By Sindhu Nair

Masdar City tries to live up to its initial utopian ideas.

The whole world was intrigued when Abu Dhabi proposed to do something no other nation had attempted: Build a carbon-neutral, zero-waste city from the ground up on an empty piece of desert. The entire city would be an experiment, a clean-technology incubator on a grand scale, powered by renewable energy projects. A graduate-level, sustainable-technology research university in partnership with MIT would serve as the idea factory, and a fleet of driverless electric cars would shuttle the inhabitants from place to place. Over every building, engineers would mount huge photovoltaic roofs. The initial drawings looked like a fantasy. The entire city would work as a living propaganda for sustainable living and the fact that all this was being planned in one of the most carbon-centric cities in the Middle East made the attempt even more startling. A decade later, the dream project is a far cry from the city envisioned but it has picked other equally commendable ingenuities.

Qatar Today tries to find out whether Masdar has kept to its sustainable dream city plan. The answer is a resounding yes, according to the Minister of State and Masdar chairman, Sultan Al Jaber, who has guided the project since its inception. “With the support of Masdar, Abu Dhabi is now home to a world-class research institution, host of the International Renewable Energy Agency, a major investor in clean energy and a hub for dialogue on how to drive the sustainability agenda forward.”

Yousef Baselaib, Executive Director, Masdar City, agrees that Masdar City can no longer be identified as a zero carbon city as it had set out to be, but zero-carbon city is a label no other city anywhere in the world has attained. “Minimising the development’s carbon footprint is an ongoing process,” he clarifies. “With each new building or phase of development, we try to push the envelope further. Masdar City is designed to consume 40% less energy and water than built-up environments of a comparable size.”

While Masdar was planned and started off with enthusiasm, the 2008 economic crisis was a major setback to the developers, impeding the resources to build the city as planned.

Baselaib, however, maintains, “Although challenges have arisen along the way, the city is experiencing the most rapid development in its relatively short history. Today, we have evolved from an entirely self-funded project into one primarily driven by third-party investment.”

Other than the anchor tenants of GE and Siemens, Masdar City now has over 360 registered companies, from start-ups with flexi-desks who want to minimise their capital outlay while they grow, to giants like Lockheed Martin.

“Masdar City is being built in phases,” explains Baselaib, “but of course real cities are never finished. This approach provides us the flexibility to embrace new technologies, apply lessons learned and make improvements moving forward. Masdar City will be transformed over the next decade. Around 35% of the planned built-up area will be completed over the next five years, and nearly 30% has already been committed to, including private homes, schools, hotels and more office space.

In April this year, Masdar City received approval from the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council of the Detailed Master Plans for Phases 2 and 5 of the city, paving the way for significant further expansion. The Phase 2 will include a residential community with a school and cafes.

According to Baselaib, with the completion of each new construction project, Masdar City advances and refines sustainable design concepts that reduce the consumption of energy, water and production of waste. “The 500-unit residential project currently under development at Masdar City is a case in point,” he says. “It will achieve a 60% reduction in total energy consumption compared to the industry baseline, use 40% less water, recycle more than 95% of its construction waste, and source more than 20% of its building materials locally, reducing supply chain carbon emissions and benefitting the local economy.”

The architectural firm Foster+Partners had initially planned to accommodate 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters and the city was due be completed by 2016; now the final population will probably not exceed 40,000 and the completion date has been put at 2021 or 2025.

Baselaib agrees: “Masdar City is now targeting 40,000 residents and 50,000 people working in the city by 2030, based on the rate of industry investment in clean technology, mobility and our financial strategy formulated in line with Abu Dhabi’s 2030 Economic Vision.”

Around 2,000 apartments are either built, under construction or in design through Masdar or third-party investors. This will lead to a significant increase in the residential population at Masdar City over the next two to three years. And the working population at the city is also growing, from around 5,000 today to more than 15,000 by 2018/2019.

But other than just these numbers, there were hosts of other technological advancements that were to be put to play in the city, like driverless electric cars, shaded streets cooled by a huge wind tower and a “green policeman” monitoring energy use. What is the ground reality now?

“Because Masdar City is being built in phases, development plans must be nimble and flexible,” he says. “This enables the city to embrace technological advances, adapt to market fluctuations and deliver an environment that fosters economic opportunity, social value and creative innovation. The city is designed as a dense, mixed-use development, offering connected communities where people will find it more convenient to walk, bike or take public transportation.”

A key element of Masdar City’s sustainable public transport system is the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) network. The system is based on driverless, automated, single-cabin vehicles controlled by an advanced navigation system.

“Transportation technology is changing rapidly, as can be seen by the rate at which electric-vehicle technology has advanced in the last few years. In response to such changes, we revised our Master Plan in 2010 to limit the PRT system and to examine other forms of electric transportation to create a more liveable, accessible city,” says Baselaib about the most talked about PRT system that was supposed to revolutionise the transportation system.

But looking at this from ground reality and from reports from technology magazines, it seems that even if the 13 initial podcars in the prototype continue to shuttle students along an 800-meter stretch between a station and the post-graduate university, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology that is at the hub of the city plan, the initial goal of the city has been shelved.

The initial goal of Masdar City was to have a “street” level that was a large vehicle-free pedestrian zone. Ultimately, the cost of building the entire city on top of a platform to accommodate the podcar system was too high. Masdar City’s plan involved using the same dedicated guideways to run two-pallet flatbed vehicles as part of a Freight Rapid Transit programme. The entire system was designed to run up to 5,000 trips per day, with each of the 810 vehicles having a maximum payload of 1,600 kg, delivering all necessities to residents and businesses.

Nevertheless the PRT system remains an integral part of Masdar City’s transportation infrastructure. And according to Baselaib, “The PRT network carried approximately 33,000 passengers per month in 2015, an increase of nearly 15% compared with the previous year. In fact, we are planning to add two more stations in order to cater to the expansion, within the next three years.” So while the platform has been shelved, the prototype of the PRT is still making its impact felt at the city.

Baselaib adds, “Masdar City has a range of passive architecture features that are appealing to the eye and promote energy and environmental efficiency. Moreover, existing structures use 90% recycled aluminium and low-carbon cement, in addition to other locally sourced and verified materials.” He says that the city’s orientation and pedestrian-friendly streets, based on traditional Arabic urban design concepts, help reduce the perceived temperature by at least 10 degrees Celsius compared to downtown Abu Dhabi. The city’s iconic wind tower is a modern interpretation of the traditional “Al Barjeel”, a design feature used to cool building interiors. The 45-metre-high tower in Masdar City captures upper-level winds and channels them towards public areas at its base.

Another feature that the city was lauded for was the 40-60MW solar plant and PV panels manufactured on-site, that were to be used for construction and later used to power the city. Dust storms in August 2009 were reported to have “suspended dust in the air between 1,500 to 2,000 parts per million,” and which decreased solar productivity by 40%. The panels were washed – at great expense – and productivity restored. But it was later explained by the director that “dust storms have the same impact on a PV panel’s performance as cloud cover. In Abu Dhabi, we have a number of dust storms during the year, but compared with the level of cloud cover that European countries such as Germany receive, the performance in Abu Dhabi is far superior. In fact, on average, a solar module installed in Abu Dhabi will generate twice as much as [one installed in] a cloudy region in Europe.”

We could safely say that while the city had initially planned on a utopian setting, the global financial crisis and its consequences have delayed completion of this highly environmentally friendly city, the kind of which has never ever been initiated and put into practice in the world yet. “Masdar City is continuing on its journey to become the world’s most sustainable urban development, and to be seen as the benchmark for how cities of the future will be built,” according to Baselaib.

The transportation system that was to be

Masdar City’s integrated transportation plan involves four initiatives, but it was the podcar system, designed by the Italian company Zagato and developed by Dutch firm 2getthere, that held the most promise. The plan proposed a driverless fleet of 3,000 free-moving, electric vehicles that could transport two to six passengers between 85 and 100 stations, tallying up to 135,000 trips a day along pre-programmed routes. This system of podcars was basically a replacement for taxis, providing privacy to passengers without the congestion common in other urban centres. A Wi-Fi network would manoeuvre the podcars through obstacles in real time as magnets along the path continuously pull the vehicle into alignment with little variance: if one is missed, the podcar continues but if two are missed, it comes to a stop. Ultimately, the podcars were to be powered by solar panel arrays on top of buildings (which was also axed from the budget) and thermal energy-storing molten salt technology allowing the vehicles to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.