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Foster + Partners, United Arab Emirates

WHEN YOU KEEP IT SEALED, IS IT BETTER FOR PEOPLE OR FOR ENERGY?

Masdar City is an eco-city located in the United Arab Emirates desert outside of Abu Dhabi. Designed by Norman Foster, it is a project initiated in 2008 by the Masdar Institute, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi government. Masdar literally translates as ‘the source’ in Arabic, and the city’s goal is to be the world’s most sustainable city, with aspirations of ‘zero carbon’ and ‘zero waste’. Paradoxically, Masdar City is being built on UAE oil wealth, however the Masdar Institute states that a main goal of the new city is to begin the transformation of the country’s economy from an oil foundation to one with a knowledge and innovation base, putting renewable energy and technology at the forefront. In its projected completion in 2016, Masdar City is expected to be 100,000m2 and accommodate 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters.


Masdar City is an experimental test-bed for sustainable technology and a new model of sustainability via the ubiquitous use of technological innovations. It is clearly a project financially but also structurally invested in technological supremacy to overcome all physical barriers. Specifically, the master plan incorporates point-to-point transportation by the means of Personalized Rapid Transit, the city’s subterranean electric driverless cars. A large 10-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant is built to provide electricity for active cooling systems, artificial lighting, and desalination of ocean water. Water is conserved by the use of high efficiency appliances, water tariffs, and smart water meters, and all wastewater is supposed to be recycled. A 45-meter Teflon-coated wind tower measures the city’s energy consumption, and an interactive umbrella feature called ‘Petals from Heaven’ open, provide shade, and capture energy during daylight hours. More passive strategies include densely populating the buildings to reduce transport needs. Also, streets are designed along the direction of the prevailing winds to improve passive cooling, and narrow streets maximize shade the further reduce air-conditioning. Masdar City can be seen as living lab, where new technologies can be tested in a real urban context.


The developers of Masdar City assert that the project must also be economically viable. However, the 2008 economic recession caused compromises to the master plan. The original $22 billion investment was reduced to $18 billion, and the 2016 deadline was pushed back to 2030. Masdar City adopted a ‘carbon neutral’ strategy, versus the original ‘carbon zero’ aspiration. The Personalized Rapid Transit was limited to just 10 percent of the total area of the city, when it was supposed to cover the entire city area. The social sustainability of Masdar City is also up for debate. Since at the core of Masdar City is the implementation and testing of green technologies, the city is dependent on the partnership of companies with the Masdar Institute. Therefore, the ‘social’ aspect of sustainability within Masdar City is primarily focused on the attention towards the customer’s needs. Still considered one of the most environmentally sustainable cities in the world, Masdar City is equally criticized as a capitalist development and lacking of a social sustainability.

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KEYWORDS: Eco-City, Greenprint, Zero Carbon

KEY FAILURES

BUDGET CONSTRAINTS: Numerous compromises to the sustainability of the project were made due to budget cuts affecting targets for carbon emissions. However, changes to the scale of the project were not as drastic, bringing into question the priorities of Masdar and its viability as an eco-city.

CONSUMER CULTURE: While the strategy for energy-efficiency is well-developed, social sustainability of the city is questionable. Partnership of Masdar Institute with large companies is gearing the city towards a heavy consumer culture.

MERELY 10% TRANSIT CONNECTIVITY: The personalized rapid transit system will only service ten percent of the city instead of connecting the whole project, as originally intended.

MASDAR INSTITUTE