Abu Dhabi plans a sustainable city

For a desert state channeling some of its oil wealth in a new direction, celebrated British architect Norman Foster has designed a car-free, solar-powered project for 50,000 people. John Vidal reports.

In an expanse of grey rock and dust in one of the harshest environments on earth, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is about to build what is being described as the world’s first sustainable city, designed by British architect Norman Foster for the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC). [China’s Dongtan project, near Shanghai, has been similarly described by its planners.]

The site is far from promising. Miles from a polluted sea, a fierce sun raises temperatures to 50º Celsius (120º Fahrenheit) in the summer, and there is no fresh water, no soil and no animals. But tens of billions of petrodollars will be poured into these seven square kilometres of desert on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

Called Masdar – “the source” in Arabic — the walled city is intended to house 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses. It will have no cars and be self-sufficient in renewable energy, the majority of which will be solar energy.

The formal unveiling of the planned desert eco-city was made on January 21 at a summit meeting in Abu Dhabi on future energy sources.

“It’s extremely ambitious,” said Gerard Evenden, senior partner in Foster’s architecture practice in London, which has had a team working on the design for nine months. “We were invited to design a zero-carbon city. In this harsh place we needed to look back at history and see how ancient settlements had adapted to their environments.” The buildings will huddle together as in a casbah, and will be cooled by wind towers which will collect the desert’s breezes and flush out hot air. No building will be more than five storeys high; the city is to be oriented north-east to south-west to give the optimum balance of sunlight and shade.

It will feel closer to many cities built in the age of the cart and horse. Most roads will only be 3 metres (10 feet) wide and just 70 metres long to develop a micro-climate and keep the air moving; roofs will allow in air and keep the sun out in the summer. No one will be more than 200 metres from public transport, and streets will give on to colonnaded squares and fountains.

“We are definitely not imposing a standard international architecture in Masdar. We are aiming to find a balance of light and heat,” said Evenden. “It’s only really hot for three months of the year, but at other times it’s humid.”

It is every architect’s dream to build a new city and Foster’s team say they started from scratch. The idea has been to reduce the amount of energy needed to build it and to live there, and then to let solar energy take over.

“We will start with a large solar power station which will provide the energy to construct the city,” said Evenden. “Some 80% of all the roof space will be used to generate solar power, and because we expect technology to improve as we are building it, we hope we will later be able to remove the power plant. We could ‘borrow’ energy from outside, but we are trying to prove it can all be generated in the confines of the site.”

The architects are also planning some hi-tech gadgetry. The 50,000 inhabitants, and everyone who works there, will move around on one of three levels. A light railway will whizz people to and from Masdar to Abu Dhabi city’s forest of glass and steel towers. A second level is reserved for pedestrians, and a third for “personalised rapid transport pods,” described by Evenden as “little vehicles like driverless personal taxis which run on tracks or magnetic discs in the road”. He added: “It’s a tried technology. They are in production in Holland, and used to move containers around in Rotterdam port.”

No clues have been given about the city’s cost, how it will be socially organised and who will live there, but money is clearly no object. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, is vying with neighbour Dubai to be the most dazzling Gulf city, and the environment is seen as the new card in the deck.

With at least $1 trillion invested abroad and sitting on nearly 100 billion barrels of oil, Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world. Its 420,000 inhabitants are theoretically worth about $17 million each, and they are responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions per capita than any other population in the world.

Abu Dhabi is keen to manufacture thin-film solar panels to make Masdar a centre of the global solar energy manufacturing industry.

“This will be the global capital of the renewable energy revolution. It’s the first oil producing nation to have taken such a significant step towards sustainable living,” said Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, director of WWF’s One Planet Living initiative, which aims to develop sustainable communities globally. But critics said Masdar is a fig leaf for the rest of the Gulf region, heartland of the world’s fossil-fuel extraction.

“The numbers must be put into perspective,” said Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth (FoE). “They are spending welcome billions of dollars on renewables but trillions are still going into climate-changing oil economies. The future is the sun and renewables but there is no time to wait for this revolution.”

How will it work?

Zero carbon — 100% of energy supplied by renewables — photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, wind, waste-to-energy and other technologies.

Zero waste — 99% diversion of waste from landfill, reuse of waste, composting.

Sustainable transport — Zero emissions from transport in the city.

Building — As much as possible using recycled or certified materials.

Water — Per capita consumption to be 50% less than average. All waste water to be reused. Drinking water to be desalinated with solar energy.

Equity and fair trade — Fair wages for all workers who are employed to build the city.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

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