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Living in a sustainable laboratory

  • Written by  Tom Hart
  • Published in Cities
Living in a sustainable laboratory Getty
01 Jan
2015
For the past six years, Abu Dhabi has been building what it hopes will be the world’s leading eco-city – Masdar City. But questions are being asked as to just who these types of man-made habitats are actually for

‘Masdar is quite similar to the 100 or so eco-cities China plans to build,’ says Dr Federico Caprotti, a senior lecturer in urban geography at King’s College London. ‘These are discursive projects built in response to a crisis. They exist in a political context, where the state and the market get together to drive the project. They exist in planning systems where local citizens are not involved. The city is parachuted in above.’

There is no clear answer at the moment as to what the standard is for an eco-city. Several evaluation frameworks exist worldwide, but Masdar has its own key performance indicator framework. ‘One important question asked by geographers is “Can there be an international standard for an eco-city like Masdar?” A city like Masdar that exists in the desert has very different environmental priorities to a city in Europe or China,’ says Caprotti.

Masdar is set to house some 40,000 citizens in buildings that must meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold standards. Energy and water demands will be reduced by 40 per cent compared with current buildings in the emirate.

‘It’s pretty much a high-technology showcase, an engineer’s dream,’ says Caprotti. ‘Lots of technology and economic incentives are being trialled in these places and, if successful, will be adopted more widely. I think you could call them sustainability laboratories.’

Masdar is a pivot away from a hydrocarbon economy for Abu Dhabi. The UAE has roughly 93 years of oil reserves remaining, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Masdar is meant to house engineers, students and professionals interested in renewable energy and one of the first buildings constructed was the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. ‘Its basic aim is to churn out the type of people who will live in Masdar,’ says Caprotti.

He warns of a financial and reputational risk to projects like this. ‘There are also risks in social terms creating these high-end, high-tech, bounded environments that could be termed eco-gated communities,’ he adds. ‘There is an ecologically modernising, neoliberal ideology behind these eco-cities. The idea is that by focusing on the market, technology and policy we can solve today’s environmental problems. It’s part of a modernist approach, which focuses on environmental and social problems then says we can build our way out of them.’

This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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