Masdar City: The Future of Sustainable Cities?

Masdar City is a planned community under construction in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. When finished, it will be the world’s first self-sustaining, zero-waste city.

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Abu Dhabi is an oasis in multiple senses of the word. For one, the Liwa Oasis, marked by miles of palm forests in the southern United Arab Emirates, acts as a physical sanctuary for thousands in the intense Arabian desert. Additionally, within Abu Dhabi’s largest city of the same name, and capital of the UAE, a different kind of oasis is beginning to take shape.

Already known as one of the most progressive engineering cities in the world, Abu Dhabi has set its sights even higher. Just a short trip from city center, a revolutionary planned community is springing out of the desert. Its name is Masdar City, named after the green technology company from which it was conceived. Construction began in 2008 with an estimated completion date before 2025. The goal is simple: become the world’s first self-sufficient, zero-emissions, zero-waste community.

A Living Lab

Masdar City is what urban planners refer to as a “planned community”. In other words, the city is designed and intended to be development as a single unit. Concepts for street grid, infrastructure, transportation, and zoning are all handled by planners before any dirt is moved.

This idea is not new. Planned communities have been an integral part of planning history since the dawn of civilization. From walled complexes in the Middle Ages to garden cities of the mid-20th century, the face of planned cities has changed drastically over generations. However, the goal remains the same: to build the perfect city.

Map by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson
Map by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson

Planned communities offer a unique “living lab”, in which innovations can be put to the test. In a normal city, the confusing web of players and variables can make it difficult to determine the exact causes or benefits of policy decisions. Furthermore, the effectiveness of innovations is almost always reliant on the ability to generate sufficient revenue.

Communities such as Masdar City are able to ignore much of this political and economic noise when necessary. This enables planners to focus on and develop technologies in a controlled environment. Though economic viability is certainly a concern, it does not act as such an obstacle as in normal cities.

Scientific Vertical Integration

Vertical integration is a concept that indicates the degree of consolidation between an entity and its suppliers and distributors. In essence, a company that practices vertical integration might control aspects of the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of their product to customers (e.g. Apple).

It is in this spirit that Masdar City is able to so effectively push forward its lofty innovation goals. Masdar Institute of Science and Technology represents the physical and ideological cornerstone of Masdar City. Located at its heart, the non-profit institute was the first functional development to be completed in the community.

The university performs cutting-edge research on city development and energy. Those findings can then immediately enter prototype phase within the central campus and the rest of Masdar City. By partnering with players both within and outside the Masdar company, innovations can mature. Eventually, technologies spawned from Masdar can find an immediate market in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE.

Working with the Environment

One significant concept promoted in Masdar is the opportunistic utilization of environmental resources. By itself, this concept could apply to almost any enterprise involving the extraction of natural resources. Where Masdar City stands apart is its quest to do so both sustainability with little economic or environmental impact.

The very structure of the city aims to utilize and/or cope with environmental phenomena. Surrounding Masdar City is a relentless desert. To many, this would seem to be an obstacle. For Masdar City, it is perhaps its greatest asset. Despite being void of many vital resources to sustain life, deserts are overflowing with two that may just allow you to build an entire modern city: wind and sun.

Wind

Cities develop street grids based on various circumstances. Some orient streets north to south for easy navigation. Others position them parallel to a river or bluff. Even others may develop a seemingly random network of streets over time descended from historic paths. However, few cities have ever chosen to orient their streets to the wind.

Desert heat represents a danger people and a great inflator of energy bills for households. However, desert cities have evolved since antiquity to deal with this most basic challenge. Therefore, it is no surprise Masdar City looks to the same natural reprieve as its ancestors. Masdar City is oriented in such a way so as to allow the free circulation of wind within the built area. By calculating the general direction of prevailing winds, planners were able to position city blocks and streets to allow maximum air flow. Inspired by the design of ancient cities such as Cairo, Masdar streets are made narrow and short in order to help funnel wind through the streetscape, flushing out stale, hot air.

However, engineers from Masdar Institute took things a step further. What if instead of merely positioning a city to passively accept ground-level air flow, Masdar City could actively use wind to drastically cool the city? The answer: wind towers.

Infographic by Andy Thies and Jesse Howe
Infographic by Andy Thies and Jesse Howe

Though used since ancient times as a way to cool desert cityscapes, the wind tower has evolved into one of the more unique approaches to modern city building seen in Masdar City. The principle is simple: capture cool, upper layer wind flow, and direct it downwards into city blocks. A 48-meter (148 ft.) wind tower rising from the center of Masdar Institute does just that. Though the same principle as ancient wind towers, the Masdar wind tower incorporates modern advancements that amplify its effect far beyond its dated counterparts. First, by simply rising higher into the air, Masdar City’s wind tower can collect cooler and more steady wind currents. Then, through a system of automated misters (replacing the ancient system of damp cloth), the tower can deliver cool, moist air to the streets below. As a result, streets in Masdar City are up to 10°F cooler than streets in Abu Dhabi.

Not only does this provide a safer and higher quality of life for residents, it drastically cuts down on the city’s energy consumption. The UAE is one of the biggest consumers of energy in the world when it comes to air conditioning.

Sun

Though wind is a major asset for enhancing well-being and efficiency, the pursuit of energy self-sufficiency for Masdar City lies in the hands of solar energy. The city currently receives roughly 70% of its energy through large solar fields around its perimeter. Consisting of about 90,000 panels over a 50+ acre area, solar production in Masdar City is one of the most advanced in the world. Currently, different methods of solar energy conversion are being applied in the form of photovoltaics and concentrated solar power.

Additionally, solar panels placed upon rooftops at Masdar Institute produce up to a third of energy consumption. This is impressive considering the how energy-intensive most of the lab work is.

The biggest challenge for solar energy production in Masdar City is blowing sand. During and after dust storms, layers of sand upon panels can drastically reduce the effectiveness of energy production. Currently, these panels must be cleaned by hand. However, researchers at the Institute are developing ways to create sand-resistant solar panels, through minimizing pore size of the material to prevent sand from sticking.

Resource Efficiency: Making Less Do More

Masdar City’s arsenal of energy-generating technology is impressive, no doubt. However, it is the project’s ability to extend resources further than in any other place on Earth that allows it to thrive. Since the early stages of planning Masdar City, engineers knew efficiency would be a top concern.

Scarcity of freshwater is a real issue throughout most of the Middle East. Many countries, including the UAE, rely on desalination operations along the coast to provide clean water for its people. This method of water extraction, though, is costly. To cope, it has become a focus of Middle Eastern governments such as Jordan and the UAE to promote water conservation and recycling.

These strategies are exemplified in Masdar City. The city currently recycles up to 80% of wastewater. Greywater, that from sinks and showers, is re-filtered and used to sustain vegetation around the city. Blackwater, or sewage, is treated at plants on the city’s outskirts. Solids are removed with the intent of burning them for fuel.

Additionally, consumer-end technology helps to conserve water. There are no taps in Masdar City; instead all faucets are triggered by motion sensors, thereby decreasing water consumption. This strategy also extends to interior lights, which are also motion-sensitive.

Resource conservation even applies to the buildings themselves. Construction materials are sourced locally and recycled when possible. This is in part due to a larger concept of Masdar’s carbon footprint. Not only are emissions calculated within the project itself, but also all transportation and manufacturing costs associated with materials brought into the city. This gives planners a better idea of the secondary and tertiary emissions from Masdar City as well as a truer cost analysis of its development.

The Future of Transit?

The goal of mass transit is to transport large volumes of passengers within a dense urban environment. Studies have long validated its ability to encourage economic development, lower costs of transportation, and improve local environmental quality. However, drawbacks of transit are numerous. Crowded vehicles, lack of flexibility for individual commute, and cost of initial infrastructure all can limit the effectiveness of systems.

Motor vehicles, while largely condemned by modern urbanists, provide many benefits that cannot be fulfilled by transit. Freedom of travel and relatively affordable infrastructure expansion make cars the desirable choice for the majority of people in developed countries. However, carbon emissions, high individual maintenance costs, and relative lack of personal safety are all valid reasons why cities are beginning to discourage their use.

Might there be a compromise between these two transit modes? A unity of the benefits of cars and mass transit? Again, Masdar City might have found the answer: personal rapid transit. PRT is a transportation system that relies on single “pod” vehicles, like cars. However, they run on guided railways like traditional mass transit. The goal is to achieve a clean, highly efficient transit system with no sacrifice of individual freedom of travel.

Image by Andy Thies
Image by Andy Thies

Designed by Dutch firm, 2getthere, Masdar’s PRT system is only fledgling. A 800-meter starter line spans underground beneath the institute. Someday soon, the goal is to have this line complete a nearly seamless transition between itself and the larger Abu Dhabi Metro transit system.

However, PRT at Masdar, in many respects, shares a likeness closer to driverless cars. Converse to other PRT systems at West Virginia University and Heathrow Airport in London, passengers in Masdar can summon a podcar via magnetically guided track, not rails. The city has even experimented with creating a transit system more geared toward electric driverless cars running at surface level.

Bringing It All Home

Masdar City it the epitome of modern urban innovation. However, advanced technologies can be no simple game to implement in existing cities. With political friction and disgruntled taxpayers, infrastructure improvements can often be like pulling teeth.

The concept of Masdar, though, is something that can and should be adopted to create a more sustainable urban culture worldwide. Each city has a different story and therefore, diverse needs. But many individual technologies from Masdar could be creatively used to increase quality of life in urban centers. Wind towers can cool bus stops during hot summers in the American South. Water recycling may provide a real solution to water scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa. PRT may represent the future of transportation in dense urban centers like Tokyo and Mexico City.

Despite the flashy technology and cutting-edge research at Masdar, the more valuable lesson lies in its foundation principle. A future of sustainable cities is within our grasp. By working with the landscape along with the right political and public support, every city on Earth can become an oasis for urban and environmental vitality.

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