State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

City of the Future, Today

By Sebastian Mafla

Masdar City is trying to pave the way for life without oil.

The city, located 32km from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), is 100% self-sustained: electricity for the whole city is generated by solar and wind energy.

The streets are narrow, built especially for pedestrian traffic. Buildings have wind cones that both provide ventilation and allow sunlight to enter during the day, reducing the need for electrical light, and have overhangs that provide the streets below with shade. The streets are designed to maximize wind flow, thus providing relief against the desert heat. City parks have sunshades outfitted with photovoltaic cells, which gather solar energy during the day, and close and open at dusk and dawn. Cars and other gas emitting vehicles are kept out of the city by a wall surrounding Masdar City. Travel within city borders is done on foot or on electric vehicles, which glide down the grid-like streets using an automated system that only requires a destination to map out its route. Travel to and from the outside is facilitated by a light rail system connecting Masdar City with downtown Abu Dhabi.

Model for the Masdar Headquarters, the biggest office building in Masdar City – Photo by Imre Solt

Masdar City itself is only a fifth of Masdar, which is itself a subsidiary of government-owned corporation Mubadala. The other four units of Masdar are Masdar Institute, Masdar Capital, Masdar Power, and Masdar Carbon. All units of Masdar are dedicated to advancing knowledge of renewable energy. What makes this more astonishing is that the UAE, provider of roughly 8% of the world’s oil, is investing so heavily in the progress of Masdar’s research.

The city houses a state-of-the-art university, The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which was founded in collaboration with MIT. Its students and staff were the first residents of Masdar City. However, office buildings have been erected, and house a multitude of clean-technology businesses from all over the world, like Japan’s Mitsubishi and Germany’s Siemens, and will also be the new location of the Embassy of Switzerland in the United Arab Emirates. The Energy Technology Partnership, an alliance of 12 Scottish universities focusing on energy research, is partnering with Masdar, after a deal signed between Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Masdar CEO Sultan Al Jaber. Masdar is as much a part of the UAE as it is an international collaboration of environmentally conscious corporations.

However, the city is undoubtedly small. With an area of only 6 square kilometers, the whole city is about twice as big as Central Park. To put this into perspective, Central Park is about 6% of all of Manhattan, making Masdar City roughly a tenth of the size of the Big Apple. As of now, Masdar plans to have 40,000 people living in Masdar City, and estimates that about the same number of people will commute daily from Abu Dhabi. That brings the predicted amount of people making daily use of Masdar City to about 80,000. This number pales in comparison to the millions of people living in cities that would be most interested in the self-sustained city that Masdar is shaping.

Whether the advancements in citywide self-sustainability can be applied to large cities remains to be seen. Still, it is a relief to know that some governments are making progress towards it.

Sebastian Mafla is an intern at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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