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Mas­dar City tries to live up to its ini­tial Utopian ideals,.

The whole world was in­trigued when Abu Dhabi pro­posed to do some­thing no other na­tion had at­tempted: Build a car­bon­neu­tral, 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 grad­u­atelevel, 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.

QatarToday 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 500unit res­i­den­tial project cur­rently un­der de­vel­op­ment at Mas­dar City is a case in

YOUSEF BASE­LAIB Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Mas­dar City

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 post­grad­u­ate 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 ve­hi­cle­free 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

"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."

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.

Mas­dar City is a grow­ing com­mu­nity and con­tin­ues to demon­strate that it is a ‘green­print’ for sus­tain­able ur­ban de­vel­op­ment that em­braces eco­nomic, so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity.

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