Keywords: Masdar, zero carbon city, UAE, United Arab Emirates, peak oil, climate change, global warming, electric cars
Masdar, the world’s first zero-carbon city, pokes a sustainable finger in the eye of the oil-addicted west. Masdar, created by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government, is an ultra-sustainable city growing up in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi.
The irony of this:
- The oil-addicted west consumes vast amounts of oil, funding the middle east’s oil-free sustainability initiatives.
- As the US contines the love affair with gas guzzling SUVs, Masdar outlaws combustion-engine vehicles, replacing them with a network of electric cars.
- As western powers bicker over global warming details, Masdar shades itself from the warming world with rooftop arrays of solar panels.
- Partnering with MIT, Masdar’s Institute of Science and Technology offers programs in science and engineering with a focus on sustainability and renewable energy.
The Masdar development (detailed below) is designed by the British architect Norman Foster. In an interview with Time’s Bryan Walsh, you can feel Fosters frustration:
“It shows there is another side of this place that is totally unexpected. I think that as you read about some of this in Western newspapers, you’ll be shocked. Your immediate reaction would be, Why aren’t we doing this? We’re expanding London, and we’re just repeating the old model of sprawl. Why elsewhere is there not one experiment like this? Why not in the U.S., with its total dependence on oil? Why can’t this collective of European wisdom and power create a similar initiative? I have to ask myself, Why is this initiative, which in urban terms is the most progressive, radical thing happening anywhere, happening here?”
The oil-rich UAE isn’t doing this because they can – they are doing it because they must. Masdar is a model city for the hotter, less secure, walled-city future of a post-petroleum climate-changed world.
The UAE, with just 4.5 million people, but billions in oil money, has funded a rapidly expanding infrastructure. As a country matures, their social complexity increases, along with energy consumption. It takes vast energy to build and operate cities. And Dubai, at the heart of the UAE has become an icon of conspicuous consumption. They already consume more natural gas than they can produce, becoming a net importer to feed the need for electricity. Hence Masdar’s emphasis on solar power.
Using GapMinder’s Trendalyzer with energy consumption data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2010 and income data from the IMF, we can see some powerful trends unfolding in the UAE. (N.B. data presented for 1965 through 2008, 1 year steps, circle area proportional to population size, per capita energy use in tonnes of oil equivalent).
Note UAE’s (the green line) stunning near vertical increase in per capita energy consumption over the past 20 years.
With an eye to their future, as global oil production peaks (middle east oil experts predict 2014), the UAE is laying the foundation for a sustainable future.
Highlights of In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises
Architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff reports on Masdar in the New York Times:
Designed by Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels.
Norman Foster, the firm’s principal partner, has blended high-tech design and ancient construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community, in a country whose oil money allows it to build almost anything, even as pressure grows to prepare for the day the wells run dry. And he has worked in an alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward modernization are no longer in conflict — a vision that, at first glance, seems to brim with hope.
But his design also reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades. Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief — accepted by most people today, it seems — that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.
He began with a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which date from the 16th century. “The point,” he said in an interview in New York, “was to go back and understand the fundamentals,” how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.Among the findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground, not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds. Some also used tall, hollow “wind towers” to funnel air down to street level. And the narrowness of the streets — which were almost always at an angle to the sun’s east-west trajectory, to maximize shade — accelerated airflow through the city.
With the help of environmental consultants, Mr. Foster’s team estimated that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70 degrees cooler. In so doing, they could more than halve the amount of electricity needed to run the city. Of the power that is used, 90 percent is expected to be solar, and the rest generated by incinerating waste (which produces far less carbon than piling it up in dumps). The city itself will be treated as a kind of continuing experiment, with researchers and engineers regularly analyzing its performance, fine-tuning as they go along.
But Mr. Foster’s most radical move was the way he dealt with one of the most vexing urban design challenges of the past century: what to do with the car. Not only did he close Masdar entirely to combustion-engine vehicles, he buried their replacement — his network of electric cars — underneath the city. Then, to further reinforce the purity of his vision, he located almost all of the heavy-duty service functions — a 54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants — outside the city.
It’s only as people arrive at their destination that they will become aware of the degree to which everything has been engineered for high-function, low-consumption performance. The station’s elevators have been tucked discreetly out of sight to encourage use of a concrete staircase that corkscrews to the surface. And on reaching the streets — which were pretty breezy the day I visited — the only way to get around is on foot. (This is not only a matter of sustainability; Mr. Foster’s on-site partner, Austin Relton, told me that obesity has become a significant health issue in this part of the Arab world, largely because almost everyone drives to avoid the heat.)
The buildings that have gone up so far come in two contrasting styles. Laboratories devoted to developing new forms of sustainable energy and affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are housed in big concrete structures that are clad in pillowlike panels of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, a super-strong translucent plastic that has become fashionable in contemporary architecture circles for its sleek look and durability. Inside, big open floor slabs are designed for maximum flexibility.
The residential buildings, which for now will mostly house professors, students and their families, use a more traditional architectural vocabulary.
What Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.
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