Green Living in the Desert: Masdar City and its Place in the World

In the Desert Kingdom of Abu Dhabi a world-famous eco-city is springing up. But does Madīnat Maṣdar point the way forward or is it just a gimmick?

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

What makes a city sustainable? Something to do with the energy efficiency of its buildings and industry, perhaps? Or maybe an effective public transport system running on clean fuels? What about the materials used to build the city – are they sourced locally or shipped from across the globe following a questionable mining process? Same goes for the food, of course – where does it come from? What does it cost in energy, water and land? And we haven’t even begun to think about the people – surely a truly sustainable city would offer a wide range of fulfilling jobs and lifestyles to a healthy populace free to participate meaningfully in civic life?

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should step back and ask whether the city as a concept is sustainable. Cities certainly have their apologists. Economist Edward Glaeser, for example, whose Triumph of the City reads like a love song to urban life, argues that city living is inherently sustainable. Densely-packed buildings are usually more energy efficient to run than sprawling rural ones, and the proximity of housing to offices, shops and entertainment tends to mean low reliance on personal vehicles. Moreover, cities provide favourable conditions for initiatives like public transport and low energy community heating. But cities also offer ample scope for hedonistic, polluting lifestyles, and even the most frugal citizens are highly unlikely to be self-sufficient in terms of food production.

The whole question becomes ever more relevant as the world’s urban population skyrockets, most estimates agreeing that it has now outstripped the global rural population. What’s more, this urban population is projected to nearly double by 2050. Small wonder, perhaps, that self-consciously “sustainable cities” are being planned and developed all over the globe, from the International Business District in Songdo, South Korea to Auroville, India’s spiritually-inspired township with a sideline in renewable energy. Perhaps the most famous eco-city of all is Madīnat Maṣdar (“Source City”) in the United Arab Emirates.

Masdar City, as it is usually referred to in English, was conceived in the mid 2000’s on a wave of ambition. The UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa, recognising the finite nature of the Emirates’ oil supply decided the economy should diversify by embracing renewable energy. The result was Masdar, or the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, whose mission is to invest in renewable energy and clean technology in Abu Dhabi and worldwide through a business model that encompasses higher education and research and development. At its epicentre would be a carbon neutral, waste-free city of 40,000 sitting amidst a new Silicon Valley for sustainable technology, luring businesses, scientists and students from all over the world. With architect Norman Foster in charge of the design, and the goodwill of global entities from Greenpeace to the US Government, Masdar as an idea shone like a beacon of hope for the future.

Masdar as a real city presents a more complicated picture. Take transport, for example. Initial plans were for a city free of private cars where citizens could move around through a series of shaded walkways or using driverless pods powered by renewable electricity. While the pods are in operation and play well with tourists, their scope has been scaled down and a public transport system including electric buses is proposed alongside an extension of Abu Dhabi’s existing rail networks. Meanwhile, much of the city’s workforce commutes from outside, rather denting Masdar City’s credibility as a sustainable transport hub.

Where energy is concerned, the city boasts impressive credentials – building designs optimise natural light and come with high levels of insulation, efficient lighting and a range of smart systems and appliances. Visitors compliment the pleasant daytime temperatures in the streets achieved, in part, by an entirely passive “wind tower” which sucks up hot air to make way for a cooling breeze and should reduce the need for air conditioning. Masdar City’s electricity is currently provided by a vast array of solar photovoltaic panels but again, this rings a little hollow when we consider the UAE’s carbon footprint as a whole, which ranks 5th or 6th globally in CO2 emissions per capita. More directly, there have been rumours of embarrassing design flaws such as solar panels located on shaded roofs and lights that were difficult to control, but it is to be hoped that these flaws have been rectified with lessons duly learned.

Technicalities aside, how well does Masdar City function as a living, breathing city? Here opinions are divided. Detractors gleefully point out the limited extent to which the original dream has (yet) been realised. A city of 40,000 it certainly isn’t – current projections suggest that it will host 10% of that population by the end of the year – and most current residents are students at the prestigious Masdar Institute for Science and Technology, the Gulf’s answer to MIT. Success in attracting international green technology companies has so far been restricted to Siemens, whose award-winning regional office is open for business and will house 800 employees.

Others argue that its very existence is a testament to a government putting its money where its mouth is, especially when compared to similar projects elsewhere such as Dongtan in China, whose construction is firmly on hold at the moment. By all accounts, visitors come away impressed by the hi-tech, but often lacking any genuine sense of place in what feels more like a project than a city.

Whether a gimmick or a blueprint for the future, Masdar City is clearly a work in progress and a learning experience and it is only fair to judge it as such. Ultimately, I can’t help wondering whether the Masdars and Dongtans are a bit of a distraction when cities like Dhaka, Lagos and Jakarta are still mushrooming and face mounting problems of energy supply, water abstraction and pollution. Whether or not we can build sustainable new cities, surely the most urgent question is how to make our existing cities sustainable and that, I fear, would take more than a newspaper article to answer…



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