When I heard the UAE were building the world’s most eco-friendly city in Abu Dhabi, with the goal to use little to no fossil fuels to sustain it, I wondered why a country who are so reliant on oil sales be doing such a thing. But once I visited Masdar City for myself, and learnt a little more about their project, it was obvious the government guys who make these decisions for the future have bigger brains than I first gave them credit for.
For anyone who hasn’t been here, it might be hard to imagine how the government are building a city within Abu Dhabi, a city of 2.5 million people itself. But there is so much open space to work with that what now makes up Masdar City, a small community of a couple of thousand people with a few large buildings, will grow to a city of 40,000 residents and another 50,000 commuting there to work every day. Maybe it would be better to call it a new suburb, but in the UAE they call a lot of their suburbs ‘cities’ (e.g. Motor City, Khalifa City, Sports City, Academic City, International City, etc.), so I guess Masdar City fits the bill.
We drove out there expecting to see some futuristic city using out of this world technology we hadn’t seen before. But our first impressions were rather disappointing to say the least. As you can imagine it’s in the middle of the dessert, with thousands of square metres of sand, shrubs, gravel and literally thousands of solar panels all around, so it’s not exactly pretty at this stage of its development. So we parked our car and made our way up the stairs into the ‘city’ to take a look.
One thing I found most amusing as we parked our car were the other cars in the parking bays. These people are either living or working at what is the most eco-friendly place on Earth, yet drive the biggest petrol guzzling beasts allowed on the road! Not everyone mind you, but there were a lot of eco-unfriendly cars in the parking lot, much like the rest of the population of the UAE.
Masdar City’s vision is to successfully build a city that will be a ‘greenprint’ for how other cities around the world can accommodate rapid urban growth while drastically reducing energy and water consumption, and waste production. However, while we wandered about aimlessly through the narrow pedestrian streets, we hardly saw any signage to tell us what made the place so eco-friendly. Even when we went inside and asked for a map and some information, the response was a wave of the hand and directed to just wander around and take a look. Since writing this blog post, I found a fantastic PDF on their website that would be perfect for visitors. Why don’t they just give these to people when they arrive? This would have made our visit so much better, but unfortunately we were left to our own devices to find out what the city was all about.
You can check the PDF out HERE.
Once we ventured underground and saw the driverless electric-powered cars, our visit got a lot more exciting. Basically, once you arrive in the northern car park you leave your car there and jump into one of these pod-like cars, which take you inside the city. However, because we arrived at another car park, we were already in the city and only stumbled across these when we were directed downstairs. So we did the journey a bit backwards and got a ride to the northern car park, where we got out, checked out some of the cool video information inside the foyer area between the car park and the pod car bays, then took a return ride back inside the city. A bit arse-about, but we go there in the end!
The system is called Personal Rapid Transport (PRT), a 24-hour on demand driverless transport system. These babies hold 4-6 people and hit speeds of 40km/hr. It may not sound fast, but when you’re underground and no-one is behind the wheel, that’s fast enough for me. I noticed a camera up in a corner of the car, and wondered if anyone was watching us. As it turns out they were! Jack was sitting on a seat when a lady started talking to us, asking for me to put Jack on my lap. You have to be careful in the UAE, no matter where you are, people are watching (not an exaggeration).
Another great feature we discovered while wandering about was the Masdar Wind Tower. It stands 45 metres tall and sucks the cooler upper-air winds down and disperses it throughout the city square below, providing a nice area to relax and read a book, enjoy a coffee at a cafe, meet friends, and do what other people do in city squares around the world. Sensors operate high-level louvers that open in the direction of the wind, and close in the opposite direction to direct wind down the tower.
Eventually, Masdar City will have an integrated transportation system including the driverless pod cars, light rail, other electric cars and a variety of other electric-powered transport options, possibly including electric buses. However, the whole idea is to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport as a way of getting around. The city is built densely so that the walkways are shaded by the buildings and wind is funnelled throughout, cooling the temperature around 10 degrees compared to the rest of Abu Dhabi. It also means everything is closer, therefore easier to get to on foot or by bike. The pod cars are below ground, so if you need to get somewhere farther away, you can jump in one and make your way to your destination. This will mean no traffic above ground, with the whole system is designed to encourage and promote zero-carbon emissions.
The buildings are a mix of beautiful modern structures, combined with ugly buildings trying to be contemporary versions of historical Arabic housing. Maybe others will find it interesting and attractive, but I don’t think it works at all. Perhaps once the city grows it will blend together far more naturally, but at the moment I think it’s hideous. Future planning will include parks and open areas to provide relief spaces from the smaller confines of the pedestrian streets surrounded by tall buildings. The scale model in the entrance foyer near the pod cars at the northern car park looks very impressive, and I’d like to return when it’s a fully functioning eco-friendly city to see if it works or not.
So why is an oil rich nation leading the way in producing the world’s most eco-friendly city? Well, while there is oil we’ll continue to use it, whether we should or not. There’s too much money at stake to let a little thing like global warming stop us from using oil at every opportunity, even if there are better alternatives. As such there’s not much chance of their oil sales going down any time soon. But the UAE are getting on the front foot to be the global knowledge and innovation leaders in renewable energy and related technologies. That’s a pretty good position to be in when the oil eventually does run out. Who knows, maybe they know something we don’t?
Click HERE to visit the official website and find out more about Masdar City.