Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in an environmentally perfect city? One development in the Middle East intends to prove that creating a carbon neutral and environmentally conscious city is possible. Named Masdar, the city is geographically located in the Arabian Peninsula, about eighteen miles from the capital, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As a country, the UAE claims over ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, with the ability to survive on it’s own oil production at least for the next 100 years. For the most part this gulf state has no direct need for energy efficient cities. On the other hand, the rest of the world constrained by high-energy consumption, urban growth, and environmental degradation would benefit if it can be successfully adapted to cities. The UAE clearly sees the value in transitioning to smart energy future given its economic reliance on the oil.
Fosters and Partners, the British Architectural firm known for their approach to sustainable architecture, is tasked with designing Masdar Institute and much of the city. Rooted in the belief that a built environment must prioritize energy efficiency, smart public transit, and sustainability as a cross-disciplinary component, the firm will employ smart urban planning and the latest technologies resembling a highly futuristic city. No matter how futuristic, the city’s success will depend on whether these ideals can be translated to modern applications.
Financially, Masdar is funded by the Abu Dahbi Future Energy Company, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company. A large portion of seed capital will come from the government, recognizing the value that it would bring to Abu Dhabi and the region. Breaking ground in 2006, the project is expected to cost $19 Billion with a final construction date of 2025. The final completion date has moved around, given the financial crisis and construction delays in the Middle East. The city will be built through multiple phases with the first phase comprising of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), two laboratory buildings and residential units for students. The second phase will add more commercial space to the city, implementing both local business and corporate business. The global technology giant Siemens will have a Middle East Headquarters in Masdar ultimately tripling the size and population of the city. In it’s completion, the city will be home to 50,000 people with a daytime population surging to under 100,000. At the moment, there are no plans for more expansion and we will see how this city will integrate itself into the greater Abu Dhabi region.
Set in the middle of the desert, designers plans to utilize the latest developments in energy efficiency, smart buildings, and urban design. Relying solely on renewable energy, the city will use a combination of photovoltaic, concentrated solar and concentrated thermal to power the city. Buildings will incorporate the use of passive environmental strategies, which emphasizes the building’s directional orientation and natural setting, and active environmental strategies, which focuses on energy management and building performance optimization. Buildings throughout the city will be covered with an insulative façade, which will help to regulate the deserts fluctuation in extreme temperatures. In addition, sunshades with photovoltaic cells that automatically open and close depending on lighting conditions will be used to block out direct sunlight and collect solar energy.
“All aspects of urban planning, architecture, design, construction and operations are being assessed…We are looking at every place where we can reduce our embodied and operational carbon and shrink our environmental footprint.”
Early in the design process, utilizing the natural features of the desert was a top priority. Masdar will incorporate natural features like cooling air currents directed through public spaces to keep the city in a comfortable temperature range. The entire city will be elevated to allow for the desert breezes to cool buildings and large infrastructures, cutting energy dramatically. Landscape designers will use local plants and fauna combined with fountains to provide evaporative cooling, in addition to enhancing the aesthetics and livability of the city. A meticulous effort is being made to use elements that are culturally and environmentally conscious. For example, the insulating façade will use a contemporary interpretation of a Mashrabiya – a traditional oriel window with latticework commonly used traditional Arabic architecture. Functionally, it will serve to block sunlight and promote air circulation, while still providing privacy. Additionally the façade’s color will be a rust and orange color matching the natural surroundings eliminating the need for cleaning down the road.
“We will position Abu Dhabi as the hub of future energy,” - Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar’s CEO
Masdar plans to attract like-minded academics, businesses and any with interests in sustainable design. The city will be host to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and is intended to be a hub for cleantech, not only in the region but around the world. The first occupant will be the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate level science research university, assisted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As phases of the city are completed, there is a priority for cleantech organizations and businesses, which create a campus like environment. For the most part, Masdar will hopefully create a new industry in the region, similar to what Silicon Valley did for the Bay Area. Ironic, because this city is located at the epicenter of one of the highest oil producing countries.
Masdar’s initial design opted to ban the use of automobiles throughout the city. All the transit in the city will either be public transit or the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). The PRT is a sleek four-person vehicle that runs on an electric motor. Automatically driven by a computer system, it will be guided by magnets embedded in the road. Resembling a pod like car from the Sci Fi movie Tron, the rider will select a destination on a LCD screen and sit back as the vehicle maneuvers through the city. Extremely futuristic, the PRT will certainly be tested in it’s capability as Masdar’s population grows. Using so much technology, it can be easy to forget the original form of sustainable transportation; walking. Masdar is designed to be a highly walkable city. Slim pedestrian only streets are designed to maximize the amount of available shade. Designers also wanted to subtlety incorporate daily physical activity, purposely hiding the elevators to promote the use of stairs. The pedestrian only streets try to incentivize walking and biking, free from the dangers and distractions of cars and accidents.
With so much foresight and planning, it is impossible to appeal to everyone. Nicolai Ourossoff of the New York Times critiqued in his article In Arabian Desert, A Sustainable City Rises, calling Masdar a “gated community concept”. True in some respects, the nature of building something entirely new is that it represents the ideals of enclaves instead of the reality of communities. Yes, this city may lack social and economic diversity, compared to other cities. Demographically, Masdar will be inhabited primarily by upper/middle class businessmen, academics and scientists. In the beginning, Masdar will lack a lower class, along with individuals that cultivate in this environment like artists. What is overlooked though, is that Masdar is meant to be an environmentally perfect society and that aspects of cities will develop only with time. Given the amount of technology and investment used to build Masdar, it will be not be economically viable to introduce this at a lower cost. It is intended that as time progresses and technology becomes cheaper, to apply these concepts to the real world.
What sets Masdar apart from other urban planning projects is that Masdar is meant to symbolize something more. Something ambitious but not out of reach. Something that in high demand but yet people have yet to create. This is what makes Masdar something special. Despite it’s faults, Masdar creates a built environment that is more conscious than anything that currently exists. If Masdar were to become a success, its legacy will prove that a better life in cities is attainable through smart technology and urban planning.
Outside of Masdar, cities without proper management are developing to consume more energy, polluting in larger amounts and creating more stressful environments. Through projects like Masdar, we are exposed to these concepts at work which intend to create a conscious city, not only for the environment but also for people. Naturally, we should question every detail and motive behind the designs as that is absolutely necessary in progressing as a society. However, we should not be too quick to make conclusions, as some benefits will develop over time. The word Masdar in Arabic translates in English as “the Source”. If this new city were to accomplish becoming truly sustainable, its name would be ambitiously fitting serving as a source of knowledge, innovation, and economic development for future cities and generations to come.