Rooftops piled with solar panels, buildings jutting out at peculiar angles, some with silvery facades, many futuristic in design, while some with glass walls and others having a terracotta design, Masdar City with its maze of buildings seems a city like no other.
The piece de resistance in all of this is driver-less electric vehicles that drive you around. Little wonder then, that Faisal Saleem, a young Pakistani material research specialist working at the site cannot wait to move to Masdar City – billed as the first ever low-carbon, low-waste city.
"I want my nine-month old daughter to be able to crawl on carpets and touch walls without my getting paranoid that she may be inhaling noxious fumes and toxins; I want her to grow up away from fuel-spewing vehicles and traffic noise," he told Dawn.com expanding on what it meant to be experiencing high quality green living with the lowest environment footprint.
Started in 2006, the city run entirely on solar energy is being developed some 17 kilometres away from Abu Dhabi's city centre and is still in its nascent stage.
Designed by the leading London-based architectural firm, Foster and Partners, the city with its narrow alleys, courtyards and buildings huddled close together is "being built on traditional urban planning methods that provide an inclusive environment for residents," Omar Zaafrani, manager of communications strategy and planning at Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, which is behind this green city project, said while talking to Dawn.com at the World Feature Energy Summit. The event was hosted by Abu Dhabi last month where, interestingly, the booths of solar, biomass and wind companies were juxtaposed paradoxically with many oil majors.
“These ancient building techniques keep the sun away but let the breeze in while the narrow streets with low buildings also shade one another,” Zaafrani added.
"The orientation, proximity of the buildings and density of the city stem from the design principles of old Medina quarters found in North African cities," Zaafrani said adding: "The temperatures on Masdar City's streets are 15-20 degrees Celsius cooler than the downtown streets of Abu Dhabi in the summer!"
Initially set to be completed by 2016 on six and a half square kilometres, the deadline has now been pushed by at least ten years. For the moment, the 200 or so residents are the students of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. Running in collaboration with the US based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the former is behind the engineering plans of Masdar City.
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Photos by authorOnce completed, it will eventually house 1,500 businesses and 40,000 residents. Thalif Deen, United Nations bureau chief and regional director for global wire service, Inter Press Service, said he found the city an impressive "political showcase" for the United Nations’ stance during the current International Decade Sustainable Energy for All (2014-2024).
"It's a highly ambitious project in progress in an arid region with an abundance of sun, the futuristic city of about 40,000 inhabitants will survive on solar energy for most of its needs."
In addition, Deen notes that the United Nations has "appropriately" decided to house the headquarters of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) there as well "at a time when the United Nations has launched a major global campaign for the use of renewable energy".
With no cars running on fossil fuel to pollute the area, the various aspects of life -- work, entertainment and business will all be in close proximity for it to mostly become a pedestrian-friendly city. Currently there are driverless Personal Rapid Transit system vehicles, which travel at a speed of 40km/hour, and the 100 per cent Electric Vehicles, with other clean transportation solutions being explored.
Moreover, the water and energy conservation system is developed in such a way that water consumption is reduced by 54 per cent and energy consumption by 56 per cent. "The city recycles its water on site and re-uses it for landscaping purposes," explained Zaafrani.
The solar panels crowning most of buildings provide 30 per cent of the current 2-3 megawatts energy demand. The rest is covered by the ten MW photovoltaic plant situated nearby.
Furthermore, the city adheres to the highest standards of sustainability. "Use of low carbon building materials such as recycled steel and aluminum as well as timber from sustainably managed forests are practices that have never been implemented in modern day developments," said Zaafrani.
"The technologies and practices being implemented in Masdar City are playing a key role in ensuring sustainable growth and climate change mitigation. With cities responsible for more than 80 per cent of global carbon emissions, it is crucial that we reduce their demand of energy and water and in turn their carbon emissions," he said.
Sceptics, however, cannot help but wonder if the city will be able to sustain itself as it expands. They also ask why Abu Dhabi, which has the world's fifth largest oil reserves and sixth largest gas reserves and enough fossil fuel to last another hundred years would want to invest in renewable energy?
“Investing in new energy technologies—such as solar and wind—is a natural extension to the UAE’s existing leadership in the global energy industry," explained Zaafrani and added that the UAE recognizes the value of renewable energy and clean technologies, especially from an economic and energy diversification point of view and because hydrocarbons are, after all, finite.
UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated that Masdar City is billed as the first ever zero-carbon, zero-waste city which has been changed to low-carbon, low-waste.