Futuristic 'Low Carbon' City is Rooted in Centuries-Old Sustainable Design

Rendering of Masdar by Nrman Foster/CC BY 2.0

Masdar snags the most headlines for striving to be a pioneering low-carbon city and cleantech hub. A multibillion-dollar undertaking spearheaded by Abu Dhabi's clean energy company, the project is met with both enthusiasm and skepticism in the green world—and utterances of 'oh, cool' just about everywhere else.

I toured the city last year, and was indeed struck with the project—which is, thus far, essentially a single, surreal city block jutting out of the desert. Yet it is nonetheless home to

- a research institute that attracts world class talent,
- all kinds of experimental cleantech projects,
- a snazzy automated personal rapid transit system, and
- sprawling solar arrays that, for now, power the whole community.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

I visited Masdar again this year, and construction had begun on a Siemens compound; the German company plans on installing its Middle East headquarters here. Remember, the goal of Masdar is to create a city that practically bleeds clean energy; in the idealized vision, students will travel from around the world to research here, multinational companies will set up commercial cleantech centers, and Abu Dhabi will benefit from growing a highly relevant knowledge economy in its backyard when its oil supplies inevitably sputter out.

As of now, Masdar is a mere skeleton of that vision; it takes time to build a clean city from scratch. Construction is moving along, but the city's population is still smaller than a summer camp's—a couple hundred students make up the bulk of the year-round residents. As such, besides the new phase of construction, not a whole lot had changed since I travelled to Masdar last. But I did pay more attention to some of the more subtle design elements that routinely get swept away in all the futuristic bombast—primarily, that the city was planned using some of the oldest-standing Arabic design principles.

Alan Frost, the Director of Masdar City, explains:

Buildings are 'overshadowed' to generate shade, and wind towers are employed to draw the desert breeze down into the city streets, keeping the city cool.

Here's Frost explaining the wind tower:

Smart, right? Sometimes the smartest 'sustainable' design elements are centuries old. Effort has clearly been made to ensure that Masdar is more than a collection of research facilities, and the neo-Arabic architecture attests to that as well. Elements like these may help make the city more livable, more appealing to folks desiring of a home that is culturally multidimensional. And considering these factors gets one thinking: What kind of folks will want to live here?

Cleantech industry folks, of course. Research scientists, indeed. But will it be a stimulating place to live for their families? Or for other residents, like service industry workers who will inevitably head to the city if it takes off? There are a few public parks planned, and there's a restaurant or two. But the emphasis is certainly on building up as much sustainability cred as possible—yet a humming social culture will be as important as anything in attracting more diverse talent to the city.

Time will tell whether Masdar becomes the behemoth it is intended to be—the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, has said that the project continues to receive his support. And it certainly appears to be under perennial construction. The presence of Siemens will bolster its credibility, while the Masdar Institute is actively looking for more students to expand its research arm.

The city is still, undeniably, an intriguing cleantech project. Now, whether it will indeed one day be a thriving community, or can attract the vibrant social culture necessary to sustain a city, are the next major questions that Masdar must confront.

Tags: Clean Energy | Renewable Energy | Urban Planning