Picture this: A bucolic modern city in the inhospitable desert of Abu Dhabi, a futuristic urban landscape of cutting-edge green technology that serves as an incubator for the people and ideas that will lead us into a sustainable paradise. It will be the world’s first zero-carbon city.
The community will be home to 40,000 forward-thinking people, and the workplace of 60,000 more. Cars will be banned; bicycles will be welcomed—the jury’s still out on hoverboards. Conservation of electricity and water are achieved via motion sensors, and most of the city’s energy is generated by a 54-acre field of 87,000 solar panels. An extensive greywater system conserves precious H2O, rooftop solar water heaters provide hot showers, and interiors are framed with sustainable palmwood. Heat-repelling terracotta walls of intricate arabesque patterns at street level give the city a sense of place and history in addition to reducing the need for air conditioning.
This was the idea behind Masdar City, designed by the British architectural firm Foster + Partners (Wembley Stadium, Hong Kong International Airport, Apple Campus 2) with capital provided by the government of Abu Dhabi and built by Masdar, a state-owned subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company. Construction began in 2006; the proposed completion date was 2014.
It was to be the eco-conscious urban planner’s dream town: The unbearable daytime heat would be mitigated by an ingenious and ancient system of ventilating chimneys that suck air from the sky and divert it into a breeze through city streets, keeping the walled area about 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert. Short, narrow streets were designed to keep the sun off your face and push air upward to flush the heat out of city. Architects visited ancient cities in Egypt, Yemen, and Oman to see how such low-tech engineering solutions have kept people living in the desert for so many centuries without feeling the need to relocate to the French Riviera. The city’s structures themselves would be built on a raised platform, to facilitate the whole breezy vibe and clear the way for a subterranean transportation network. Buildings would face northwest to catch the breeze, atria would help bring natural daylight into each building’s interior, reducing the need for artificial lighting.
Check out the housing block:
Masdar would also propagate future green technology. It is the home of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the post-graduate Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST; launched with the help of MIT).
Masdar got off to a good start. Then, if you’ll recall, the world economy took a terrifying nosedive in 2008 and many good intentions went the way of your 401(k) profits. Abu Dhabi was forced to bail out neighboring Dubai to the tune of $59 billion. Funds earmarked for Masdar evaporated., and the project was downsized enormously. Currently, the bigwigs forecast that the city will be finished by 2025. As of 2016 the city’s permanent population is about 4,000. In addition to IRENA and the Masdar Institute, Siemens has built a LEED platinum certified headquarters in the city (uses 45 percent less energy, 50 percent less water than your typical building), built according to an award-winning “box within a box” concept. Also among early residents are General Electric’s Ecomagination Center, Mitsubishi, French-owned Schneider Electric, and the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute.
The Personal Rapid Transit System
The most Jetsons-like part of Masdar was the personal rapid transit (PRT) system. One hundred underground stops throughout the city would ferry people from point A to point B in semi-private splendor. This was like a subway car built for one to four passengers, propelled on a dedicated road and railway system. It was a great idea, until the driverless Uber car became a more economical and viable near-future alternative. The PRT system was only uber expensive, so it went no further than a 2010 prototype before it was replaced by automated electric-powered vehicles manufactured by Mitsubishi. Only two of the planned 100 PRT stations were built. It’s a case study of technology disruption in real time.
Trouble in Paradise
You know those 87,000 solar panels? In the sandy desert? Turns out they need to be brushed off every day in order to function properly. And it quickly became apparent that the new green energy systems couldn’t provide all the energy the city needed, so Masdar was hooked up to Abu Dhabi’s existing power grid. Dreams of a zero-carbon city evaporated in the desert’s dry heat. The naysayers watched from the sidelines, saying “I told you so.” Many of them believed that rather than building new cities from scratch, we should work on retrofitting existing cities with green energy and carbon-saving devices.
You can’t fault Abu Dhabi for recognizing that their vast oil reserves will someday run dry, but the naysayers point out the hypocrisy of the venture. Pointing to the UAE’s unprecedented building boom, which has created acres of luxury islands and miles of skyscrapers surrounded by vast, sprawling freeway networks, Cornell professor Brian Stilwell told Patrick Kingsley in Wired that “Masdar will be the world’s most sustainable city . . . but it will be surrounded by some of the world’s most unsustainable developments.” Other critics are harsher. Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian says Masdar could be the “world’s first green ghost town.”
The 2008 collapse let the air out of the city’s lofty aspirations. Former Masdar director Steve Geiger told Kingsley, “at the beginning of the project, nobody really anticipated how difficult it is to build a city. . . . We promised the world it was going to be the first zero-carbon [city], but it’s just not economically feasible. Now it’s low carbon. We said it was going to be zero-waste. We said it would be car-free. We said it would be built on a nine-metre-high platform — we had to backpedal on all those ideas.” Meanwhile, Masdar the investment corporation, has become sidetracked on other green energy projects, both at home and abroad in London and Germany. These projects are big, but not as big as a city, but they may prove to be more influential in the long term. Its Shams 1 solar plant is the largest in the Middle East, ten times larger than Masdar City’s measley 87,000 solar panels. Its revolutionary system of parabolic troughs and super-heated liquid generates enough electricity for 20,000 homes.
As of 2016, only about 300 people, all students who received free accomodations and tuition, live in Masdar’s residential blocks. This is far below any critical threshold needed to establish a “city.” Restaurants and shops cannot survive on such a low density. Only about 5 percent of the original city plan has been realized. Other than Siemens and GE, no other major corporations have pledged to locate major offices in the development. Start-ups have been especially hard to attract; until recently local law mandated that all companies be locally owned. Once again, the region is well below the critical threshold of brainpower and amenities needed to attract new businesses. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley for a reason. Nevertheless, Masdar’s many stakeholders believe in something akin to success in failure. Simply by attempting the impossible, they have encouraged others to see some method to their madness. In that vein, both Jordan and Morocco are planning their own green energy projects now that they see the economic sense in some of Masdar’s concepts.