An Urban Oasis in the Desert Sands

The world's first carbon-neutral city, Masdar City is a prototype for the cities of the future

by 25 November 2010

In 2007 the Abu Dhabi government announced its plans for the worlds first carbon-neutral city, Masdar City. Since then the project has garnered a lot of attention for its ground breaking urban development plans and its innovations in energy saving technology, as well as criticisms for the gated-community nature of the city, and the actual sustainability of the project. Yet, critics and supporters alike are in no doubt that Masdar City represents a key change in urban development, and that Masdar City could in fact serve as a blueprint in constructing the cities of the future.

Backed by the Mubadala Development Company, the Abu Dhabi government’s investment vehicle, Masdar City is a fundamental part of the project to transform Abu Dhabi’s economy into one that is industry led and knowledge based, and a forerunner in alternative energy technologies and solutions.

Located 17 kilometers from downtown Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is intended as a mixed-use, low-rise, high-density development, meant to serve as a showcase for renewable energies and clean technologies of the future. Designed by Foster + Partners, the city combines architecture and urban planning from traditional Arab cities, with modern design elements, and the most cutting-edge energy-saving technologies. Norman Foster is of course the most fitting person to head such a project given his never ceasing exploration of technological innovation and his dedication to ecology and the interaction of a building with its natural environment.

One of the main concerns when designing Masdar City was the inescapable element of the desert heat. Drawing from traditional urban designs, the city was built on a southeast-northwest axis to provide shade at street level for most of the day, and utilizes narrow streets with overhangs to create shade, with wind corridors, light colored flooring, narrow parks and small spaces for added cooling.


The city is built on a platform, with the city’s utilities and transport buried beneath. In fact, the city was to be entirely combustion-engine free with the automated pod-like Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) vehicles as the sole means of transportation. Yet, recent financial setbacks have forced planners to revisit their plans for a car-free city and have stated that Masdar will now be open to electric vehicles.

In fact, following a recent review of the Masdar City plans and an assessment of the impact of the Dubai financial crisis, Masdar has been forced to implement a number of cutbacks following a $3.3 billion budget cut (from the original $22 billion). The most significant setback concerns the energy supply. Masdar City was originally intended to produce 100% of its own energy, but developers now say it will have to purchase power from external sources. The project timeline has also been revised with Phase I of the development (1 million square meters) having been pushed back two years to 2015, and the final completion date set for 2020-2025.

And while these financial setbacks have surely been hard-felt, the architects and management of Masdar City have known all along that creating a self-sufficient city from scratch would be a learning experience that would require constant adjustment and revision. An astute approach, given that the designers of Masdar City are experimenting with a number of cutting-edge technologies that could be implemented in cities around the world.

But what of the criticisms? A recent New York Times article discussed the ‘gated community’ aspect of the development. Throughout the world the middle class and wealthy are increasingly cutting themselves off from the larger community in self-sufficient enclaves, with this trend being especially widespread in the Middle East. As Nicolai Ouroussoff stated in the Times, “Its utopian purity, its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief…that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.” It seems Foster has attempted to remedy the often soulless nature of gated communities by incorporating traditional architectural elements, and designing the city on a human-scale, yet it cannot be denied that it is often the organic growth of a city that gives it its character, something that can be difficult to attain in an imposed environment.

Other critics pose the question…how sustainable is it, really, to build a whole new city from scratch? Shouldn’t this time and research be spent discovering how to make the cities we already have more energy efficient? But, perhaps Masdar City is somewhat of an exception. A fundamental part of Masdar City is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a research and development center focused on the science and engineering of alternative energy, environmental technologies and sustainability. The city itself is a sort of living lab, and perhaps the point of Masdar City is not for it to be emulated in its entirety, but rather for existing cities to implement the technologies that will work best in context...a model city in which the science of today can be tested for the cities of tomorrow. 

Related Luxos Articles:
Textiles, from Ancient to Modern, Unique textures in pieces that increase the warmth of modern interiors
Masters of Modern Design, Luxos presents some of the foremost contemporary design pieces from Italy