Climate change is widely considered as the biggest environmental challenge facing the world today. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, the public and commercial sector have a huge role to play. Especially when you consider that the world’s major cities are responsible for consuming more than 75% of the world’s energy and give off 80% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The world’s cities are arguably frontline fighters in the battle to save the planet.
Of course, changing the habits of a lifetime is no mean feat – particularly when you figure the timeline of a powerbase like London tracks back for over a thousand years. A huge legacy by anyone’s standards. Altering perceptions and routine is one thing, but remodelling infrastructure from the ground up to bring it up to carbon-neutral standards is where the headache really begins to pound.
The city of Masdar, however, is in stark contrast to this eco-conundrum – on two counts… First – this brand new municipality in Abu Dhabi takes its blueprint from cities built 1,000 years ago; second – the city is eschewing the need for cars and trucks. Quite a departure for a United Arab Emirate where more than 85% of the economy is based on the exports of oil and gas.
But then Masdar is no ordinary city. It has been designed from scratch by Foster + Partners and will eventually house 40,000 people, 1,500 businesses, and welcome 50,000 daily commuters when completion is scheduled in 2025. Milton Keynes, it ain’t…
Though it’s located just 17km east of Abu Dhabi – the world’s richest city – Masdar has turned it’s back on hydrocarbons to draw its energy entirely from the sun and other renewable sources. To combat the searing Arabian Desert heat the city is being built with steep streets creating deep shadow and oriented to catch the prevailing wind. The roofscape is made irregular, to create turbulence and focus cooling breezes down into the streets below.
The chief architect, Sir Norman Foster, explains that the design utilises "the principle of learning from past traditions, the accumulated wisdom of centuries".
“This is not about fashion, this is about survival” he says. “We are talking about the technology to do more with less. It is all about working with nature, working with the elements and learning from traditional models."
Built using broad naturally insulated walls that maintain a stable ambient temperature despite the sun’s relentless blaze, with ornate screened windows, courtyards and narrow walkways shaded from direct light, the inspiration can be seen in the archaic urban planning in traditional Arab cities across the Middle East and North Africa. The design provides the highest quality living and working environment with the lowest possible carbon footprint and includes a northeast-southwest orientation of the city to minimise its energy consumption.
"This is without question the most idealistic project in the world today and the most relevant, “Foster recently told Reuters. “It is a specific response to a place that is more climatically demanding in terms of achieving zero carbon. It is more difficult in the desert than in temperate environments; it would be easier in the Mediterranean or northern Europe."
Of course, there are obvious hurdles to building a civic experiment on this scale in Western Europe – not least lack of suitable space, planning red tape, and the petro-dollar backing to fund such a project.
Masdar city was set out with an initial price tag of $24 billion on a 6km sq site – a figure that has since been scaled back to $18bn. Yes, belts have even been tightened in this part of the world. Still, it’s hardly a modest budget – and one that will facilitate a trackless, electric pod-car transport system ferrying up to four passengers in driverless pods to predestined stops around the city.
In fact, automobiles will be banned within the Masdar’s perimeter wall, which is designed to keep out the hot desert winds, and regulate cooler breezes through the narrow and shaded streets and serve as a natural passive ventilation system for the entire city. Another fossil-fuel busting transport solution is the high-speed rail link that shuttles commuters from Abu Dhabi and connects with the adjacent international airport.
Masdar will also be the location of a university, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), which will be assisted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The grand scheme will culminate in a global clean-technology cluster located in what Foster + Partners’ say ‘aims to be one of the world’s most sustainable urban developments powered by renewable energy.’
According to their mission statement, this free zone will eventually be home to companies, researchers, and academics from across the globe, creating an international hub for companies and organisations focused on renewable energy and clean technologies.
One of the world’s most eminent architects, Foster says he is driven by a love of individual buildings, but admits that at the age of 75. He is increasingly fascinated by the relationship between the infrastructure of a city and its buildings. “They are the connections that really determine people’s quality of life," he says.
Clean-slate cities have the advantage that you can build more efficient systems in right from the start, Foster explains.
"Four years ago we passed the point when, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than don’t. And the rate of urban migration in the developing world is 10 times faster than it was in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. That’s what makes the challenge of designing better cities so urgent."