Masdar City: the eco-city still raising questions

Masdar City: the eco-city still raising questions Norman Foster
24 Mar
Masdar City was supposed to open to tens of thousands residents this year. So what has happened to the UAE’s beacon of urban sustainability?

It was supposed to lead the way for a new generation of smart, sustainable cities. Masdar City, adjacent to Abu Dhabi International Airport, has been a project many years in production. Its creation was supposed to send a strong signal to the world that the United Arab Emirates was pivoting away from an oil-based economy and towards one which could continue to grow and thrive as an environmentally-aware, sustainable, low-carbon economy. State-of-the-art technology would be used to reduce demand on resources and enable the city’s 40,000 residents – as well as the thousands commuting to work at Siemens, General Electric, Mitsubishi, and other big name corporations with their headquarters based in the city – to live the utopian, urban sustainable dream.

2016 was the year the city was originally scheduled to open, yet the project is still far from completion. Progress has slowed, with developers currently looking at an unveiling no sooner than 2030. Meanwhile, naysayers are busy predicting Masdar City’s demise. So is the dream over this pioneering eco-city?

‘The project is still under development,’ insists Dr Federico Cugurullo, lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Environment, Education and Development, the University of Manchester. ‘It has always been a slow development, because of its costs, mechanics and the number of actors involved. They are likely to finish it, but it will take at least 15 years and the final shape will be very different to the original master plan.’

‘Masdar City is being built in phases, but of course real cities are never finished,’ counters Anthony Mallows, Director of Planning and Delivery for Masdar City. ‘This approach provides us the flexibility to embrace new technologies, apply lessons learned and make improvements moving forward. Masdar City will be transformed over the next decade. Around 35 per cent of the planned built-up area will be completed over the next five years, and nearly 30 per cent has already been committed to, including private homes, schools, hotels and more office space.’

masdarThe original master plan map of Masdar City, Abu Dhabi (Image: Masdar)

Back in 2008, developers first broke ground on what they foresaw as the world’s most sustainable low-carbon city, one which would become a leading case study for cities of the future. ‘Masdar City is a complete ecosystem,’ read a recent official publication, ‘integrating research and development, a technology cluster, a free zone and an investment zone.’ An electric vehicle ride-share scheme, combined with a smart public transport network and high walkability would revolutionise intra-city transport. A vast photovoltaic network atop buildings, made from 90 per cent recycled materials, would ensure low external energy and resources demands.

Cugurullo has followed Masdar City’s development over many years, and has repeatedly called into question the development’s supposed environmental concerns. ‘The eco-city is a project where “eco” does not stand for “ecological” but for “economic”,’ he wrote last year. ‘By developing, integrating and commercialising clean technologies, the Emirati eco-city project capitalises on environmental concerns to generate profit. In these terms, Masdar City is sustainable inasmuch as it manages to sustain the economic and political system that it draws on. However, redolent of the eco-modernisation logic, the project is severely undermined by an internal tension between economic interests and environmental concerns: a tension which ultimately shatters the sustainability potential of the new city.’

Despite these concerns over Masdar though, Cugurullo refuses to follow those pundits reading the last rites for the smart city concept. ‘At the moment, the smart city is the most popular ideal in urban politics and urban development,’ he explains. ‘I think that eco-cities will be suggested for many years to come.’

‘Masdar City is designed to consume 40 per cent less energy and water than built-up environments of a comparable size,’ insists Mallows. ‘The city diverts 90 per cent of its construction waste from landfills, buildings are constructed with 90 per cent recycled aluminium and low-carbon cement, in addition to other locally-sourced and verified materials, powered in large part by renewable energy. Masdar City building cluster serves as a working laboratory to monitor and study how cities use, conserve and share resources. Minismising the development’s carbon footprint is an ongoing process. With each new building or phase of the development, we try to push the envelope further.’

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