Cities Travel

Postcard from Abu Dhabi: On the Road to Masdar City, Desert Ecocity in the Making

Written by Sven Eberlein

Last month saw the 11th edition of the International Ecocity Conference Series that was first held 25 years ago in Berkeley, California and since has traveled to cities across every continent of our beautiful planet, save for Antarctica. As a long-time friend and team member in various capacities of the series’ conveners, Ecocity Builders, I’ve been able to attend the last four summits in San Francisco (2008), Istanbul (2009), Montreal (2011), and Nantes (2013). When Abu Dhabi was announced as the 2015 host two years ago at Ecocity 10, I remember feeling a mix of excitement about the prospect of visiting a place I had never been to and mystery about an area of the planet I knew very little about.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone on the latter. Almost every time I mentioned Abu Dhabi to friends, the reactions ranged from blank stares to “oh, you’re going to the place with the indoor ski resort!” Well, Dubai is not that far off — 80 miles northeast along the Persian Gulf Coast, to be exact — but mentally placing the famed ski resort in Abu Dhabi is perhaps a bit like thinking Disneyland is in San Francisco. Yes, it’s all California, but only someone who has never been there would think every city and town is right out of a Beach Boys song.

Come to think of it, there were more beach boys (and girls) in Abu Dhabi than on a normal (foggy) day in San Francisco…

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Here’s the lowdown: Abu Dhabi and Dubai are each one of the seven constituent emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country located on the southeastern end of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf. The more populous Dubai often gets the most attention for its (admittedly) daring architectural stunts, but Abu Dhabi (meaning “Father of the Gazelle” in Arabic) is the largest of the seven Emirates (covering almost 90 percent of the UAE’s total land area), the capital, the country’s political and industrial hub, and the historical and cultural center.

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Desert construction

Human habitation in the region dates back to at least 5500 BC, but the current industrialized geopolitical entity simply known as “The Emirates” wasn’t founded until 1971, when Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan of the Al Nahyan family was able to bring together different indigenous Bedouin tribes to form a new country, stepping into the vacuum between the waning colonial appetite of the British and a growing global appetite for hydrocarbons. As one of the world’s largest oil producers with about 9% of the world’s oil and 5% of its natural gas reserves (94 percent of them in Abu Dhabi), the late Sheikh Zayed oversaw the rapid urban growth from what used to essentially be nomadic settlements into two of the world’s major cosmopolitan areas. While initially planned for 40,000 then 600,000 inhabitants, Abu Dhabi city proper had grown to a population of 1.5 million by 2014.

Which brings me to the second response everyone had upon hearing we were going to hold the Summit there: “What’s so “ecocity” about a place owing its very existence to the overabundance of non-renewable resources?”

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Abu Dhabi or Los Angeles?

It’s a fair question, albeit one that we would all be well-advised to ask about our own places of residence. Especially those of us in the western-industrialized world need to remember that much of our current standard of living has been the result of our disproportionate use of fossil fuels, both quantitatively and for the most sustained period of time. Yes, the UAE currently has the largest per capita Ecological Footprint in the world, but it’s hard to argue that Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or even the much celebrated “green” city San Francisco (with an ecological footprint 6 percent higher than the average American’s) are in a position to stake the moral high ground in our common endeavor to bring human civilization back into some semblance of harmony with Earth’s natural ecosystems. Not even eco-conscious Western Europe can showcase a single country whose per capita ecological footprint does not exceed its biocapacity.

So here’s what I tell people as to why it was a great idea to hold the Ecocity World Summit in Abu Dhabi:

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Bike lane on the Corniche, Abu Dhabi

There are currently no fully realized ecocities in the world, only cities with varying degrees of “ecocityness” in different areas, along the 15 conditions laid out by the International Ecocity Framework & Standards initiative (IEFS). The good news is that this means everyone is in the same boat, mid-journey, trying to get to a better place from where they are, depending on their own unique circumstances and according to each city’s means. Ecocity Builders is committed to facilitating the process for any city willing to take the leap towards becoming more ecocity-like, educating along the way and helping to exchange knowledge and experience between urban stakeholders across the globe. And as initiatives like Eye on Earth or the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI), projects like Masdar City (more on that later), or the UAE’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals show, the leaders as well as the communities of Abu Dhabi have been serious about stirring their urban ship into more sustainable waters for some time now.

While Ecocity Summits are never just about the host city, it became abundantly clear in the run-up to and during the conference, which was aptly themed “Ecocities in challenging environments,” that these hosts would leave a lasting impression on all of their visitors.

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What follows in this post and subsequent ones I plan on writing over the next few weeks are some of my personal impressions of a week that went from curious to inspiring to jawdropping; my own One Thousand and One Ecocity Nights, if you will. I will kick it off with my visit to Masdar City, an aspiring ecotropolis on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi’s somewhat fluid city limits, in the middle of the Arabian desert.

Postcard from Masdar

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Friday, October 9th, 2015

During a team gathering on my first evening I struck ecocity gold: Sitting across from the World Resources Institute‘s Randy Snodgrass, he asked if I wanted to join a private tour of Masdar City with someone who’d been involved in the project from the beginning. Of course, I had signed up for one of the official Masdar tours during the conference, but far be it from me to turn down a personalized insider look at one of the few cities in the world planned specifically to be zero carbon, zero waste, and zero personal automobile. In other words, an ecocity.

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Derek talking to Randy & Steve outside Masdar

The next morning, Randy, Ecocity Builders Board President Steven Bercu and I were picked up by Derek Gliddon, an Englishman who has been living in Abu Dhabi for 20 years and was intimately involved in the conception and early stages of construction of Masdar City as a GIS (Geographical Information System) expert. On the 30 minute drive from the convention center, Derek gave us an introduction to the project, sprinkled with anecdotes about living in a country that has experienced so much change, both culturally and geographically, since he first arrived to observe Houbara bustards in the middle of the desert for a research project about the vulnerable bird.

masdar-city_01Initiated in 2006 with Phase 1 of construction beginning in 2008, Derek told us that the missive for the initial groups involved in the project was to design and build the most sustainable city on the planet. (Geez, no pressure there!) What’s really cool about Masdar (meaning The Source), from a scientist’s perspective, is that there’s a certain “learn as you go” philosophy built into it, meaning that while there is an underlying “greenprint” for the completed city projected to be 2 square miles in size and home to 40,000, the designers, architects, and engineers are encouraged to add or scratch elements as new ideas arise or old ones don’t work out.

To make this commitment to innovation part of its DNA, the city is growing its neighborhoods around the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate level, research-oriented university focused on alternative energy, sustainability, and the environment. The students and faculty are also Masdar’s first residents, which makes the whole place into a living, breathing ecocity laboratory. Something they hope will some day be known as “the Silicon Valley of Sustainability.”

You definitely get the feeling that things aren’t quite “normal” as you get closer…

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A propos solar energy, our first stop demonstrated this type of design flexibility. While textbook ecocity design would call for power sources to be as close to the end user as possible, putting solar panels on each rooftop proved tricky in a desert setting. Naturally, the original plan for Masdar called for powering the entire city through on-site methods such as rooftop solar panels, but as lead architect Gerard Evenden points out, it didn’t take long for the realities on the ground to dictate a change in course.

“When we started this project, nobody had really looked at doing projects of this scale. Then you realise it’s much more efficient to build your solar field on the ground in the middle of the desert. You can send a man to brush them off every day, rather than having to access everyone’s buildings individually, and you can make sure that they are running at their absolute peak. It’s much better than putting them on every building in the city.”

And so this 22-hectare (54-acre) field of 87,777 solar panels was built, the largest PV installation in the Middle East up until recently, as Derek pointed out to us.

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Next, Derek stopped at a space-telescopey looking contraption to show us another one of Masdar’s forays into harnessing renewable energy, through Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). Called the Beam Down Solar Thermal Concentrator, this optical experiment uses mirrors to reflect sunlight twice between the central tower and the collection platform at the system’s base.

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It was pretty damn hot there in the desert sun, but what better place to test out technology that might enable a 100 percent solar-powered existence in the not-so-distant future?

Entering the Starship…

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We drove to the parking garage of what Derek calls the concrete-and-steel Starship Enterprise, entering at the transportation level below Masdar City, at which point no more conventional cars are allowed. The cars that are on this sort of basement, transit-only floor are as close to the much-touted self-driving cars I keep hearing about, in action. However, rather than everyone owning their vehicle, this Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) — locals call it the “Pod Car” — is part of a computer-operated, solar-electric-powered, on-demand public transit system that got me to salivate over a car for the first time since turning eighteen.

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Basically, the way it works is that the system uses a network of magnets embedded in the ground to navigate from point to point. When you get into your car, you type in your desired destination, a computer calculates the most efficient route from your starting point to your destination, and sends it to your vehicle. Even with a city design that keeps all PRT transit on its own exclusive level without interference from non-programmable entities like, say, pedestrians or cyclists, this is quite a complex programming feat, according to Derek. Just to get the pods to know which station to return to and when requires a sea of pixels.

It’s no surprise then that at this stage of the project there are only two drop-off points, and in accordance with Masdar’s ongoing vision-versus-reality pingpong, the PRTs will not be able to cover the entire city once it’s finished. That is because once construction of the raised city core had begun it was determined that it was too prohibitively expensive to keep anything but the third of a square mile city center elevated on 20-foot-tall pedestals. Consequently, the “outskirts” of Masdar will be built on ground level, which may be connected to the “downtown” via electric buses or solar powered carts.

None of this prevented us from having a blast getting our Jetsons on.

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A few minutes later the Pod safely dropped us off at the city center, where we each signed the Masdar guestbook, an interactive touchscreen kiosk that turns your signature into what looks like a futuristic urban landscape as you write it.

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While the fun signature kiosk is not exactly the design element that makes or breaks a sustainable city, it does set the kind of playful tone that is so essential in adding a human element to an urban environment built from scratch like that. Walking up from the PRT station, however, you immediately notice that most other design features at Masdar also serve important functions. For example, what looks like fancy lamps or art on the wall are simply well curated light shafts harnessing daylight from the floor above.

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The first thing you notice upon getting out and looking up is that this place is all about texture…

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With the world on track to use even more energy for cooling than heating, finding ways to create naturally cool environments is going to be one of the key challenges in curbing energy consumption, especially in permanently hot places like the Arabian peninsula. The good news is that human settlements were thriving in hot climates long before the advent of air conditioning, so it seems only logical that Masdar’s architect Norman Foster and his team toured ancient desert cities like Aleppo (Syria) and Shibam (Yemen) to see how they kept cool, so they could model Masdar after it. While they used plenty of imported concrete and steel to encase and surround the more locally abundant terracotta buildings, it’s the clustered layout with short and narrow streets flanked by buildings generating just enough wind turbulence to push hot air upwards that puts futuristic Masdar on the same trajectory as the old but resilient workhorses.

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My friend and colleague, Jennie Moore of our partner BCIT School of Construction and the Environment, shared some observations from her own visit:

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Masdar’s main plaza.

Another impressive feature of Masdar is that its built environment is designed to suit its climate and the buildings, which are situated in close proximity to each other to create an intended wind tunnel effect. This is an important feature in a desert climate where most people consider it too hot to walk.

I found walking in Masdar to be quite pleasant, even in the heat of mid-day. An important design feature of the buildings is that some are elevated, allowing cool breezes to blow through at ground level into the core of the neighbourhood. Others use architectural facades to shield windows from direct sunlight that causes unwanted passive solar gain. This strategy helps lower the overall operating energy demand of the buildings, helping to reduce the need for air conditioning. Several buildings also are have courtyards with cantilevered ceilings to protect from direct sunlight, yet they allow air to flow through.

masdar-city_49There are also photovoltaic cells mounted on the roofs of the buildings which create a co-benefit of shading the roofs of the buildings and some of the walkways. Attention to the micro climate and use of architectural design to help cool the buildings using passive techniques enables the buildings to operate with less energy than would otherwise be needed. In this regard Masdar achieves some of the characteristics of an ecocity in the domains of Clean Air and Clean and Renewable Energy.

Notice the elevator-looking structure in the photo above? This 45-meter-high (148 ft) wind tower modeled on traditional Arab designs that sucks air from above and pushes a cooling breeze through the streets is another good example of Masdar’s experimental nature, with both successes and challenges. On one hand, the only resource needed to make it work is a little bit of mist sprayed at the top, which is then drawn down the tube by a combination of gravity and air currents, evaporating as it descends and consuming heat energy from the air. On the other, it currently seems to work much better during the drier part of the year (October – March) when it would really be needed to kick in during the hot and humid summer months.

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Enjoying the cool mist drippings from the wind tower.

One of the main criticisms I’ve heard about Masdar so far is that it’s missing perhaps the most important component of any city, eco or not: people. And it’s true, there were certain times when it felt a bit like one of those post-apocalyptic planets Captain Kirk and his crew would beam up to on occasion.

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This, of course, is a common problem with planned eco projects. Culture, that certain “Je ne sais quoi” that can only grow over time as people leave their quirky and unpredictable finger- and soulprints all over a place, is hard to just pull out of a hat (or a planning meeting). As long as Masdar does not have a completed infrastructure that includes all the basic civic and economic amenities — schools, grocery stores, retail, etc — its inhabitants will invariably be more adventurous yet temporary denizens like the students at the Institute or employees at the recently opened Siemens building (the most energy efficient building in the Middle East!).

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The Siemens Building

In its current state, it isn’t quite ready yet to attract the young families and other long-term residents that can give it a cultural identity with all its natural recruiting powers. (One place where Masdar planners might look to for inspiration on how to get people excited about moving in is Freiburg, Germany, where the city paired up architects and committed residents to collaborate on the design of its planned ecovillages Vauban and Rieselfeld.)

On the other hand, the old adage “if you build it, they will come” — or rather “if you don’t build it, they definitely won’t come” — certainly applies here. In fact, you don’t have to go very far to see how a bustling metropolis can be built in a short amount of time. If Sheikh Zayed was able to erect one of the region’s preeminent cities in just a couple of decades right down the street, a compact urban “ecoasis” like Masdar covering but a geographic fraction of Abu Dhabi should be a piece of cake.

Moreover, the current slowdown of construction due to the financial pressures of falling oil prices only bolsters the case for Masdar’s completion: designed for a post-oil era, its long-term economic, environmental and social well being will not be tied to the vagaries of increasingly volatile international oil markets. As Derek kept pointing out, developing this kind of system within systems where all the individual parts are designed to be in constant relationship with each other can’t work if it is only evaluated on a one-dimensional scale. With a more representative-of-reality axis that has environmental and social considerations baked into its foundation in addition to financial returns, a holistic project like Masdar is better able to weather the storms of latter day capitalism.

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Masdar Institute Multi-Purpose Hall.

I think it’s far too early to write Masdar off as a test tube baby that will never grow into a mature adult. For one, there seems to be too much forward-momentum with a strong enough coalition of faithful stakeholders committed to see the vision through. Secondly, Masdar’s perceived weaknesses are in many ways its greatest strength: dead ends and wrong turns aren’t cause for surrender, but incentives to learn and adjust, building the kind of resilience and resourcefulness along the way that not only finds creative solutions to physical problems but creates the human stories that shape the history and character of a place. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there really is no alternative but to make Masdar and other projects like it work. With fossil fuel reserves bound to decline and intolerable heat due to the effects of climate change forecast to hit the Persian Gulf region within the century, naturally-cooled, carbon-neutral, and energy-efficient settlements will be the only chance we have not only to brave the storms but to reverse its causes.

We ended our tour at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology Library, a building in the shape of a desert tortoise.

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I really wanted to see what it felt like inside the shell, but it was time for us to head back to the hotel to prep for the Summit and for Derek to get on with his life.

What an amazing start to my trip it had been. After less than 24 hours on the ground in Abu Dhabi I had already experienced the beginnings of an ecocity. With a little imagination and Norman Foster’s drawing, I could see myself roaming in the fully realized urban system within systems on a future visit.

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Sven Eberlein

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