Masdar City is a planned, zero-carbon, zero-waste development designed by Foster + Partners currently under construction in Abu Dhabi. A city of 50,000 people with no cars and no pollution. The project sits in stark contrast to the rest of the ecologically unaware developments of the region, but is it really what it claims to be?
“The principle of the Masdar development is a dense walled city to be constructed in an energy efficient two-stage phasing that relies on the creation of a large photovoltaic power plant, which later becomes the site for the city’s second phase, allowing for urban growth yet avoiding low density sprawl. Strategically located for Abu Dhabi’s principal transport infrastructure, Masdar will be linked to surrounding communities, as well as the centre of Abu Dhabi and the international airport, by a network of existing road and new rail and public transport routes.
Rooted in a carbon neutral ambition, the city itself is car free. With a maximum distance of 200m to the nearest transport link and amenities, the compact network of streets encourages walking and is complemented by a personalised rapid transport system. The shaded walkways and narrow streets will create a pedestrian-friendly environment in the context of Abu Dhabi’s extreme climate. It also articulates the tightly planned, compact nature of traditional walled cities. With expansion carefully planned, the surrounding land will contain wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, so that the city will be entirely self-sustaining.”
Emphasis is mine. Masdar will employ a variety of renewable energy sources; solar photovoltaic modules on rooftops, wind farms and even geothermal power. Also, there are plans to build the worlds largest hydrogen power plant. Water management is an important part of the design, with a solar-powered desalination plant providing the city’s water needs. Through efficient appliances and plumbing they predict a 60% reduction water use compared with similarly sized communities. A greywater system will recycle nearly all of the waste-water using it for irrigation and flushing.Biological waste will be treated and used as fertilizer, and some may also be utilized through waste incineration as an additional power source. It’s just a great place for eco-tech. It has all that good stuff.
The most interesting aspect for me is the fact that it’s a car-free city. You move around by walking, bicycle or using ‘rapid transport pods’. People can’t park their cars outside their homes anymore, but I think that the health and lifestyle advantages make that a price worth paying. The residential areas are densely packed together for shared shading and insulation. I have no complaints regarding the technological innovations or the alternative urban lifestyle envisioned in the city. What I find disturbing is the motive behind the project.
Looking at Masdar City within the larger Abu Dhabi context, I ask myself who are they trying to impress? It can’t be seen as an example to the locals. They will no doubt be confused being so close to Saadiyat Island which is an orgasmic explosion of architectural excess. Which message is to be followed? The two ideals are comically divergent, akin to ordering a Diet Pepsi to go with your super-sized Big Mac meal. I can understand the need to experiment with an idea such as Masdar City, however I can’t help but be very skeptical at the motive behind the project. If the Abu Dhabi government really wants to reduce waste and increase efficiency then there are far better and less costly ways of doing so. Building an entire city just to prove an extravagant point seems awfully childish to me, especially as the rules and regulations that govern Masdar City will not have any effect on the rest of Abu Dhabi.
My greatest fear for this project is that it will set unrealistic expectations for the rest of the region. If successful, it will prove that a walkable city is very feasible in our climate, and that a zero-carbon, zero-waste city will lower costs and pollution. Yet what will happen is that people will assume that such progress will only occur with massive projects that take decades and cost billions to build. If the project fails and becomes a white elephant, cynics will use it as an example that such a lifestyle is unattainable and unfeasible. We will lose our chance at providing an example of an alternative, car-free lifestyle in the Gulf.
I still have hope that if this project is taken seriously, and if the Abu Dhabi government see’s it not as a sideshow to deflect criticisms of wasteful spending but as an example for the entire region to follow, then it can be incredibly successful. A city that is self-sufficient, encourages a healthy lifestyle and belongs in our climatic, cultural, religious and urban fabric. It seems like a distant dream, but they’re building it not far away.