Über green Masdar City the United Arab Emirates, a glimpse of the future

A major oil-producing country builds the world’s first ecopolis

By Ivan Gale

Imagine a city whose residents have kicked the fossil fuel habit and rely solely on sun and wind for electricity. Cars are banished; instead, people walk, bicycle, and zip across town in underground, electric-powered pods.

If that sounds like science fiction, think again. In February, builders broke ground on Masdar City, a planned $22 billion zero-waste, zero-carbon community in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Located on the shores of the Persian Gulf, the project is set to be completed in 2016. Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, is behind what is the world’s most ambitious “eco-city” project to date. Masdar’s 50,000 residents will push the boundaries of green living, starting with its first inhabitants, 100 alternative energy postgrads at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology who will arrive in September 2009. Powered by renewable energy, the city will recycle all of its garbage and much of its water, and grow organic produce. “We’re simply taking a very bold step,” says Masdar chief executive Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber.

Masdar is one of several efforts to create sustainable communities in response to the threats posed by climate change. A low-carbon city is being built on Dongtan, an island off Shanghai, and Iceland, Norway, Costa Rica, and New Zealand have pledged to rid their economies of carbon. Masdar, however, is the most far-ranging development planned yet. It’s also the first undertaken by a major oil producer.

Oil has made Abu Dhabi fabulously wealthy—it holds nine percent of the world’s proven reserves. But that resource will run out. So the emirate is looking to cleantech industries to help wean it off its fossil fuel dependency and create new jobs. “If it’s a business someone is developing for 2015, we don’t want to be in it,” says Homaid Al Shemmari, associate director at Mubadala, a government-owned development company that oversees the project. “We’re looking way, way into the future.”

Planners are already integrating that kind of foresight into the fabric of the city. A canopy of thin-film solar panels will provide shade and half the city’s electricity. Wind turbines and waste-to-power plants, which use garbage as fuel, will dot the landscape. In the nearby desert, a 500-megawatt power plant will capture solar energy. Instead of photovoltaic panels, mirrors and lenses will concentrate the sun’s rays, utilizing heat to power steam generators. Hot water may come from “evacuated thermal tubes,” pipes filled with fluid and heated by sunlight; or from drilling thousands of feet underground to use the earth’s warmth to heat water.

Most of that water will come from desalination, an energy-intensive process in which seawater is converted to fresh water. Desalination provides most of UAE’s water supply, which helps explain why the country has the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world. But in Masdar, solar energy will power desalination. Conservation efforts are also part of the program: Recycling 80 percent of water and employing technologies like a leak-detection system are important steps for meeting the goal of 21 gallons of water per person daily (the national average is currently 143).

Perhaps the biggest experiment of all is the plan to make Masdar car-free. Planners hope shaded alleyways will encourage city dwellers to travel on foot. Residents will also get around by electric-powered light rail, and “personal rapid transit systems”— six-passenger, electric-powered pods that will run underground and deliver riders to roughly 1,500 stations throughout the city.

Experts say Masdar is a lofty endeavor, especially given the difficulty of attaining a carbon-free existence in a climate as harsh as the desert, where temperatures can reach 120°F with 97 percent humidity. “The problem with Masdar is its extreme heat and barren landscape, presently artificially maintained by oil profits,” says Richard Register, author of Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. To Register, the big challenge is “how to make the landscape productive as well as the city a net positive presence for people and nature.”

Building a showcase of sustainability in an unsustainable environment was the chief challenge for Masdar’s designers, the renowned London-based firm Foster+Partners. To find a solution, the architects mixed traditional and modern concepts. They plan to make outdoor public areas pleasant year-round, cooling alleyways with sea breezes and building a peripheral wall to block desert winds. Arabic wind towers—chimneys that draw in air to circulate through buildings—will also help keep temperatures down.

If successful, the project could become a model for other eco-minded urban communities, says Register. “It’s very important to have on-the-ground projects to go walk around, look at, and learn from.” And although he laments that only the “super-rich” will be able to build a city like Masdar in such an unforgiving climate, he says a project like this is long overdue. “Masdar is getting it right, at the very least, by finally getting around to investing in [an ecopolis focused on solar power].”


This article appeared previously in the October/November 2008 issue of Plenty


There is much to marvel at in the Masdar experiment but there is something gravely wrong in establishing an environmental showcase for 50,000 of its future population in a few square miles when in most places the UAE is not providing basic recycling services for its 4 million population.

Masdar is seeking to give a lead to the world but the UAE is not setting a basic environmental example to its own people. There is plastic everywhere. Oil slicks (15 so far this year-2008) damaging the UAE marine environment. So little tapping into the rich solar rays.

What sort of experiment and leadership is it which costs billions of dollars of oil money? Something more modest may help developing countries feel sustainability is attainable with their lesser means.

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Geoff Pound

I appreciate what you're saying about sustainable that is affordable. It remains to be seen how successful Masdar will be. Masdar doesn't feel like your typical national vanity project, they are also creating an institutional process for turning concepts into off the shelf technologies or best practices. Two examples are the start of construction of a thin-film solar factory, and the design of a city-wide PRT network. It would not seem wise to invest in creating these and other technologies if no one, especially their own people, can't afford them.

Why should billions of Mid East oil money be doing this? Why not??? I don't see companies or governments in the West doing it, and they're not exactly presiding over pristine ecologies either.

I think that progress in eco-technology and urban planning is a wonderful concept. I don't see Masdar as the way to go.

Here are my criticisms:

Monopsony: That Masdar is a private business, the city itself is private property. Like Celebration, Florida, a Disney-run town, private property means absolute control of its citizens. Further, like company-towns of the olden days, the corporation has control of the prices within stores, of transportation, rent, and even wages (assuming people both work and live in Masdar). The cards, if lined up correctly, could grant absolute authority to the company presiding over the city and grant them complete control of the social environment and the economic structure. This theory is especially potent if people come from a wide range of economic backrounds and it depends on each individual's financial ability to find other residency.

Bourgeois Culture: Masdar is a pioneering venture designed to target a wealthy market of eco-snobs. While these people may care about their own survival amidst changing environmental dynamics, their movement into exclusive eco-communities would represent their indifference to those without the economic means to enjoy the benefits of green living - regardless of their personal intent. With this logic, one could argue that patronizing farmer's markets and co-ops is in effect the same dehumanizing process. However, farmer's markets and co-ops are mutually beneficial to differing class parties while Masdar would only benefit those with wealth, power, and privilege.

Yes, Masdar is a model that might "TRICKLE DOWN," so to speak. Yet, in the changing global economy and in the midst of racist and classist ideologies, its existence may have grave implications in the years to come. Like resorts juxtaposed to impoverished 'shanty towns' in beach-front communities world-wide, Masdar is the new ironic pinnacle of the UAE.

While the the oil rich states of the Persian Gulf seem ever increasingly to be showing off their wealth in gharish excesses, whether it's indoor ski areas or a world of artificial islands, I applaud the UAE's efforts to pioneer such an urban system.

Certainly lessons will be learned and deployment of additional solar will enhance the industry's economies of scale enabling greater economic opportunities elsewhere. Plus I can think of innumerable less peaceful uses for their disposable income. More jobs in the region are a good thing, particularly when the oil runs out. Radical islam within the disenfranchised population components is bad enough as it is.

Imagine the army of solar maintenance personnel cleaning their arrays and mirrors after periodic desert dust storms.