Masdar City: Role model for a sustainable future

Building the world’s greenest city in the middle of the desert was never going to be easy. Yet having overcome many early problems – including a world financial crisis – Masdar City’s director says the campus will have a population of 10,000 in five years time, writes Nick Leech

When the original master plan for Masdar City was unveiled in 2007, the image of the world’s first entirely self-sustaining, zero-carbon, zero-waste city rising from the desert captured the world’s attention. Fatima Al Marzooqi/ The National
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Anthony Mallows cuts an unassuming figure as he walks around Masdar’s shaded walkways. Middle-aged, suited, and with his glasses on a string, he could easily be mistaken for a senior faculty member from the nearby Masdar Institute (MI), the international post-graduate research centre that helped to kick-start the Masdar City project and which has, since it opened in 2009, provided the bulk of the development’s population and given it a reason to exist.

Conducting research is, however, only a very small part of Mr Mallows’ job, and his laboratory extends far beyond the confines of Masdar’s university.

As the director of Masdar City, Mr Mallows is responsible for transforming what is arguably the world’s most famous and most sustainable university campus – a self-styled ‘clean-tech’ and innovation cluster of 16 buildings with a population that hovers around 1,000 – into a vibrant and expanding community that also acts as a relevant and a replicable model for the sustainable development of cities globally.

“Our job is to stay focused on the big picture and to make sure that everything we do has an outcome that is discrete, that is measurable, and can be talked about,” Mr Mallows says.

“If we don’t develop models and share that with people the relevance for urban development globally will be lost. We are not trying to build simply the world’s only most sustainable city only, we are trying to build the world’s most sustainable city as a model, as a test-bed. Good models are heuristic rather than deterministic. They are devices for learning rather than telling people ‘Do it this way!’ This is not a thing like a commodity.

“You can’t just take our plan and then build another Masdar in New Mexico or Sweden. It’s not a replicable commodity but it is a model about how to build sustainable cities globally.”

If that objective sounds familiar, it’s because the fundamental goal of Masdar City is one of the few things that has remained constant in a project that has experienced fundamental change.

When the original master plan for Masdar City was unveiled in 2007, the image of the world’s first entirely self-sustaining, zero-carbon, zero-waste city rising from the desert captured the world’s attention.

Beguiling artistic impressions, which seemed to have been taken straight from the pages of Incredible Science Fiction, revealed an urban utopia that blended the patterns and values of traditional walled cities with what was then considered to be the “bleeding edge” of sustainable high-tech design. A six million square metre city, home to a projected 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters, would sit atop a podium beneath which unsightly practicalities such as the the city’s utilities, waste disposal, and transport system could be tidied away, leaving Masdar’s carefully shaded public realm free for pedestrians and cyclists.

For the city’s architects, Foster + Partners, the subsequent designers of the UAE Shanghai Expo Pavilion, Abu Dhabi’s Central Market and the forthcoming Zayed National Museum, Masdar City was more than just another new town, it was a blueprint: “Masdar promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future” said Sir Norman Foster at the time.

The 2007 version of Masdar City was very much a plan of its time, fueled by an economic boom that appeared to have no end. Then came the 2008 financial crisis and after the hubris of the boom years, austerity-defined facts. A transformed financial landscape effectively put a break on Masdar’s development – completion of the whole city had originally been scheduled for 2016 – and an increasing number of the project’s features were either rationalised, modified, or shelved. The phrase “zero carbon, zero waste” soon disappeared from Masdar’s marketing material, and by 2010, plans for the podium, pod-based personal rapid transport system, and rooftop solar panels on every building were abandoned. Future development would now take place at ground-level and city-wide transport in the more conventional form of electric, battery-powered cars.

Within the architectural industry, many of these changes came as little surprise. “Like everybody else, I was captivated by the initial vision,” explains Yasser Elsheshtawy, a UAE-based architect and expert on urbanism in the Middle East. “It was very inspiring, very different, and seemed to suggest a way to incorporate the principles of sustainability and traditional Islamic cities while taking the climate into account, but it was also very utopian. Nobody with any sense of realism thought that it would actually happen in the way it was suggested.”

For Huda Shaka, Arup’s environment and sustainability team leader in the Middle East, the changes were actually welcome. “Revisiting the master plan was a reasonable thing to do. It’s actually a sign of a mature client. They’re saying that we didn’t get the perfect answer from the first time, we’ll look at it again and improve it incrementally. It’s very sensible.”

Outside the industry however, the changes, coupled with a lack of news emerging from Masdar City, contributed to the idea that the project was not only delayed but that it was also experiencing something of an identity crisis. Just what was Masdar City and would it ever look like the tantalising image presented in the Foster + Partners master plan?

The perception that Masdar’s focus had shifted elsewhere was also exacerbated by the highly visible success of Masdar Clean Energy, one of Masdar City’s sister organisation, which started to gain headlines and plaudits for a series of high profile projects such as the Gemasolar solar power plant in Spain, the Sheikh Zayed Solar Power Plant in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and the London Array in the UK. As recently as six months ago, Karim Elgendy, the founder of Carboun, an advocacy initiative for sustainable urban development in the Middle East, was moved to ask whether Masdar had actually dropped its plans for sustainable urban development altogether and was aiming to become a green technology investment fund instead.

Understandably, Mr Mallows is keen to counter that charge and to show that, after something of a hiatus, Masdar City is back on track.

“We are at an interesting stage in our evolution. The market has changed, technology has changed and our mission is to be far more sustainable, not only environmentally and socially, but economically as well.

“The confluence of the market, an emphasis on economic sustainability, coupled with the expansion of the airport and an emphasis on transit in Abu Dhabi, all reinforce the initial basic premise behind Masdar City, the world’s most sustainable city, as a development model, but you can’t do that without the right market forces and without the right city infrastructure.”

While these may sound like warm words, Mr Mallows is able to back his claims of progress with evidence of real momentum at Masdar City. The final phase of the Foster + Partners designed campus for the Masdar Institute is now complete and includes new student residences, apartments, laboratories, a sports hall, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

More importantly, in the soon to be occupied Siemens HQ building – the most energy efficient building in the whole of Abu Dhabi – and the 10,000 square metre Incubator building, Masdar City now has commercial office space that will help to swell its population from around its current figure of approximately 1000 to around 4000 early in the new year. When the new building that will double as the new Masdar HQ building and home to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is added to this, Mr Mallows predicts that Masdar City will have a population of 10,000 in three to five years. His confidence stems, in part, from the fact that he’s in charge of a development that is finally putting new buildings on the ground.

“When statements were made in earlier days, they were incredibly aspirational, and they couldn’t be measured because we hadn’t built anything”, he said. “We’ve now built a significant cluster and we’re measuring it. We are wiser, the world is wiser, but that’s not a wisdom based on total self-confidence, it’s based on understanding. The challenge for Masdar is to maintain the high objectives without being opportunistic. Now we know we are building the most sustainable city in the world.”