Masdar City

An urban masterplan that leaves zero footprint in the sand.

Community courtyard within Masdar city.
Community courtyard within Masdar city.
Community courtyard within Masdar city.
Community courtyard within Masdar city.

The UAE owns roughly ten per cent of the world's oil reserves and five per cent of its natural gas. Oil and gas make up approximately 90% of Abu Dhabi's current exports, and per-barrel revenues - those that increased from US$ 6 billion in 2003 to US$ 35 billion in 2005 - are still rising.

Despite the UAE having the world's third highest per capita carbon footprint (behind Kuwait and Qatar), economically speaking, Abu Dhabi doesn't need to focus its attention on energy efficiency. For better or worse, most of the world still operates on the few resources that are in abundant supply beneath its sands and shorelines.


Masdar promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future –Lord Norman foster

Having said that, world opinion is changing. While the UAE's oil and gas resources are plentiful, there is an increasingly urgent need for major developers to start putting responsibility ahead of profitability. In response to this need, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC) and Foster+Partners are pursuing the world's first zero carbon, zero waste mixed-use development in Masdar City.


The concept

Masdar City was conceived in 2006 and launched in conjunction with the Masdar Initiative, Abu Dhabi's multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar program to achieve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Once completed, Masdar City will comprise a research institute, industrial development zone, an alternative energy exhibition centre and the operational headquarters of ADFEC. Its raison d' être however, will be its world-class graduate-level education centre, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), which is partnered with major research universities in Japan, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

With significant Masdar resources invested in research and development of renewable forms of energy, Abu Dhabi's pursuit is less altruistic than strategic.

"To understand the Masdar City, you have to understand it in the context of the entire initiative... It aims to assist Abu Dhabi in diversifying its economy. Its function is to maintain and ultimately enhance Abu Dhabi's global share in the energy market," says Khaled Awad, director of property development at Masdar.

"Abu Dhabi should embrace sustainable forms of energy because global energy markets are changing... For Abu Dhabi to maintain its market share, and possibly improve it, it must enter into other forms of energy. This will show that Abu Dhabi is serious about doing something positive for the environment," adds Awad.

The masterplan

Tasked with completing the masterplan and four phases of development for the zero-carbon Masdar City, Foster+Partners was forced to rethink conventional development theory. In creating an entirely sustainable city, the architect needed to address macro decisions like infrastructure and daily living practices as well as micro decisions like street width, square size and recycling bin frequency.

"The environmental ambitions of the Masdar Initiative - zero carbon and waste free - are a world-first. They have provided us with a challenging design brief that promises to question conventional urban wisdom at a fundamental level," says head architect, Lord Norman Foster.

Inspired by the urban identity of Abu Dhabi and the concepts of compactness and walkability, the buildings will be situated on narrow streets to provide shading and encourage social interaction.

The masterplan itself is based on the fundamental principles of low-rise/high-density residences, sustainable transportation, controlled growth and balancing land for energy generation versus development.

"It focuses on engineering and architecture to improve the quality of life for residents and makes them feel like they're contributing to the environment through the design and function of the buildings," says Awad.


One day, all cities will be built like this –Sultan Al Jabber, CEO, Masdar

The importance of a low-rise/high-density development is twofold: It encourages energy efficiency and better use of recycling systems; and it facilitates community building.

"We deliberately decided not to go high [with building construction]; instead we wanted to focus on going clean. We wanted to be environmentally responsible... We would like to become a benchmark for environmentally responsible design," says Awad.

In its first illustration of rethinking urban design, Foster+Partners planned Masdar City to prohibit automobiles. Instead, residents are encouraged to use various forms of sustainable public transportation - personal rapid transport (PRT) or light rail transport (LRT) - or walk to their destination.

Masdar City will be bisected by the LRT spine, which will be lined by parks and piazzas and will connect the city to surrounding communities, the centre of Abu Dhabi and the international airport. Moreover, the city has been designed to include personal transport hubs within 200m from anywhere inside the city.

In an effort to control urban sprawl, maintain its compactness and ensure zero-carbon sustainability remains feasible, Masdar City is enclosed by walls. This allows for control over the rate of expansion and implementation of its phases at appropriate intervals.

While the Masdar City site spans approximately 640 hectares, only 280 hectares are being developed for City A and its supporting area. Seventy-one hectares of that land has been earmarked for energy generation and water management facilities.

Photovoltaic farms, wind turbines, testing fields, plantations, recreation facilities and the water recycling, irrigation and desalination technology will all be contained within these 71 hectares. The remaining 360 hectares has been reserved for managed expansion of the city according to its four phases of development.

"There is nothing like [Masdar] in the world," says Sultan Al Jabber, CEO of Masdar. "We are creating a synergetic environment; it is a true alternative energy cluster. Here you will find researchers, students, scientists, business investment professionals and policy-makers all within the same community.

The four phases

While LEED ratings and green certifications are the issues of the day in construction and architecture circles, Awad is quick to point out that Masdar City is more than just a network of green buildings.

"Green is a very good concept... but it doesn't address the carbon issue. All our buildings will be more than platinum rated [on the LEED scale]. We're not really concerned about that... We're beyond that," he says.

Because of the incredible amount of energy needed for construction and operation of an entire city, Masdar City will be built in phases and gradually integrate myriad services to maintain the lowest possible carbon output at every stage.

In order to achieve this goal, the obvious first step after establishing the LRT was to plan for the creation of an energy-generating photovoltaic and wind farm. Included in this Phase I initiative is the creation of a photovoltaic manufacturing plant, which will initially be powered completely by existing photovoltaic cells.

Phase II will see the creation of City A, beginning with MIST, eight special economic zones (SEZs) and the ADFEC headquarters building. These areas will line the LRT and form the core of the Masdar spine. All Phase II buildings will incorporate PV units in their roofs, ultimately making them self-sustaining.

Once Masdar City is operational and the water management infrastructure is functional, Phase III will focus on growing tree plantations from recycled grey water. These plantations will ultimately form the basis of biofuel research and production.

Phase IV represents the first opportunity for Masdar City to expand. Referred to as ‘City B', this phase will mimic the construction of City A, but on a smaller scale. Like its larger neighbour, City B will incorporate its own SEZs and PRT network and will be linked to City A via the LRT.

"What we want to do is achieve a level of technological innovation to demonstrate that transportation, waste, energy and water are all integrated things. They should not be looked at independently," says Awad.

The challenges

The Masdar vision is to create the lowest carbon output for any city in the world, while maintaining the highest quality of life. According to Awad, convincing investors and suppliers of the zero-carbon vision was one of the biggest challenges faced in the early stages of the project.

"The key is to find people ready to commit significant resources to a complex project like this," he says. "At first we had trouble with this... then they realised that this is the way people will work and live in the future."

The booming building industry in the Middle East actually worked against Masdar during its initial planning stages. "This is a hot market... This is a project that requires twice the amount of thinking and planning because of its vision," says Awad.

While finding investors is no longer a problem in the Masdar development, it's not without its critics. To the naysayers that see Masdar City as an impossible project or the disbelievers that extol it as the next eco-centric gimmick, Awad offers one challenge. "Wait and see.

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