Construction of Abu Dhabi's futuristic environmentally friendly Masdar City began back in 2008. Even though there is a long way to go until completion, the project's organizers are more determined than ever.
Some 17 kilometers from downtown Abu Dhabi, with its high-rise blocks, broad avenues and lines of traffic, Sultan Al Ali welcomes his guests in an airy courtyard. The tall buildings providing the shade belong to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. This, the Acting Executive Director of Masdar City explains, is the birthplace of "the Masdar vision."
The gently curved elements of the buildings are coated in terracotta-coloured sand. It's hoped that 40,000 people will live here one day, in a project that demonstrates how scarce resources can be used sustainably. The vision, however, has a long way to go.
So far just 120 selected students from the institute live here, while they develop technologies and test innovations to make that sustainable lifestyle possible.
From university campus to functioning city
Originally, Masdar City was planned to be ready by 2016 as a functioning city with homes, jobs and an environmentally friendly infrastructure. But, the schedule has been delayed considerably, according to Simon Breuninger. The German energy expert says the global economic situation has had an effect. During the financial crisis, real estate prices dropped in the Gulf region, just like everywhere else.
"Masdar City had to re-think," Breuninger told DW. "The idea of 'build and they will come' simply did not work, because there was a glut on the market."
"The goals were very ambitious for schedule, size and sustainability," adds Steve Severance, head of Programme Management and Strategy at Masdar City. "Building something that is too expensive for anyone to live in, is not sustainable."
Now, company premises for Siemens and General Electric are being built. It's hoped that constructing premises to suit the requirements of companies who already agree to lease them, will help Masdar City move from being a university campus to a real city by the year 2025.
Beating the heat
Moving around Masdar City's narrow streets, there is a noticeable difference between the pleasant micro-climate here, in comparison to the rest of the country.
A combination of traditional Arab building styles with the latest technology is designed to make people happy to spend more time outdoors. The streets act as wind tunnels, with a pleasant breeze blowing through them.
"The large structure here is a wind tunnel. These have been used in traditional Arab homes for hundreds of years," Severance told DW. "We have added some technology and science, forcing the wind down to come out as cool air."
The buildings have a thick layer of insulation to keep the heat out. The window-to-wall ratio is reduced to give enough light but to stop the sun from over-heating the buildings. Even though the energy comes from the city's own ten megawatt photovoltaic power plant, energy-saving is essential, according to Chris Wan, head of Design Management in Masdar City.
At the moment, building work is booming in the eco-city. The second construction phase of the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology has just been completed. The building that Siemens is due to move in to will be the most energy-efficient building in the city to date, says Wan. It will use up to 65 percent less energy than an average building in Abu Dhabi.
The International Renewable Energies Agency (IRENA), which is already based in Abu Dhabi, is now having its headquarters built in Masdar City, says the organization's deputy director, Frank Wouters.
"A brown desert is really not the easiest place to build a green city," he told DW. "So building something that works in a place like this is of tremendous significance. If you can do it here, you can basically do it anywhere."
Sceptics draw attention to the lack of environmentally and climate-friendly projects in the Gulf region outside of the Masdar City project. Still, Simon Breuninger, who has been working at Masdar City for four years, thinks it has increased awareness of sustainability in the country.
"Abu Dhabi, the Emirates, the whole region, has a reputation for using energy on an extravagant scale and for its huge ecological footprint," Breuninger admits. "But the Masdar initiative has forced people and industry to rethink."
He cites new energy efficiency standards across Abu Dhabi for buildings and waste-reduction measures, as proof of the change in attitude.
Changing the way we build
The idea of building sustainable cities is no longer a new one. But Abu Dhabi's impressive financial resources, its unique desert location and the fact that it traditionally derives a lot of its wealth from oil, means that the Masdar City project has been monitored closely around the world.
Laurence Tubiana from the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations says Masdar City is a "useful utopia." During a visit on behalf of the UN Network for Sustainable Development Solutions, she stressed "the challenge is not to have Masdar or several Masdars, but to have the traditional infrastructure change and transform, and actual cities transform."
"I think Masdar shows what we can do," she told DW. "Then it has to be completely re-transformed and re-adapted to make things happen elsewhere."
EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard also paid a visit to Masdar City recently. She said that Masdar could inspire others by demonstrating that low-carbon projects make economic sense.
"We can set up all the policy targets and goals we want to," Hedegaard said, "but in the end it is not until business sees good business cases that you can really bring things to the scale and speed that we need."
Irene Quaile's trip to report on Masdar City was partially sponsored by the organizers of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.
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