Is the UAE's New Zero-Carbon City More Revolution or Gimmick?

By Andrew Moseman | September 27, 2010 1:16 pm

MasdarTwenty miles outside of Abu Dhabi, in the scorching desert of the United Arab Emirates, the new planned city of Masdar is nearly ready for its close-up. This weekend The New York Times reported from the experimental zero-carbon closed community, funded by stacks of oil money, which is now prepared to take on its first inhabitants. The urban design is simultaneously sleek and unsettling, raising the questions: Is this what the city of the future will look like, and would that be a good thing?

Masdar’s main designer, Norman Foster, hits all the notes that make green ears perk up: excluding any carbon-based energy sources, using simplified “sustainable” architecture, and learning from the lessons of the past, even going back as far as centuries-old desert settlements.

Among the findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground, not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds. Some also used tall, hollow “wind towers” to funnel air down to street level. And the narrowness of the streets — which were almost always at an angle to the sun’s east-west trajectory, to maximize shade — accelerated airflow through the city. [The New York Times]

Masdar, which is a mile square and built to house 90,000 people, will draw nearly all its power from solar panels outside the city. The city’s infrastructure—including the solar project, the water treatment plant and the waste operations—will be outside the city perimeter. The network of streets for vehicles, prowled by electric cars only, is all underground. All the dirty bits of the city, then, are out of sight.

The result is a green Disneyland—an assessment Foster doesn’t really fight. And it’s a little scary to think that this is the way the world is going, the well-off in ever-smaller enclaves, protected by walls—visible and invisible. [TIME]

As TIME properly points out, the fact is this: Foster’s cloistered vision in itself has little to offer the vast majority of human beings on this planet, a growing number of whom live in burgeoning, old-fashioned cities that aren’t going to be retrofitted into Masdars anytime soon.

Masdar, by contrast, may be too expensive for anyone other than a petro-state like Abu Dhabi to undertake for any significant chunk of the Middle East’s burgeoning population. Rather than building a better suburb, it’s like building an encampment on Mars, which is what humans look to as an escape hatch for when we’ve polluted Earth beyond repair. It’s too early to start thinking that way about existing cities. [Washington City Paper]

If Masdar is reminiscent of anything, it’s Biosphere 2, the early 1990s experiment that is the subject of a feature in the October issue of DISCOVER, out on newsstands now. The Biosphere’s original mission, to create a totally self-contained environment, today is mostly a historical curiosity. But the research done there, both during the original mission and afterward when universities took over, could have real implications for the world at large.

The same might be true for Masdar. Most of us will never live in a place like the United Arab Emirates’ little private Eden, but the desert experiment could provide valuable lessons for developing cities that are green and clean—but not sanitized.

The dynamic and often messy energy that created the world’s greatest urban centers — Rome, London, New York, Tokyo — is sometimes seen as problematic by governments that want to market their municipalities to businesses, investors, and tourists. … Can a place like Masdar find a way to let that inside the walls? [Grist]

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Image: Foster & Partners

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • jaykimball

    Like America, and other western powers, the UAE has become an enormous consumer of energy. In fact, they now consume more natural gas than they can produce. How ironic that a middle eastern oil giant needs to import gas.

    For a stunning chart of UEA’s energy consumption trends, see:’s-first-zero-carbon-city/

  • dominich


  • Rhacodactylus

    It draws publicity to something positive, so if only in that way, it is a step forward.

  • Spear The Almighty

    I live very close to Masdar city. Maybe stage 1 or something is finished but they still have years to go to reach the type of city they originally planned. believe me, there is no rush going on with the downturn in the real estate market. I do however applaud the UAE for attempting this project and the technology and the “know how” that will come from it will make the UAE a leader in the renewable energy field.

  • M.T.Owens

    Lesons. Remember when the U.S. was the world’s prime exporter of oil and coal. Think Standard oil era! and they didn’t capitalize properly socially, in infrastructure, or progressive development. Maybe Masdar can come to be a model for both elite and those that work for them.

  • Brian Too

    You have to pick your poison.

    If you don’t imagine it, you’ll never build an experimental version. If you don’t build an experimental version, you’ll never go large scale.

    So what if Masdar never becomes the blueprint for existing cities? Doesn’t that completely neutralize the fear that Masdar will enhance social stratification? And by the way, the rich isolating themselves from the poor has been going on for as long as there have been the means to create rich and poor. Masdar doesn’t change that.

    Your list of cities was telling. Those urban centers are not the ones undergoing dramatic growth or change. Try instead Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Dhaka, Shanghai, Mexico City, and so forth. If any city is vulnerable/available to the Masdar model, it’s the ones in the developing world undergoing dramatic growth.

  • Nate

    For any dramatic intelligent changes in city design to occur it has to happen in a new city designed from the ground up with new sensible elements. To gut and update an old city like NYC or London requires a vast amount of resources. Masdar will undoubtedly expand if it catches on just like all other ancient cities.


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