Ecocities of Tomorrow: Can Foster + Partners' Masdar City in U.A.E be Truly Sustainable?

With over a third of the world's cranes hard at work building artificial islands, an underwater hotel, and the world's tallest building, biggest mall and most expensive airport, the United Arab Emirates has now turned it attention to building the world's most sustainable city. Masdar City, a $22 billion initiative to build a brand new, zero-emissions city for 50,000 from scratch in Abu Dhabi, got underway last month.

The ambitious project, planned by British firm Foster + Partners, was one of the first ecocity projects to receive widespread coverage in the mainstream press (see the Guardian and BusinessWeek's coverage of the initiative), and is supported by, among others, the World Wildlife Fund. Even George W. Bush has expressed interest in the project.

But can the media hype about Masdar City be true? TreeHugger put together a panel of experts to take a closer look. Here's what they had to say.
Video on Masdar City created by the city's planners, Foster + Partners.

The panel:

Richard Register - Author, theorist, philosopher and 35 year veteran of the ecocity movement. Founder of Ecocity Builders and Urban Ecology, and author of Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. His blog is called Ecocity Views.

Professor Peter Droege - Chair of the World Council for Renewable Energy, Asia Pacific and Senior Advisor to the Beijing Municipal Institute for City Planning and Design. He is the author of the recent book The Renewable City, and his firm is called epolis.

Dr. Sahar Attia - Professor of Planning and Urban Design at Cairo University, Technical Coordinator and Urban Planning Consultant for improving the living standards of informal settlements in Egypt, her work focuses on cultural and natural heritage conservation in Mediterranean cities.

Christopher Choa - Architect, urban designer, and author. Principal with EDAW, an international planning, economics and design firm, and former co-chair of New York New Visions, the design coalition for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.

Gil Friend - President and CEO of Natural Logic, a sustainability consulting company, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a former board member of the California Office of Appropriate Technology. Read his blog here.

TreeHugger: With entire economies based on selling oil and natural gas to fund massive, rapid growth and a per capita ecological footprint larger than the United States, the United Arab Emirates is currently one of the most unsustainable places in the world.

Are Masdar City and the Masdar Initiative a first step toward genuine sustainable development in the Gulf - or a very clever strategy to shield the Emirates from environmental criticism while they continue along the same unsustainable path?

Peter Droege: This depends on whether Masdar is part of a genuine national defossilisation strategy or a one-off green billboard at the airport. When the oil is 'gone', what will Masdar produce that can justify the bloated population in the desert metropolis? These questions are not really being addressed - but to me this vision would be more interesting than Masdar as the solar mall it is presented as. What effort avoidance and technology substitution strategy can be used? What are the structural shifts prepared? It is possible and even likely that the planning team has developed these concepts, but visible in the promo material is only a limited and expensive piece of hardware.

However, in and of itself, this is a very important, and even slightly subversive signal: an oil producer buying a bit of insurance and signaling the end of the oil era

Sahar Attia: I have been in the UAE several times, and each visit impressed me. The construction industry there is pretty much international, as is the population. The UAE's leadership wants to achieve the most modern and innovative vision possible. Sustainability is among their goals, and they hope to reach it through the Masdar project; but that does not mean that it will be replicated throughout the UAE, especially if it contradicts their current path of growth and development.

Christopher Choa: We generally live in a world where infrastructure follows demand — we try not to spend money on big things until we really need them. What is unusual about this part of the world is that the paradigm often seems to be reversed. Because excess capital is readily available, the region can afford to develop infrastructure and resources when they are not yet the norm, and before there appears to be a critical need. Masdar City stands out in part because it seems so different from its Gulf-business-as-usual context. Perhaps that's why it raises suspicions of greenwashing. But there definitely seems to be a little bit of envy involved as well.

If these efforts came in an environment where energy was very expensive, perhaps some people would not be so skeptical. But the UAE is in a position to fund these efforts, and they should be commended for doing so. These efforts create important precedents that raise expectations about what is possible in physical terms, not just for the UAE, but for other parts of the world as well.

The UAE is aware of its disproportionately large environmental footprint. Much of the imbalance comes from the fact that it has a relatively low population spread out over a wide area, with heavy reliance on private vehicles, in a demanding climate, and with the need to desalinate large quantities of water. But the question is: what do they plan to do about that? Anything that addresses these issues in any way should be commended.

Gil Friend: I'm not able to ascribe motives to people I don't know (or even people I do); the only worthy test is results. If Masdar stands alone as an isolated green jewel while the rest of the UAE proceeds along its current bigfoot path, you could call it greenwashing. If it instead serves as an active laboratory that inspires the UAE and other regions the follow the paths it blazes, then it could make a real contribution. (The reality may well be a mix, and the judgment in the eyes of the beholder. But wouldn't we prefer that they use their massive wealth in the support of initiatives like this over business as usual?

TreeHugger: What kind of city will Masdar be? Based on the material that has come out in the press, Masdar would appear to be an extremely commercialized city populated by imported foreigners and totally disconnected from its local surroundings. Is this sustainable?
Richard Register: That seems like an accurate statement to me. Sustainable? How could it possibly be? What on Earth could they mean by that? Maybe massive solar energy, once established, could run artificially refrigerated environments on the sun's energy, partially shaded, solar cooled greenhouses producing food, fish farms also run on solar, boats on solar electricity and on and on after massive investments. But the kind of synthetic life there would seem unbearable to anyone who loves natural animals or plants. Very weird.

Peter Droege: I don't know about 'commercialized'; there is the announced ambition of featuring research and academic institutions, a kind of clean-tech business park - but I must admit that some of the rather lurid graphics do suggest a solar mega mall out of Star Wars - Lord Foster channeling George Lucas and Donald Trump, minus the signature tower.

Sahar Attia: The word "sustainability" is no longer exclusively used by the field of ecology, today it is used in multiple fields to express continuity that provides the basis for the validity of a project in the future. I would assume that Masdar will be a kind of utopian city, a model that will need much adjustment in order to be replicated in the UAE and elsewhere. Consider also that imported populations represent a great percentage of all of the world's major cities.

Christopher Choa: The social issues of land use in the Gulf are complex, and there is resistance to creating mixed-income communities. But this will inevitably progress over time. Consider how quickly the Gulf has changed in composition in recent years.

As for its population and surroundings, the percentage of indigenous Emirati is indeed a very small fraction of the total population. The majority of the foreign resident population are Arabs from a broad area around the Gulf, as well as Westerners and Asians. The Gulf also has a different urban tradition than other parts of the world, namely fortified encampments made up of protected, introverted private courtyards; traditional urban patterns specifically turned their back on their surroundings. Masdar does not ignore these urban precedents.

Gil Friend: Is it perfect? Doubtful. Is it a step in the right direction? Probably so. For example, their plans call for "Fair wages for all workers who are employed to build the city." What about the workers that operate and service the city? We don't know yet.

Still, there's the potential for substantial progress and innovation here, so why let the perfect be the enemy of the good - especially when it's all still hypothetical.
My inclination: applaud what they do well, criticize where they fall short.


TreeHugger: Are Masdar's seemingly fantastic goals - 100% renewable energy, 80% of water recycled, 0 waste, 0 emissions, vastly reduced energy and water consumption, integration of advanced technologies like personal rapid transit - realistic in the Middle Eastern reality, especially in light of the fact that the city's economy will be based on technological education, R&D; and international business (all of which are sectors with high energy and resource requirements)?
Richard Register: Sounds impossible to me in such a location. One small particular: personal rapid transit seems like a car-addicts claim to socially responsible transit without giving up the idea of the car. No matter how I try to screw that notion around to actually getting into one of those things, held up in the air with an expensive infrastructure when the surface of the earth is almost free in comparison, and do the economics and math, I can't figure how the impersonal privacy of the proto-car you are in would be fun or safe-feeling. How would one handle a weird or dangerous looking fellow passenger, for example? What about graffiti and weird smells in an environment that confined?

Peter Droege: These goals seem not quite right: neither the energy and water consumption embodied in the buildings and infrastructure themselves, nor in the lifestyle engendered and supported seem to be considered here - but this may be due to the narrow focus on the stage set as presented by the press.

The only way for Masdar to be 100% fossil fuel free and sustainable at this late stage in the unfolding climate-tipping-point drama would be to not build it at all, and instead spend the money on converting the rest of the economy and infrastructure onto a renewable footing.

Its position at the airport also suggests that this is not really part of a strategy but an instant brainwave of a savvy sheik and his even savvier court architect We must remember, though, that Foster and Partners have long been a world leader in post-fossil architectural innovation attempts.

Sahar Attia: The Middle East is still a developing region, but as I said, Abu Dhabi's leaders have a utopian vision for Masdar City, and all utopian visions can seem unrealistic. So how real is this vision practically? As far as technology - they are importing it. Financial resources - we all know that they can afford it. And as far as political will goes, it will happen.

Christopher Choa: What's green about Masdar City is not the solar cell technology, nor any of the other high-tech features. By far, the greenest characteristics are well known and straightforward: mixed-use, high-density development, incorporating mass-transit. These attributes, when pushed to their limit as they are in Masdar, create the vast majority of the environmental benefit.

I would argue that there are two weaknesses in the Masdar City scheme. There is heavy reliance on (expensive) personal rapid transit, which is still in the developmental stage and without which the scheme falls apart. The development also depends on a highly engineered infrastructure network, which makes it very difficult to collaborate with sub-developers and deliver the scheme in a way that responds flexibly to phasing, market demand, and developer capabilities. No single entity in the UAE has the development capacity to deliver this project, so having an inflexible development approach either dooms the project, or risks degrading the ideal nature of the scheme in order to bring it to market.

Gil Friend: I see no reason at all why this cannot be done. This is the direction all cities need to go - and the design guidance offered by 3.85 billion years of evolution - and I applaud any efforts in that direction. If the pioneering is to be done by a "money is no object" client, so be it; the next challenge will be to learn from their R&D; and scale it to be within reach of less wealthy cities around the world.

TreeHugger: What about the concept of building entire cities from scratch? Doesn't past experience show us that this is always more complicated in practice than planners initially believe?
Richard Register: That's a problem and so is the lack of time to mellow a place. I have nothing against the effort of building a new city if based on ecocity design, and some pretty great designs could be tried out which could also influence existing cities. But it is more important and culturally much richer — if you can get past the NIMBY's — to rebuild existing cities. They are already in the best locations and they can be quite wonderful in their histories. Remember that it is even more important yet to debuild the suburbs that are — hate to sound immoderate — but literally destroying our natural and possibly soon, cultural worlds, before our very eyes.

Peter Droege: The problem is not that it is more complicated, but always all-too-easy - a dream of yet another gleaming city of tomorrow resulting in yet another white elephant, while business-as-usual goes on. One does have to question the value of another model city with little meaning to the rest of the machinery.

Sahar Attia: The concept of building entire cities from scratch is not a new one, it existed in ancient civilizations and has been attempted in many countries. The success of new cities depends on multiple factors - geographical, economic, political, social, and now technological and environmental - that planners must consider. Masdar can be a successful example if the planners are aware of the local context, the type of people that will live there, their needs in terms of services and jobs, and, most of all, the need to link it to existing cities. If Masdar is completely isolated, then it will face severe growth problems. It will remain a physically utopian model, but not a real city.

Christopher Choa: What's really complicated is regenerating existing cities that don't work very well.

Gil Friend: It's complicated, yes, but there have been many successes. Building from scratch permits a comprehensive, whole systems approach, and more degrees of freedom than adaptation of an existing city (just as new green buildings can generally deliver better ecological performance than retrofits). On the other hand, the embodied energy of new construction - especially in the case of Masdar, where most materials will need to be shipped in - will be far great than redeveloping an existing city.

This post is part of an ongoing series examining current and future trends in ecological city building ahead of the 2008 Ecocity World Summit during Earth Day Week in San Francisco this April.

Images and video by Foster + Partners.

Tags: Carbon Neutral | Car-Free | Cities | Clean Energy | Desalination | Deserts

Best of TreeHugger