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Alan Mammoser

Alan Mammoser

Alan Mammoser writes about energy, environment, cities, infrastructure and planning. He writes the weblog, www.warmearth.us

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Building The Sustainable City Of The Future

Masdar City

Masdar City, a development of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar), is beginning to take shape. The innovative city-district shows a possible paradigm for future sustainable cities: compact groupings of highly efficient mid-rise buildings set amidst carefully planned green space, with on-site renewable power production and excellent transit connections. As such, it could become an important example of sustainable city building in the center of the world’s great arc of population growth that stretches across Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.  

A costly ideal 

Ground was first broken in 2008 for the 6 square kilometer (about 2.5 square mile) city-district, on the edge of the desert near Abu Dhabi’s airport. The government had earlier announced its intention to spend $22 billion on the project.  

The original plan, from the firm of Lord Norman Foster, was a rather idealistic scheme for a zero-carbon city. Foster sought to carefully meld traditional city design and new technology. His major innovation was to split it horizontally in two levels by raising the entire city on a 7-meter concrete platform. Atop the platform was a car-free realm for people and buildings. Below was the transportation system conceived as an early form of autonomous “personal rapid transit” (PRT) with electric pod cars running driverless on magnetic traction. 

A central core of this was actually built for Masdar’s headquarters, the Masdar Institute and student residences. It is carefully oriented to the prevailing winds off the desert and the Gulf. These buildings’ energy demands are 40 percent lower than typical buildings in Abu Dhabi. Anchoring the platform on one side is Siemens’ Middle East Headquarters, a building that artfully combines low- and high-tech features to achieve a high LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating from the US Green Building Council. Nearby, the large headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is also highly rated for energy efficiency. 

One segment of the PRT was built beneath the platform. It’s functional but of limited service. Now, as autonomous technology is emerging for standard commercial vehicles, new transit alternatives are emerging to help the city move toward its 0-carbon goal.

Related: Cesium - The Most Important Metal You’ve Never Heard Of This costly city-building effort stalled after the ‘08 economic crisis. The heavy concrete platform was left unfinished and the city was brought to ground level, while the overall goal was reduced from zero-carbon to ‘low-carbon.’ Since then the master plan has been reworked while development of the site has followed the ups and downs of the UAE’s real estate market. 

Getting it built

Despite setbacks, planners in Masdar’s Sustainable Real Estate unit have adapted to changing circumstances while remaining committed to building an exemplary city-district, one to be a ‘greenprint’ for sustainable city building. Rather than trying to build an ideal scheme in one piece, they opened it to third-party developers who must abide by Masdar’s high standards. Now they are beginning to achieve outstanding results in all the essential aspects of urban sustainability: buildings, power, transport and water.   

For buildings, Masdar’s developments must achieve a high LEED rating (minimum LEED Gold certification), in addition to Masdar’s own key performance indicators (KPIs) that address water, energy, waste, embodied carbon and other factors. They must also meet stringent standards of the Estidama rating system, which is roughly based on the US Green Building Council’s LEED system but made more specific to the region (minimum 3 Pearl certification). Other developers need to achieve the 3 Pearl certification and the KPIs. All buildings must be constructed with low-carbon cement and 90% recycled aluminum in addition to other locally sourced and verified materials. 

With these requirements in place, they are now creating one of the largest collections of highly rated buildings in the world. Phase 1, in the inner area around the platform, is 90% built or committed, with many buildings in the works. A shopping mall built from locally sourced materials and achieving 45% energy efficiency was recently opened; replete with solar panels, it is the first ‘green mall’ built by the UAE’s Al Futtaim Real Estate. There are clusters of new apartment buildings now rising, including a large complex for Etihad Airlines personnel. Planning is underway for an office complex adjacent to the IRENA headquarters. And the UAE Space Agency has taken up residence in a unique building from the 2015 Milan Expo that is now located on the site. 

In three years it will be an actual city-district with most of the sandy patches filled in, allowing a comfortable 20-minute walk through it. A landscape plan for connected open spaces and shade was carefully crafted for the whole city. It is a high precision water resource allocation scheme with rigorous ‘hydrozoning’ that pinpoints small areas to carefully allot water where it’s wanted and to conserve it elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, transit planning is underway, including autonomous transit using the French Navya Autonom Shuttle. A driverless Navya vehicle, 100 percent electric with a top speed of 25km/hour, is already making rounds through the site. A regional connection will occur with Abu Dhabi’s planned metro, which will link Masdar City to central Abu Dhabi and the nearby airport. A light rail system and an internal circulating tram are also foreseen. These local and regional services, still in planning, will need to be closely integrated to achieve very low carbon transport. 

Steve Severance, who leads Program Management and Investment for Masdar City, highlights the critical importance of regional transit connections. “We will not be able to achieve transportation-specific sustainability as long as there’s not a good public option for getting in and out of here, the metro especially,” he says. 

As for power, a 10MW solar plant on the edge of the site delivers energy into Abu Dhabi’s electrical grid. In the central core the sharp, sleek edges of solar panels project over the rooflines, providing power equal to approximately 30% of the buildings’ energy needs. Much thought has gone into natural cooling to heighten efficiency, with buildings precisely arranged to form shady passages and courtyards that draw breeze through. An iconic wind tower rises 45 meters high. 

While its solar resources will not offset all of Masdar City’s power requirements, they are contributing to achieving carbon neutrality. And progress toward carbon neutrality will be furthered by Abu Dhabi’s ambitious renewables program, which will feed clean energy to the region. The Emirate now has one of the largest operating solar plants in the world (the 1.78GW Noor plant) and is planning for much more.   

Becoming a paradigm city 

This progress toward very low carbon sustainability will make Masdar City a fitting home for the eventual 50,000 residents and 40,000 jobs planned to be there. Encompassing a special economic zone, it is already home to some of the region’s premier companies and institutions, including Masdar’s headquarters, a campus of Khalifa University of Science and Technology (which merged with Masdar Institute), the Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence, the UAE Space Agency, the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation, IRENA, Siemens ME, Honeywell International ME, and more than 700 other companies including many technology-related start-ups.  

It is now beginning to show the look of a sustainable city of the future, with compact groupings of high-efficiency mid-rise buildings amidst ecological landscaping with excellent pedestrian and transit connections. So, while it won’t achieve an idealized zero-carbon goal, it will combine the various elements of urban sustainability into a high-quality city district.  

This comprehensiveness, beyond mere building efficiency, is what might ultimately make Masdar City an important paradigm for the rest of the region and the world. Its planners want it to be certified as Exemplar under the Estidama Community Rating System, which comprises seven categories including natural systems, materials, energy, and quality of living. If successful, Masdar City will be the first to achieve the highest possible Estidama Community Rating in Abu Dhabi.

What will eventually be needed are overall measures, such as the district’s energy consumption compared to a typical area of the same size, and energy consumption per capita, to demonstrate its real gains toward low carbon sustainability. In this way too, Masdar’s planners are making progress. They are developing a control center that will unite each building’s management system into a combined data management framework to achieve continual efficiencies. 

“We’re building a command and control center that will look at two things, our global energy production, and then our building by building energy consumption,” says Severance. “Right now we’re siloed with different building management systems” he says. “Stage one is to get the data in one place, to have the data in a way that can be read and analyzed through artificial intelligence.” 

Related: What Happens If U.S. Shale Goes Bust?


With these advances, it appears that Masdar City will become an important example of a small, highly efficient, high-income city devoted to clean energy. As such it may become a useful model for other countries that want to build advanced, environmentally progressive innovation centers in special economic zones. However, it is unclear whether it can offer lessons to countries needing to build new cities for burgeoning populations in the great arc of growth. 

Professors Steven Griffiths and Benjamin Sovacool think that it can. In their recent research paper entitled “Rethinking the future low-carbon city: Carbon neutrality, green design, and sustainability tensions in the making of Masdar City” (Energy Research & Social Science 62, 2020), they argue that Masdar City through the broader Masdar Initiative has already had a positive influence, specifically on Abu Dhabi’s considerable progress in advancing environmental sustainability policy during the past ten years. 

They also allude to the importance of its comprehensive approach, with its work on many aspects of sustainability at once. As they write, “Masdar City, if it does work as currently planned, would underlie the importance of integrating city planning, passive design, energy supply, transport, water, and recycling efforts so that the entire community is low-carbon.”

They continue:

Perhaps Masdar City will stimulate progressive regional energy, climate, and transport planning as the need for sustainable urbanization becomes increasingly apparent. Or, failing that, Masdar City still represents an important omen with incredibly important empirical lessons for other cities around the world seeking to become more sustainable.

Clearly, Masdar City shows the importance of persistence in building a sustainable city. Now it is beginning to show results, which should be of interest to energy sector investors and to countries that will need to create very low carbon cities to achieve their climate goals.

By Alan Mammoser

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