Masdar City: An Urban Fantasy
An aerial view of the city. Photo by Masdar City.

An aerial view of the city. Photo by Masdar City.

Six months ago, we wrote about the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) and its plans to position the city as a leader in sustainable design and development. This is no small feat, considering the United Arab Emirates was once ranked as having the world’s largest per capita “ecological footprint.” Abu Dhabi, with a population expected to double to at least three million people by 2030, is focusing on sustainable growth predicated on relatively good public perspective of government action, oil money and a not-yet-overly-entrenched bureaucracy.

But another built-from-scratch “city” 20 miles from downtown Abu Dhabi will rival its neighbor both with its carbon-neutral approach and futuristic design, as well as with the controversy surrounding its creation – what the New York Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff calls “the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.”

That city is Masdar. It is a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side and elevated to capture breezes in the desert. Government-run developer Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company is touting the city as one of the world’s most sustainable urban developments. It will house a research center focused on sustainability and renewable energy and design — what planners have termed a “global clean technology cluster.”  And “beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels.”  The streets will be free of cars and shaded and cooled by thoughtful building locations and “wind towers.”  Almost all infrastructure – 90 percent of which will be solar – is located outside of the city. Planners have also employed historical architectural knowledge, acknowledging local norms and culture.

Masdar will eventually connect to Abu Dhabi via a light-rail system and its population is projected to grow to 90,000.

A revolutionary and integrated transportation network

The second phase of the city has just begun and developers call the transportation scheme  “the world’s most advanced large-scale transportation system.”  There will be light rail transit, as well as an electric rapid transit located underground. Pedestrians will be able walk around in what aims to be a carless city, on the street level at least. The promotional video calls the streetscape “intimate” and urban designs employ strategies like hiding elevators to encourage the use of corkscrew staircases.

Masdar will pilot a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system linked to Abu Dhabi’s future light rail system. Seemingly futuristic, the electric PRT vehicles will be driverless for personal use, and at the push of button, they will move between two stations in the planned transit network.

The light rail system will pass through Masdar and will also link up with Abu Dhabi, its airport, the islands, suburbs and planned beach communities.  According to The New York Times, the car’s design is based on futurist and engineer Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a compact urban vehicle, the Dymaxion Car.  A model of one Masdar architect’s version of the car can be viewed here.

Relegation to the edge

Masdar focuses on sustainability, harnessing the sun and using cutting-edge technology to minimize impact.   But what is this city saying about the future of sustainable urban communities?  Ouroussoff points out that Masdar’s 54-acre photovoltaic field, incineration and water treatment plants are all located outside the city.  And multi-storey parking lots will also be located on the perimeter, where residents, commuters and buses will have parking spots, allowing them to leave and access their cars outside the city walls.

“But the decision of who gets to live and work in Masdar, as in any large-scale development, will be outside the architect’s control. That will be decided by the landlord, in this case, the government.  But no one would argue that a city of a few million or more can be organized with such precision, and his fantasy world is only possible as a meticulously planned community, built from the ground up and of modest size.”  Ouroussoff describes these places as little more than walled off mini-Utopias materialized in the form of  “suburban gated communities” and “the transformation of city centers in places like Paris and New York into playgrounds for tourists and the rich. Masdar is the culmination of this trend: a self-sufficient society, lifted on a pedestal and outside the reach of most of the world’s citizens.”

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