Masdar City is a small city near Abu Dhabi built by Masdar, a subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company. Mubadala is an investment firm of the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) committed to cleantech and alternative energy research. At its inception, Masdar City was intended to be a completely carbon neutral development with 40,000 residents, including students of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. However, since the project broke ground in 2008, most of its key goals have not been achieved; total carbon neutrality in particular has been deemed impossible.
At its inception, Masdar City was estimated to cost $22 billion; Abu Dhabi itself set aside $15 billion. Most funding, however, was expected to come from outside sources.
The primary investor for the project is Mubadala Development Company which pledged 22B towards the completion of the city. Motivation to build the city was in part to show the world how to optimize energy usage. The UAE had a large push toward renewable energy to move away from their declining fossil fuel industry. Providing more than 3 million barrels of oil per day the UAE is the 7th leading producer of oil in the world. The downward pressure from oil prices caused the UAE to reorient its economy towards renewable energy sources. In fact their most recent GDP is cited as being 70% from the non-oil sector according to Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE prime minister. Their renewable energies efforts are quite ambitious. A $20B nuclear power plant which expected to be completed in 2020 is supposed to produce 25% of the city’s electricity at time of completion. The emirate is also in the process of creating the largest solar farm in the world by ensuring all its citizens install solar roofs on their buildings by the year 2030.
The global financial crisis
Shortly after construction started on the city, the global financial crisis took its toll on the project. Abu Dhabi was forced to bail out Dubai's state investment company, which quickly pulled funding away from Masdar. Potential outside investors also decided to "take a breather," according to according to design manager Chris Wan.
Ultimately, these constraints may have actually had a positive impact on the city. Design manager Chris Wan says the city has been forced to consider alternative avenues that might be easier for existing cities to implement. Considering that some have criticized Masdar for attempting to build a hi-tech "gated community," a bootstrapped approach could make it a more realistic model for the rest of the world.
Masdar City's original goal was to become the world's first planned zero-carbon city and was intended to be completed in 2016. The city was also expected to have a population of 50,000 residents with a total of 40,000 people commuting into the city.
Wayfinding is the spatial problem solving of how to arrive at your destination. Traditional non-carbon neutral cities have a wayfinding method that focuses around automobiles. Although these kinds of layouts facilitate cars being able to transport people or goods as close to the door as possible, this focus also leads to an increased consumption of fossil fuels. The UAE has one of the highest car ownership rates in the world with 5 million cars in the country. The planners of Masdar City including City ID, Endpoint, and Foster & Partners, focused on a new wayfinding culture that promoted its citizens to walk or bike. Their goal was to make everything accessible within the 6 km2 city by either walking or biking. In fact no cars are allowed within the city limits. In order to accommodate people living in the hot, arid region clean technologies were implemented in the city in order to foster this new wayfinding culture.
In order for the Masdar City Project to accomplish the initial goal of creating a zero carbon footprint city, they focused on renewable energy sources and minimizing fossil fuel usage. One way they have fostered the wayfinding method of walking or biking was by creating narrow streets with large overhanging buildings to provide citizens with a lot of shade from the scorching sun of the Arabian Desert and to lower cooling costs. A wind tower in the middle of the city pulls air downwards to provide a cool breeze to walkers. Below the city streets, a rich network of public and personal transportation network is used. Electric-powered personal rapid transit (PRT) vehicles such were implemented to provide an alternative to cars which are prohibited within the city limits. Dynamic solar umbrellas were also used to provide solar energy and shade pedestrians below during the day, and fold up at night to provide illumination to the streets. These are just a few of the many implementations of clean technologies that were used to help create this green city. However, the speed of advancement of the electric vehicle was not anticipated when the project leaders were designing the city. The now vast PRT system and planned transport system (jet-set) system seemed more obsolete. As a result, only 2 out of the 100 tracks have been built in the jet-set system.
Currently, less than 5% of Masdar City has been built, and project managers have diverged from their original goal of a zero carbon emission city. Due to the rate of industry investment in clean technology, mobility, and the project's financial strategy, the goal has been revised to 50% carbon neutrality with a new finish date sometime in 2030. Project managers are now also aiming to make the city an economically viable place to live as this has been the object of heavy skepticism.
Every action that requires electricity in the residential buildings of Masdar City is monitored in order to limit energy an water consumption. Moreover, water and electricity can be switched on and off either automatically via sensors embedded in the apartments or manually by power providers known by some as the "Green Police." This is done because Masdar City is currently in its experimentation phase during which project stakeholders are interested in seeing if residents are able to use approximately half as much power or water as they would otherwise.
Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
Currently, the only residents of Masdar City are the 456 students of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate-level university developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that offers a wide range of engineering programs. The residential buildings at the Masdar Institute are highly optimized to limit energy and water consumption. They rely on natural cooling by allowing cool air to flow into the buildings during the evening while allowing the walls’ thermal cooling to maintain low temperatures during hotter parts of the day. Student apartments also feature waste separation chutes to encourage recycling, efficient appliances, low-flow showers, and many other technologies intended to decrease water consumption and waste production. In total, facilities at Masdar Institute use 54 percent less electricity and 54 percent less water compared to the current UAE standard, and are powered entirely by solar energy.
Several business are present in Masdar City. Major firms like Siemens, GE, Mitsubishi, and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) are among the most recognized. A wide variety of smaller companies have also set up shop, although some of their positions are actually "hot desks;" this creates an official presence in the city with minimal investment in the physical space.
A healthy business sector is critical to a vibrant community, so Masdar City has tried to make it as easy as possible for businesses to open and operate.
The city's Free Zone offers several key benefits, including:
- Allowing complete foreign ownership
- No taxes or currency restrictions
- Freedom to move capital outside the UAE
Masdar has set up a comprehensive website detailing these benefits for potential tenants and is clearly eager to display itself as a commercial friendly location.
As part of the Free Zone, Masdar has set up a One-Stop Shop to handle most registration and government service tasks a business needs. It also provides several support functions including facilities management, tech support, and banking services.
Critics have both directly and indirectly challenged the notion that Masdar City can be the flourishing city its proponents claim. With only a small fraction of the master plan finished and only a few hundred (semi)permanent residents, such skepticism needs little more justification to be considered seriously. How closely these criticisms are linked to the city's early stumbling blocks is somewhat unclear, and could thus be an area for future research.
Many of the criticisms, to some degree, stem from differing definitions of "sustainable." Cugurullo claims that sustainability has economic, social, and environmental dimensions; by his analysis, Masdar focuses more on the economic factors than anything else. In order for the city to truly be seen as sustainable in the holistic sense, key participant groups will need to come to at least a rough consensus on the city's particular definition.
Lack of community
One objection to the city is that it could become a means of class segregation. Both commercial and residential space in the city is leased by the government of Abu Dhabi, a wealthy nation who leases much of the space to businesses. Even at its intended population, Masdar will remain a very small and secluded development "outside the reach of most of the world's citizens." It offers little for the "new urban poor" whose labor built the city; similar phenomena can also be seen in similar eco-developments in China. One researcher makes the case that Masdar can hide its lack of residential engagement with its business ties. The city can therefore technically say it aims for some level of social sustainability by playing loose with terminology.
Ground-up vs. incremental approach
The city's ground-up approach to environmental sustainability has also been questioned. Masdar claims that this tabula rasa approach "demonstrates that environmental responsibility need not be a hardship." Most existing cities, however, simply don't have the ability to start from scratch. Smaller scale approaches like Bunker Roy's "Barefoot College" (a program that trains women in developing countries in solar energy) may be more feasible in general, and may well have a more direct impact on a city's population.
While Masdar City is making progress toward its initial goals (albeit much slower than originally planned), the broader purpose of the development is not yet clear. For now, it is an ambitious experiment on the feasibility of hi-tech green living - a "living lab," as it's often called - more than it is a city in the traditional sense. More outsiders like investors, businesses, and potential residents will need to see in Masdar a greater effort for socioeconomic inclusion to meet its original vision: "a 'greenprint' for how cities can accommodate rapid urbanisation and dramatically reduce energy, water and waste."
- Masdar City factsheet
- The Guardian: Masdar's zero-carbon dream could become world’s first green ghost town
- http://gulfnews.com/business/sectors/construction/22b-masdar-city-to-rely-mainly-on-outside-funds-1.84134 $22b Masdar City to rely mainly on outside funds
- http://www.wired.co.uk/article/reality-hits-masdar Masdar: the shifting goalposts of Abu Dhabi's ambitious eco-city
- http://www.treehugger.com/urban-design/has-masdar-turned-ghost-town.html Has Masdar turned into a ghost town?
- http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/arts/design/26masdar.html?_r=0&pagewanted=all In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises
- https://www.masdar.ac.ae/campus-community/the-campus/residential Masdar Institute residential buildings
- https://www.masdar.ac.ae/campus-community/the-campus/water-waste Water and Waste in Masdar Institute
- http://www.masdar.ae/en/media/detail/masdar-free-zone-unveils-new-licences-to-promote-clean-tech-entrepreneurs-a Masdar Free Zone unveils new licences to promote clean-tech entrepreneurs at GITEX Technology Week
- Masdar City Free Zone
- One-Stop Shop
- doi: 10.1111/anti.12087 Eco-urbanism and the Eco-city, or, Denying the Right to the City? (Caprotti, 2014)
- http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2012.735105 How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City (Cugurullo, 2013)
- http://www.masdar.ae/en/masdar-city/detail/sustainability Sustainability
- https://thinkprogress.org/live-from-masdar-flower-in-the-desert-d143e7f7e984#.2xuuar2te Live from Masdar: Flower in the Desert
- http://masdar.ae/en/masdar-city/detail/About-Masdar-City About Masdar City