To finally visit Masdar City is to believe it–and to believe in its vision for the United Arab Emirates and the world. This planned “city within a city” broke ground in 2006 and opened its doors to its first residents in 2009. Should all go as planned, this 2.3 square mile (6 square kilometer) development will house up to 40,000 people, over 1000 businesses and host another 50,000 workers who will commute here on a daily basis.
Masdar’s channeling of traditional Arabian architecture, its underground personal rapid transport (“PRT”) podcars and reliance on solar energy–not Abu Dhabi’s abundant supply of hydrocarbons–lure visitors from afar to visit this 21st century oasis. Siemens is moving its regional headquarters here, and other companies are in negotiations to join this hub of innovation and sustainability tinkering.
Masdar’s journey has not been an easy one, and the international media have indulged in Schadenfreude as critics have assailed everything from the concept (a “gated community mentality”) to scaled back goals. Comments on the newswires and blogs harp on the fact that Masdar is “far from finished” and highlight the glitches and what may malfunction on any given day.
To focus on what Masdar is NOT misses the point of what Masdar IS: an important experiment that will have an impact far beyond this patch of desert a short hop away from Abu Dhabi’s international airport.
First, walking among Masdar’s buildings reminds you how smart design has a massive effect on the sustainability of our built environment. The day before yesterday, I was in downtown Abu Dhabi, walking along wide eight lane boulevards with no protection from the sun–and thankful that it was February 1 and not August 1. Many apartment buildings have no parking, so drivers play automotive Tetris while pedestrians cross street corners at their peril.
Masdar is a different story: the cute aforementioned PRT cars are underground so that everyone in Masdar is encouraged to walk. Buildings are squeezed closely together that they shade each other and the pedestrians who walk between them. Windows in Masdar’s Knowledge Center and Library lean at a 45 degree angle so they let in natural light but not heat. A wind tower channels what few breezes wander above Masdar and maintain the temperature of the courtyard below as many as 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert. Masdar City is hardly a bubble that isolates you from the harsh Arabian desert: an afternoon sandstorm, which changed the color of my suit from grey to patches of dusty beige, harshly reminded me that we were in the middle of the desert. While Masdar’s elements cannot be plunked into the rain forest or African savannah, this emerging development does remind us of how we can live and work sustainably in even the most extreme environments.
But beyond the cool exterior lies the international array of talent that is assembling in Masdar. A walk through Masdar’s laboratories introduced me to professionals and graduate students from around the world who are working on a variety of projects: clean energy ideas, solar desalination, anaerobic digestion, new waste to energy processes, and nanotechnology are just a few subjects of research thriving within Masdar’s walls. And the drivers of this innovation were a diverse crowd: Emiratis, other Arabs, Indians, Asians, Europeans, Latins and North Americans.
As Alan Frost, Director of Masdar City explained to me, Masdar may appear to be slow and falling short because everything about this community is an experiment. “We are taking our time because we want to get it right and learn from our mistakes,” Mr. Frost said during an interview. He beamed when he told me about the last farmer’s market in Masdar, which attracted over 15,000 visitors that day before: most of them Emiratis who were perfectly happy to park their cars on the perimeter and walk through the city. Meanwhile another team of researchers has discovered a source of geothermal energy underground that not only has the potential to keep all of Masdar cool, but would be truly renewable and not require tens of thousands of solar panels. This tiny campus was not an ivory tower, but a community that engages with locals, welcomes anyone and permits ideas to thrive and to flop.
Masdar does not have it all right, nor should it: at a fundamental level, it is an experiment. And experiments often go wrong, but science and innovation progress by mistakes and errors. If Masdar is a mistake, it is the best one on the planet, and a stunning one at that. The path to “sustainability” is a difficult one, full of tough choices and unsatisfactory results. We need more imperfect Masdars to solve the pressing problems that confront us now and will continue to lurk ahead.
Leon Kaye is currently spending a month in the Middle East; next week he is in Qatar. He is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Earth911.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
All photos courtesy Leon Kaye.