Dr. Nihal Al Sabbagh

Would you please describe your academic and professional background, including what motivated you to pursue a career in the architecture and environmental urban design fields?

I have been teaching, practicing, and conducting research in environmental design and architecture for more than 17 years in the UAE and Egypt. I hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering and environmental design from the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport (AASTMT) in Cairo, Egypt. During that time my passion for environmental design and the field of sustainability evolved when exploring a design concept for my studio project. I designed a train station inspired by the wind tunneling effect, where I shaped a free-flowing structure oriented North-west to depend solely on natural ventilation using principles of passive architecture and fully developed through hand drawings. Until now, I rely in all my work on the fundamentals of manipulating the environmental parameters to reduce energy followed by digital tools, simulations, and most recently, the involvement of AI and ML machine learning. In 2011, I earned a joint master’s degree in Sustainable Design of the Built Environment from the British University in Dubai and Cardiff University in the UK. My mission to convince workmates, colleagues, and clients to adopt green strategies in the way buildings and cities are designed and inhabited became a priority. I see buildings as living organisms that interact with their occupants to formulate the cities we want to inhabit. The integration of sustainable buildings starts with the urban environments. Now, I hold a PhD from the AA, Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. I established an environmental design lab, ‘Environas’, which provides research-based environmental design solutions for integrating users’ behaviors and thermal comfort in buildings and urban streets by leveraging the benefits of technology in this area.

What are the primary components of a sustainable and healthy mobility infrastructure in an urban environment?

Urban infrastructure is the cohesive element of outdoor spaces and buildings that shapes the image of the cities we have inhabited for hundreds of years. Detangling and classifying the components of the mobility infrastructure is quite complex, especially when you understand their interconnectedness. I am not a mobility expert, but my research and practice on micro-mobility active modes allowed me to identify issues within the infrastructure of the urban environment from the perspective of the users.

Generally, an efficient hierarchical road network that does not compromise active micro-mobility modes is vital in urban areas. This influences the infrastructure’s connectivity on an urban block scale measured through the length of trips with shorter sidewalks and street crossings. Therefore, the presence of multimodal public transport modes would limit the expansion of vehicular modes. Besides, integrating micro-mobility solutions to support public transport modes ought to be integrated during the early stages of the planning process. When this comes at a later stage, the solutions developed to solve congestion, emissions, and other problems impact the whole sustainable mobility framework at higher costs. In addition to that, higher attention needs to be paid to the local microclimatic conditions of the city compromised by the built environment on the users to ensure the various needs of inhabitants are met, such as women, children, people with disabilities, etc.

What are the benefits and importance of walkability in particular? What are the challenges and potential solutions to support and develop pedestrian mobility in cities with hot climates?

Walkability and pedestrianization are key aspects of sustainable urban development and emission reduction. The relationship between walkability, physical and mental health, and the design of cities is provided through access to amenities, inclusivity in urban design, and an increase in the use of soft mobility modes. Walkability contributes to multiple targets in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3, 9, 11, and 13, where recent global attention and investments in projects related to walkability are growing.

In hot cities, the influence of the heat on the urban infrastructure and pedestrians’ thermal comfort is undermined. Urban materiality is the most crucial parameter to increase the mean radiant temperature over the air temperature by more than 20OC during the early afternoon hours. The allocation of materiality with a high albedo (the fraction of light reflected by a given surface) improves the heat balance of the surfaces. Many cities adopt an over-greening approach to deal with the heat, which requires high water consumption and higher energy demand. To improve pedestrians’ thermal comfort and avoid thermal stress, analyzing the microclimatic conditions for each urban area is essential to allow long durations of exposure in relevance to the heat flow fluctuations within the climatic conditions. Designing with the hourly heat radiation cycles and wind directions must be relevant to the routes and cooling provisions. The major potential in these cities is the presence of high solar radiation levels, which facilitates the application of integrative solutions for a large area. Such solutions include adding cooling interventions, advanced material installations, and automated smart infrastructure networks using PVs in hot spots or areas that defer walkability. My PhD design project provided a cooling intervention named ‘recovery spaces’ that are integrated along pedestrian routes to avoid the ‘discomfort’ sensation.

What is your preferred mode of transportation in the cities you’ve lived in and why?

I choose to walk whenever possible; it’s healthy and free, and I enjoy observing the urban setting. For longer distances, I drive or use the metro, depending on the context. During my stay in London, I walked and used the metro. The city offers a highly efficient TMS (Transport Management System) for its multimodal public transport system with good coverage and connectivity. On bad weather days, you can easily switch between modes of transportation such as buses and metro. However, living mostly between car-oriented cities like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Cairo, I’m now used to driving. I remember during my childhood in Abu Dhabi, I walked for longer periods of the year as the city offers high safety measures for kids. However, when moving to Dubai, I barely walk. Car ownership is highly facilitated by loans, roads, insurance, and safety, and the design and climate of the city necessitate driving, especially if you have kids. In Cairo, where I currently reside, I drive and use an e-scooter or a bicycle for shorter distances, as the weather allows that for most of the days. Massive expansions in the road network systems have changed the city’s vehicular facilities over the past 3 years to make driving less challenging. The city is currently integrating massive infrastructural development into the railway systems to elevate the quality of the public transport modes used over the past years.

Do cultural norms play a role in influencing pedestrian or individual behavior? For example, does a tourist walk differently compared to a resident of the same city, and what can we learn from that?

Encouraging walkability largely depends on the ‘culture of walking’, which is shaped by multiple factors. Our environmental perception to the surrounding environment interweaves numerous parameters, such as the amenities provided that make us walk, the quality of the sidewalks, safety measures, the climate, and visual comfort. These factors record a mental image to our preference when deciding to walk or use other modes of transportation in any city we reside in or visit. It has been proven that people who depend on on-foot transit have been used to walking. Also, these are the samples interviewed when we explore walkability to improve their environment and ensure they maintain the habit. However, to encourage walkability in urban areas we must consider all the multimodal transport user’s.

Tourists are temporary visitors to the urban space; however, they contribute to creating more vibrant realms due to the leisure purposes of occupying the space and the type of activities provided. They depend on public transport, taxis, and walking to experience the city. Thus, prioritizing walkability for these types of travelers is encouraged, i.e., by improving visual imagery, greenery, shade, and so on. This is different when looking at the resident’s utilitarian walks. They are frequent users of the space who depend on on-foot transit that requires temporal and spatial mapping of the routes and are influenced by different parameters, such as the length of routes and thermal comfort.

Cities with a metropolitan nature of users are very challenging where you have a wide diversity of backgrounds and walking patterns. My approach to the projects I have been involved in to encourage walkability in multiple hot cities has analyzed the elements of the ‘public place’ rather than the ‘urban space’. This involved considering both tourists and residents. My Environas’ COP27 proposal for climate action depended on digital tools to analyze and encourage walkability in Sharm El Sheikh, a touristic hub. This was built on former data gathered in Dubai, which was also a city with a metropolitan nature. The work highlights the influence of microclimatic conditions on pedestrians’ comfort and environmental perception.

To what extent has the automobile shaped the landscape and infrastructure of modern cities, and how will they fit into a sustainable future for transportation?

“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces (Kent, 2005). It starts with the urban planning and design of the urban block, where the cities we live in today is what shaped the increase of vehicular means of transport. The lesson here is clear when we analyze the share of vehicular provisions in the mobility infrastructure of historical districts versus modern urban areas. The main difference is the compactness of low-density cities, which in turn limits the number of vehicles used. The expansion of automobiles reduced the need for active transport modes and walkability, which created more sedentary lifestyles with much lower activity levels exerted and reduced the social interaction between city dwellers. My research in Dubai reveals how the lifestyles of full dependance on cars and air-conditioned buildings affect the physiological balance of the human body and reduces the adaptive comfort opportunities to natural weather conditions. Our bodies get used to the perfect temperatures, low humidity and no wind offered in air-conditioned spaces and find difficulty to accept the natural environment of the outdoors. Therefore, the gap between pedestrians’ comfort and urban heating is expected to widen over time. The future of sustainable transportation ought to consider the predicted changes that cities may foresee, such as the influences of climate change and heat rise, for instance, changes within the users’ demographics, such as maintaining kids and women over time, and the expansions of the built areas and the population demand accordingly.

Can walking be integrated into other modes of transport, such as public transit, to create a more holistic mobility experience? Do you believe that a paradigm shift is required in the way we approach urban design, or more of a continuous and incremental process of evolution?

The way future cities are envisioned nowadays depends on integrating multimodal mobility plans and including widely diverse mobility modes. This is already happening in many new cities. A recent project I worked on at Environas was to develop a climate and comfort design guideline for NEOM to improve micro-mobility in 17 zones within the Gulf of Aqaba. The transport modes included a wide range of e-mobility (water, air, and land), which was requested to integrate with micro-mobility modes that are climatically sensible. Walkability guidelines were requested and included in the project studies. The question remains whether these projects will succeed in creating built environments that improve people’s habits and shift from sedentary lifestyles. The integrative technologies used for smart cities are now aiming to bridge these gaps between cities and users.