The Future Build

Futuristic Eco-City Masdar Keeps Rising, Right On (a New) Schedule

Despite setbacks, Abu Dhabi’s hyperstructure continues climbing above the desert.

First announced in 2006, Masdar City was promoted as the world’s first fully sustainable, zero-emission city, and as an $18-22 billion project. It was erected 11 miles east-south-east of metropolitan Abu Dhabi — close to Abu Dhabi International Airport — by Masdar (“source” in Arabic), a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, and has a planned city core of two square miles. Envisioned with the aid and artwork of architectural firm Foster + Partners, the site is intended to house 50,000 residents and support 1,500 new green businesses, thereby creating a mini-mecca for commercial and manufacturing companies which support (and embody) clean technology. As Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar’s CEO, told TIME in 2008, the company’s aim has been to “position Abu Dhabi as the hub of future energy.”


Among the first clean tech-related tenants are the International Renewable Energy Agency and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, both of which will serve as area magnets for the industry, organizers hope. Designers also intend for as many as 60,000 workers to commute to Masdar daily as employees of these green companies. The development is one of few realized examples of arcology — structures involving architectural design principles for densely populated habitats (hyperstructures) with an eye to minimizing ecological impact — and relies on solar and other sources of renewable energy.

The urban layout of the city, TIME explains, is an attempt to “combine classic Arab design with 21st century technology,” allowing the city to serve as a “living lab for a greener, cleaner future and a bridge for Abu Dhabi as it [prepares] for a day when the oil [runs] out” (projected to happen within a century). As Business Reporter reflects, “the idea was that Masdar would be to Abu Dhabi what the NASA space [program] was to America – a crucible for future eco-friendly technology.” As Gerard Evenden, senior partner and design director at Foster + Partners, explains to the Business Report, these motivations helped bring the project from concept to reality; “[t]he support of the Abu Dhabi government was incredibly important,” he added. “There was a true commitment to trying to do something.” Evenden continues,

Sustainability is not just about today but it’s the future in terms of taking Abu Dhabi forward. The aim of the project was to build a development that was more sustainable and more energy efficient. It was much more than saying, let’s build an eco-city. This was a more serious project asking questions about the future of sustainable living, and what could be done in terms of spin-off technology. The idea of Masdar was to look at the science behind these things.


As critics point out, planned milestones in the city’s development have not bet met on schedule. Phase 1 of construction — which would render a section of the city completed and habitable — was pushed back from 2009 to 2015 as a result of 2008’s worldwide recession, during which time Abu Dhabi was forced to “bail out” neighboring Dubai. Today, Masdar houses around 1,000 people, all mostly working or studying at the Masdar Institute, in the ten or fewer streets surrounding the post-graduate university’s buildings. The city’s planners do not see its current state as a sign of the project’s failure, however, but rather as an appropriate stage in its long-term development.

In 2010, Masdar completed a ten-month study of the project’s progress — taking into account newly available technologies, setbacks in construction, and the changing property market — and pushed back the original overall completion date of 2016 to some time between 2020 and 2025. With the announced push back, however, came an advantage: an estimated savings of ten to fifteen percent on the original price tag of up to $22 million. “The vision as a whole remains intact,” says Sultan al Jaber, adding, “No scale-back, no scale-down.”


Evenden agrees that the economic downturn and the resulting schedule changes won’t influence his planning of the city. “By the point of the slowdown,” he tells Business Reporter, “we had already finalized the master plan.” As the publication reports, the Masdar Institute’s construction “followed Foster + Partner’s blueprint to the letter,” and, while the rest of the city may adjust its handling of the zero-emission policy as it develops, Evenden and others accept “that the rest of Masdar will change as the city evolves.”


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