Described as a “greenprint” for sustainable urban development, Masdar City sets the bar for Abu Dhabi’s commitment to renewable energy.
The walls of the buildings in Masdar City are the color of the Abu Dhabi desert sand. Undulating balconies have been treated with carved designs that bring to mind traditional Bedouin patterns. There are palm tree groves in the courtyards and benches to rest on. The low-rise clustered structures, which are connected by a network of weaving shaded walkways, feel accessible and inviting; the pedestrians, from every corner of the globe, unrushed and friendly.
Masdar City is a sustainable urban development currently in its first phase of expansion, initiated by a branch of the Abu Dhabi government dedicated to renewable clean energy solutions. “Masdar City is being built in phases,” says Yousef Baselaib, the Executive Director for Sustainable Real Estate at Masdar. “This phased approach will allow us to embrace new technologies, apply lessons learned, and make future improvements.” The development is targeting 50,000 residents and a professional and student population of 40,000 by its set completion date of 2030.
The city’s towering barjeel, a traditional wind tower used for generations in the region to help bring down the temperatures of internal spaces, has been constructed out of steel beams and a web of barely visible misters that spray finely dispelled water droplets into its lofty core. The descending, chilled air cools an outdoor courtyard in which a lively sushi eatery operates next door to an Emirati restaurant full of traditional cushions on which diners lounge. As the eye sweeps across this scene, an inconspicuous see-through membrane stretching across the surrounding façades comes into view. Covered in a white polka dot pattern and inflated from the inside, this plastic covering’s energy-saving purpose is hidden to the untrained eye behind a playful aesthetic that would not be out of place at a Takashi Murakami or Jeff Koons art exhibition.
In Masdar City, energy-saving prototypes are tested alongside established solutions such as solar panels, which harness the power of the sun from the rooftop of every building and from the two active solar farms located in the nearby desert.
The Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) system of driverless electric cars has carried more than 2 million passengers to date. A fantasy allocated to the distant future for most of the world, in Masdar City this is simply how you get to work in the morning.
The UAE has been blessed with substantial hydrocarbon resources. However, the global economy of the future will be based on knowledge, not fossil fuels. As the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, once said, the day the UAE exports its last barrel of oil will be cause for celebration.
yousef baselaib, executive director for sustainable real estate at masdar
At the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which operates in connection with a dedicated R&D cluster, experimentation, development, and testing of new technologies is happening while you read. Located at the center of both the community’s layout and ethos, the Institute is currently home to 400 students pursuing master’s or PhD degrees in alternative energy, sustainability, and the environment. Just over half of the student body is female and 52 percent is Emirati.
“It’s so quiet and calm here, it makes it very easy to study. Everything is provided for you so that your only focus as a student is your work,” says Fatima Muthanna Alhmairy, an Emirati MSc student in the Water and Environmental Engineering program. “And the community is small! Everyone knows each other. It’s a lovely place to live.”
Currently, Abu Dhabi’s fastest-growing free zone, Masdar City, is home to the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and more than 450 companies from six continents. “We strongly believe that a community is not truly sustainable unless it is commercially viable and attractive to businesses,” says Baselaib. In 2016 alone, 100 new companies, many from the clean-tech sector, registered.
The development is a metric by which the future of the emirate’s relationship to sustainable energy will be shaped. All constructed environments here must achieve a “three-pearl” Estidama rating. A green-building framework that measures energy usage, water consumption, and waste management, Estidama means “sustainability” in Arabic. A three-pearl rating translates to a 40 percent decrease in energy consumption compared with a conventional equivalent.
At the Eco-Villa, the city’s first single-family-home prototype at Masdar, 89 solar panels are located on the roof, which alongside a variety of other energy- and water-saving technologies, result in the building using 72 percent less electricity and 35 percent less water than a standard villa of the same size elsewhere. The prototype will see its first Emirati family move in when it is complete later this year for a proof-of-concept term. “Such projects increasingly represent the development path of urban sustainability,” explains Baselaib. “Private homes that produce as much energy as they consume, conserve water, minimize the production of waste, and deliver much-reduced utility bills will increasingly become the norm.”
As clean technologies move from aspirational prototype phases to being attainable mass-produced solutions, their prices decrease accordingly. “Masdar City has been designed as a template, or ‘greenprint,’ for sustainable urban development,” Baselaib explains. “So as far as possible, it is intended to be accessible and replicable, as opposed to being exclusive or suited to a certain type of personality or outlook.” As this community grows, so does the hope it represents that with a dedication to sustainable solutions, the footprints of cities in the region and around the world will continue to get lighter and smaller.