A 2010 brochure for Masdar City states, “One day, all cities will be built like this.” Unfortunately, this brochure doesn’t seem to be publicly available outside the Khalifa University Library, and apparently the slogan is disused. The sentiment is, however, is a constant in coverage of the Emirati eco-city, which broke ground in 2008 and is still partially under construction. Now generally described as either the first or the most sustainable city in the world, it was founded under the auspices of One Planet Living, an international framework for sustainable cities; and with backing from the World Wildlife Fund. Unfortunately, as it is now, Masdar City’s example may be a poor one to follow.

Masdar City is in Abu Dhabi, the capital and largest emirate in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a wealthy territory, thanks to its large oil supplies. The absolutist government has instituted a massive oil-funded welfare system, keeping citizens happy and complacent. But only Emirati nationals, who make up about 15% of the population, see the benefits. The remaining residents, largely migrants from India and South Asia, have few rights, cannot own land, and are widely underpaid and abused.

This neopatrimonial system has created an incredibly high standard of living, but also rampant consumerism and one of the worst ecological footprints in the world. Abu Dhabi also is incredibly vulnerable to climate change, as both a coastal country and a desert. Oil reserves are declining, which risks both economic stability and water supplies from energy-intensive desalination. These factors, as well as the rise of Arab Spring democratization in neighboring nations, has begun to weaken the grip of those in power, and the need for both economic and environmental sustainability has become apparent to them.

Abu Dhabi Vision 2030 lays out a sustainability plan for the Emirates, split between Economic Vision and Urban Planning Vision. Although the emphasis lies in economic sustainability, the Vision does claim that “the protection of the environment is being given the utmost importance alongside economic growth.”

The flagship of Vision 2030 is Masdar City. The community, when completed, aims to cover 6 square kilometers with 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuter workers coming from Abu Dhabi. Its original goals, as defined under the One Planet Living framework can be found here. Some of the more notable aims are requirements that Masdar City be zero-carbon, have a sustainable water supply, and provide fair wages and good conditions for all workers. The Masdar definition of sustainability has three segments: economic, environmental, and social.

Economically, Masdar aims to “make sustainability commercial.” The city is largely focused on supporting research, development, production, and sale of new green technology. The city backs businesses of all sizes in many ways. For example, the longest wait in the process of establishing a new company in the city is three days, and a brand new company could easily be registered in under a month. The city is also one of the country’s few Free Zones, where limited land ownership by non-citizens is allowed and there are no corporate or individual income taxes. Buildings are constructed in partnership with the city’s design team. Businesses are encouraged to collaborate with the Masdar Initiative (the organization in charge of the city), and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology on research and development. New technology, especially smart electrical grids and other urban-scale developments, can be tested in a more realistic “laboratory” than ever before, with a constant stream of data from all buildings. Major organizations have set up headquarters or branches in Masdar City, including the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Siemens, and General Electric.

The windtower and buildings at the center of the Masdar Institute campus. Note the screens on the right, modeled after traditional Arabic mashrabiya to keep buildings cool; and the overhanging solar panels on the left, which help shade the courtyard. Credit: Masdar Official/Flickr

Masdar City’s environmental features of are even more interesting. The most novel of these is the effort to create a “cold island,” the opposite of the urban heat island effect. The city’s layout optimizes shade and breezes while still allowing natural light, a windtower on the Masdar Institute campus funnels air through the courtyards. Traditional Arabic designs are combined with modern materials and technology to keep buildings cool and lower heating costs. The net result of these designs is that Masdar City is 10°C cooler than the surrounding desert and nearby Abu Dhabi.

A large portion of the city is powered by a 10-megawatt solar farm and solar cells on all buildings. The 2016 Masdar Sustainability Report says buildings are expected to reduce energy demand by 40 percent from average, water demand by 30 percent, and to achieve at least a 3 Pearl rating from the Estidama Pearl rating system (roughly LEED Gold, an exceptional standard of efficiency). Opened in 2017, the Masdar Eco-Villa Prototype aims to sustainably provide the comforts of traditional Emirati villas.

PRT Lobby.png
Masdar City’s PRT lobby. Credit: Masdar Official/Flickr

Environmentally friendly transportation is key to any sustainable city, and Masdar is no exception. An underground, electric, magnet-guided driverless personal rapid transit (PRT) system serves the Masdar Institute and an electric vehicle ride-sharing service is in action. Upcoming transit options include electric buses, a Metro Line, and Light Rail Transit to and from Abu Dhabi. The city itself is designed for pedestrian use, with narrow streets which also help keep the environment cool. Bike routes are prominent, and residents are encouraged to use zero-emission transportation. Originally, the community was to be entirely car-free, but that guideline has since been loosened to allow personal vehicles kept in car masdars at the city fringes.

These features all sound like wonderful concepts, and it is too soon to make any definite statement on Masdar City’s success. However, a number of indicators point toward a less than utopian end for the city.

Masdar City as it appears in 2018. Credit: Google Maps

Most apparently, it has faced massive delays. This often has been blamed on the 2008 worldwide recession, but the UAE suffered less in that period than most countries. In fact, its GDP increased by 20 percent in 2008 and showed no sign of recession, and new (unsustainable) homes were being built and given away across the country, even as Masdar’s schedule was pushed back by years. Only a handful of buildings have been completed, and the city lacks housing, schools, and religious centers. Even its flagship features have faced trouble.

The PRT system? Just a pilot program of 13 cars on an 800-meter stretch between a car park and the university. The full 3,000-car plan was cancelled.

The One Planet Living goals? Zero-carbon has since dropped to merely carbon-neutral. Even that standard is hard to argue. The city’s water is still desalinated in oil-fueled plants in Abu Dhabi, and construction continues to require massive external energy (read: coal and oil).

Perhaps more concerning is the variance from the original One Planet Living Equity and Fair Trade goal:

Fair wages and working conditions for all workers (including construction) as defined by international labour standards.

That hard-to-find brochure mentioned earlier republished the One Planet Living goals in 2010, with one notable difference. The Equity and Fair Trade guideline now reads:

Ensure that the community’s impact on other communities is positive: Masdar City is committed to helping the broader Abu Dhabi community, the UAE, the region and the world.

Given the UAE’s history of mistreating migrant workers, especially in construction, this doesn’t sound like a good change.

Meanwhile, the city’s focus on new technology and urban development ignores a major component of sustainability: culture. There has been little effort to change Emiratis’ consumption-driven, car-obsessed, oil-burning tendencies. Of course, any attempt to change these behaviors could put the sheikhs’ power in jeopardy. The tech focus instead links environmentalism and consumerism, saying: “Buy this new product (likely made using unsustainable processes) and you’re helping!”

Masdar City has clearly demonstrated one type of sustainability. Economically, it has begun shifting the UAE away from oil toward a deversified green-tech, R&D focus. Unfortunately, signs indicate the city’s environmentalism is only partial at best, and a façade at worst, and it ignores some of the worst social norms of the country. The literally walled city does not seem likely to spread much of its approach to neighboring Abu Dhabi, much less to the broader world.

So, will “all cities be built like this?” It seems unlikely. But there are still lessons to be learned for future sustainable cities. Firstly, many of Masdar City’s failures can be traced to the interests of those in power. Unsustainable local interests must be put aside, and change has to happen on every level of society.

On the other hand, no solution can be universal. Masdar City itself started with (and then distorted) the “universal” One Planet Living framework. How can it claim to be what it failed at? And Masdar does a good job addressing a few location-specific needs: solar power and passive cooling. But most cities are not built in deserts, and these developments will be of little help to others. Masdar City looks to be just another imperfect step on the road to sustainability.

Further reading:

Masdar City Website: https://masdar.ae/en/

8 thoughts on “Eco-city, Smart City, or Laboratory of Dubious Success: Masdar City, Abu Dhabi

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