastern city modeled on Lyon, France. In one sense, it’s a ludicrous idea. Lyon is an ancient city with a temperate climate famous for its rivers and picturesque narrow streets. Dubai has sprouted almost overnight in the desert and its main streets resemble interstate highways. No two cities could be more dissimilar.

Dubai developer Buti Saeed al-Ghandi, who could have chosen any place in the world for his inspiration, wants to recreate the charms of a classic pedestrian city. “I also fell in love again with my wife there,” Ghandi told the Herald-Tribune about his first visit to Lyon last May, ” and that’s also why I love Lyon.”

It’s good news indeed that a city like Lyon—full of ecological virtues such as high-density, walkable neighborhoods and good transit—has become a place people elsewhere want to imitate. For the last 80 years, the cities most admired around the world have been Los Angeles and Dallas, where the car is king and houses are like mansions spread far apart from each other.

At least that’s how they are portrayed in movies and TV, which has inspired several generations of urban planners to see out-of-control sprawl as the epitome of the good life. “The images we get from the United States are a very damaging model to third-world cities,” says Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who initiated some exciting improvements in transit and public spaces there.

“Sure, people in the developing world dream of owning cars,” explained Walter Hook, director of the Institute for Transpiration and Development Policy, a group working to promote sustainable transportation in the developing world. “But they also want beautiful public places, a metro, bike lanes, pedestrian zones and sidewalk cafes. What they want is to be Paris, not look like some American suburb.”

Or they may want to be Lyon.

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