Thursday, March 10, 2011

Masdar City

For many in the green building field with whom I’ve met, the mention of Masdar City elicits a breathless reaction—a flash of amazement and hope at this unprecedented project. For readers unfamiliar with the project, Masdar was an undertaking of the Abu Dhabi government in 2006 to be the first zero carbon city in the world. From the beginning, it was considered by many to have the most ambitious targets of any eco-city plan. With the power of such a rich government behind the project, hopes were high that Masdar could overcome the challenges of predecessors such as Dongtan to become more than just a mirage in the sands and become the first constructed eco-city. In the years since its inception, the ambitions of Masdar have been tempered to a degree by reality, but this bold vision is still moving forward. This post will chronicle the history of Masdar to date and some of the perceptions of and responses to the project from my experiences in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The Story
Masdar City was conceived by the government of Abu Dhabi in 2006 as an initiative to create a completely carbon neutral city of 6 sq km [1]. Within the wave of eco-cities, this was unprecedented as it would target carbon emissions as a measure of success and strive to be completely zero-carbon. The project, as stated by the Abu Dhabi government, was to help Abu Dhabi become a leader in renewable energy technology in the face of diminishing oil and a rise in renewables as the energy sources of the future. Furthermore, since the majority of Abu Dhabi’s revenue is from oil which is not a sustainable income source in the long term, the government is actively developing a number of new economic areas to diversify for the future. Masdar is just one of these [2].

The leaders of the project brought in renowned architect Norman Foster from London to develop the master plan for the city. Foster and his team considered the harsh desert environment of the United Arab Emirates, and asked themselves how it could be that people had lived here so successfully for years before the advent of air conditioning and modern technology. They found their answer in the winding, narrow streets of the old cities of the Arabian Peninsula. The result was a master plan that appears more like a dream than a blueprint for a modern city. Entirely built on an undercroft of several meters height, the city plan is oriented such that direct sun never strikes the facades of the buildings. Narrow alleys capture the cool breezes and sweep them past homes and offices, while the outside wall blocks the harsh desert winds that would blast the city in Abu Dhabi’s summers. Overhangs and vegetation are plentiful with solar panels often creating the dual function of shading and power generation [3].

Being a city planned from scratch, Foster and his team had the luxury of creating from scratch all of the city’s sewage, wastewater, and transportation infrastructure. Rather than dig into the sands for these functions, the team used the podium that helped elevate the streets from the harsh sands and winds to create an infrastructure undercroft. All waste (liquid and solid) would pass through this undercroft, and in an unprecedented and ambitious design move, so would all people moving great distances throughout the city. Foster and his team decided to create Masdar as a car-free city where transportation inside the walls would be accomplished with a system known as a Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT [4]. The PRT is essentially an updated version of Disney’s PeopleMover attraction from the 1964 World’s Fair [5]—a self-guided vehicle accommodating up to 4 passengers at a time. Unlike Disney’s version, however, these cars run from magnets, not on a track, and thus can be programmed to go to and from many destinations. Sensors in the vehicles detect and avoid obstacles all while the passengers have a comfortable ride [6]. In this manner, the entire area of the city could be easily and conveniently covered, solving the issue of the “last mile.” (For those unfamiliar with the problem of the last mile, it essentially means that although public transit is wonderfully efficient for moving people from transport hub to transport hub, there is not yet a clean, efficient solution for getting people from the hubs to their destinations—trains and buses cannot reach everywhere, and this distance is known as the last mile.)

To fill the goal of carbon neutrality, the entire city was to be powered on-site with renewable energy, the majority of which was to be generated by photovoltaic panels. These would be integrated into the rooftops of all buildings as well as located on a large on-site solar field. Excess power could be sold to the Abu Dhabi grid to offset any power drawn to fulfill the nighttime load at Masdar. Furthermore, solar would also be used for desalination of water for the city [7]. This is particularly important since Masdar (and Abu Dhabi) are located in water stressed areas (deserts).

Though for many architects and engineers worldwide, the name “Masdar” is associated solely with this city initiative, “Masdar” as conceived by Abu Dhabi was a much larger initiative. Under the direction of Dr. Sultan al Jaber, the idea behind Masdar was not just to create a city but to create both a living laboratory for creating new technology to propel Abu Dhabi to the forefront of the sustainability industry and an investment fund for new technologies in the clean tech field [8]. To this end, collaborations with a number of international partners were created. To provide an influx of knowledge and trained clean tech experts in the region, Masdar reached out to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) [7]. The goal of the institution is to help observe and improve Masdar City through incubation of new technologies and partnerships with industrial players in the city. Graduates would then be poised to enter the clean tech work force in Masdar or Abu Dhabi themselves.

Other partnerships included Siemens, BASF, Hansgrohe, and Bayer, each of which agreed to locate a research and development center in the city and use the partnership with MIST to help advance clean technology and test their products in the city walls [9]. Through initiatives such as these, Masdar both became a global player in the clean tech arena and generated methods of identifying and testing technology to be used at the city in Abu Dhabi.

Back at the city, Masdar cemented its city’s importance on a world stage by securing the support of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). An agreement forged between the two bodies would move the headquarters of IRENA to the model city as a show of support for the project and its importance. Masdar and IRENA were to be housed in the Masdar HQ building, designed by Adrian Smith +Gordon Gill to be built second within the city. The design won numerous international awards and much acclaim for its climate responsive features including multiple chimneys to funnel hot air out of the space below and a canopy of photovoltaic panels that were to make the building the largest zero net energy structure in the world [10].

Construction began on Masdar in 2008 [11]. Rightly, in this author’s opinion, the first buildings to be constructed were those for MIST. Opening the university’s doors early would generate interest about the project and an on-site team to help solve problems that might arise in construction and management of the growing city. Slowly, the Middle Eastern style buildings rose from the sands atop the undercroft—their pedestal. Sandstone jalli screens undulated across the facades, letting light in while blocking much of the heat, and hiding modern laboratory facilities and dormitory rooms.

Photovoltaic panels atop the roofs generated electricity for university use with a large central tower using a color display to visually signal whether energy use was too high or just right. Creatively architected buildings formed a campus center and auditorium, and cafes were included to make student life in the remote desert more bearable. In 2009, MIST opened its doors to its first crop of graduate students, all Master’s level, with the Ph.D. program to be added in a subsequent year [12].

If things for Masdar had continued entirely on the original plan, we all would be eagerly awaiting the arrival of the carbon neutral city within the decade and marveling at the miracles rising from Abu Dhabi’s sands. Unfortunately, as the leaders of Masdar have said publicly multiple times, reality set in during construction, leading to some unexpected delays and changes to the plans.

What Happened
About the middle of 2010, a rash of news articles announced that Masdar was faltering a bit. Work was already reported to be behind schedule, tests of photovoltaic panels were not yielding the expected returns, investments from the private sector were behind schedule, and a wave of departures rocked Masdar’s internal appearance.

The first signal of trouble was an article by Joyce Njeri highlighting Masdar’s decision to delay the city’s launch by a year from 2017 to 2018 to allow investigation of geothermal energy as a possibility for the city [13]. The article stresses that financial constraints were not a factor in this decision and that it is about making the most optimal decisions for the city to provide stable, renewable energy. Within three months, however, Masdar’s official position on its own finances had changed. Speaking to the New York Times, Alan Frost, one of Masdar’s leaders, stated that the company had cut costs by laying off 34 staff members and was considering limiting the PRT to only the MIST campus. Furthermore, power was no longer to be generated entirely on-site but instead, Masdar would import “green” power from plants built further out in the Abu Dhabi desert, supposedly to cut costs and improve feasibility [14]. Yet despite this, in every official report, Frost and Dr. Sultan al Jaber insisted that Masdar was neither scaling down or reducing its targets [15]. However even with these public proclamations, the plan of Masdar quietly submitted to review in March, 2010, with a release of a revised plan scheduled for the summer [16].

During this time, however, the news for Masdar wasn’t all bad. In April, an association with the US Department of Energy was announced to share information and expertise on carbon neutral cities, attract clean tech firms, and use advanced solar panel technology for the city [17]. Yet right on the heels of this announcement came the mourned loss of the city-wide PRT and the car-free goal of the city. Believing it not to be technologically feasible, Masdar’s leaders unofficially sacked the PRT system in April (the official announcement did not come until October, but throughout the summer, Masdar shied away from the system in public comments) [18]. This was followed by an article in July documenting that Masdar was having trouble generating as much electricity as anticipated from photovoltaic panels because of the extremely dusty conditions and sandstorms in Abu Dhabi [19, 20]. Coupled with announcements pushing back the completion date to 2020 and beyond and the layoffs mentioned by Frost earlier in the year, many were wondering about the future of the city and eagerly awaiting the results of the internal review.

In October, several months later than originally anticipated, Masdar finally released its review of the city’s progress to date. It admitted that construction had fallen behind, but attributed this largely to extra time taken in identifying solutions and overcoming unexpected problems such as deficiencies in solar panel efficiencies due to sand and dust. The new plan revealed officially that the PRT would be confined to the MIST campus for now and that due to a shortfall of demand (likely partly attributable to the recession), the build out would be much slower, lasting until 2025. Furthermore, power generation would be diverted primarily to larger plants in the desert and not rooftop panels [21].

The rash of changes and new plan for Masdar’s expansion and construction prompted critics to proclaim the demise of the city and question the internal leadership. This prompted Dr. al Jaber to defend specifically Masdar’s spending and plan, calling them sustainable and long-term [22].At the same time, he reiterated once more that the city was neither scaling back nor scaling down despite the new plan and changes. Yet despite these proclamations, a similar article in the Gulf news source Construction Week highlighted that IRENA’s move to Abu Dhabi hinges on the successful completion of Masdar [23]. The timing of this article almost indicates questioning of the official Masdar rhetoric in the minds of the folks at IRENA.

With all of these recent changes to Masdar’s ambitious plans, it is easy to question the project’s success, goals, and strategies. In light of the failures of Dongtan and Huangbaiyu, it is not even a stretch to fear that Masdar may go the way of these predecessors. Yet is this a possibility or just an irrational fear? And what do Masdar’s changes mean to those around it? And perhaps most importantly, can Masdar set an example for the future in the Middle East and beyond?

Putting It All Together
I want to begin by weighing in on the possibility that Masdar may go the way of Dongtan and Huangbaiyu. Certainly it is possible that this city could fail in the next 15 years—such a long build-out could yet be wrought with financial and technological pitfalls. To shed some light on the possibilities, I want to go back to consider some of the factors of stakeholder networks I discussed in my posts on China’s eco-cities and use this lens to view the Masdar City project.

As a quick refresher for those who read my China posts a while back (or summary for my new readers), using the examples of failure in Dongtan and Huangbaiyu, I attempted to demonstrate that a necessary criterion (for my math and science professors out there, I don’t claim sufficiency as well) for eco-city success in China was a strong network of stakeholders at multiple levels of governance and across economic, social, and governmental sectors. I do not claim that this is a new idea in the realm of environmental projects—in fact I have to credit the thought to studies and papers I read as part of my environmental politics courses at Harvey Mudd. However, in both of the Chinese examples, I tried to show that one of the contributing factors to the downfall of the cities was a failure at a key level in the stakeholder network. Using this backdrop, I explained why Tianjin is progressing in a stronger manner than these two projects and projected why Caofeidian may too succeed in its aims. Using this framework, I now want to discuss Masdar.

As with the other cities, I will begin by examining the major stakeholders in Masdar City. Unlike Tianjin and Caofeidian which financially and politically are backed by two nations, Masdar is almost entirely backed solely by the Abu Dhabi government. Masdar is an initiative of the government, is owned by a government-controlled company (Mubadala), and has been financed solely with money from the Abu Dhabi government. Several residents of the UAE with whom I conversed indicated that strong political will from a top minister in the government has driven the Masdar project to date, though I cannot cite nor rely on these anecdotal accounts. Within the government, there is support from Masdar both through the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council and the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, but this support is limited to joint efforts to gather knowledge and execute projects—there is no financial support from these agencies, nor is there regulatory or oversight support.

Masdar has attracted some international governmental support. During my visit to Masdar, I had the privilege of seeing US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton address MIST professors and students. She pledged US support for the project, and two weeks later, an initiative between the US Department of Energy and Masdar was announced to test solar panel technology developed in the US National Labs at Masdar City [24]. There were at one points reports of a Swiss Village within the city as well [25], but there are rumors that the plans have fallen through.

In the realm of commercial and economic actors, Masdar is heavily reliant on investments initiated through the start-up funds granted by the Abu Dhabi government. The project has invested in wind, solar, and other energy generation projects worldwide to provide long-term funding for the Masdar Future Energy Company, the overall executor of Masdar City. In the future, it is likely that these investments will help Masdar as a company become self-sufficient, but in the short-term they are not enough to finance the city development. Again, much of this funding to date has originated in the Abu Dhabi government largely because the projects have been institutional in nature (the MIST campus, for example, and now the Masdar HQ building which will house Masdar and IRENA in addition to some commercial tenants).

Much of the remaining development will be in different sectors (commercial and residential) and is predicated on interest from potential occupants. Sales and agreements for rentals of space will help finance the development and back loans for the project. For this, Masdar is targeting large companies with an interest in the clean tech space such as Siemens so as to create a “Clean Tech Cluster” to spur innovation and become a global center for sustainable technology [26]. Anchoring this will be research headquarters for GE and Bayer [27]. Though these companies sign agreements to occupy space in Masdar, planning of the buildings and construction is to be executed and overseen by Masdar with only some input from the tenant companies.

In the realm of social organizations and community stakeholders, there are yet to be homeowners with a vested stake in Masdar as the properties have not yet been developed in concept to the point of being ready for sale. As for NGOs and civil society organizations (aside from corporations), there is definitely interest in seeing the city complete but no financial or even political support to a significant degree. Certainly IRENA has a stake in the city’s completion in relation to its headquarters, but based on the statements from articles on the agreement, it seems as though IRENA could move elsewhere easily should Masdar fail to meet its goals—three other European countries were in contention before Masdar ultimately won out [28]. Certainly MIT also has a stake in Masdar through MIST as it invested time, energy, and some money into the programs at the new university. Beyond the campus confines, MIT likely has interest in the city as a test bed for new energy and sustainability initiatives, but it is not a development partner.

The result of all of this creates a very lopsided web of stakeholders with the majority of the links leading back to the Abu Dhabi government. Though it has partnerships with many other companies and groups, Masdar is primarily supported by the government of Abu Dhabi politically and financially. It is a city built on the will of an emirate to diversify its economy and create an image as a cultural center. While there is support from other governments for the project, it is not a significant stake in relation to the overall project size and finances. The interest from these governments is either technical (US) or to provide economic opportunity for indigenous companies (Switzerland) and is not sufficient to help support the project should funding or will from Abu Dhabi falter. Similarly, in the corporate sector there are several flagship companies which plan to locate in Masdar City, but like IRENA, the reason for choosing Masdar disappears if the project is not completed to its fullest extent (or close to it). Since there is market potential for these companies in the actual execution of the city they may be more willing to support the city in a technical consulting role should that be necessary. However I find it unlikely that a company such as GE or Siemens would help finance or drive the project should it begin to falter. NGOs and environmental groups supporting the project are even more fickle—reading through blogs and press releases shows that such groups are apt to change their opinion quickly from glowing reviews and optimism to pessimism at the first sign of failure.

However before comparing entirely to the case I argued in China, it is worth considering the strength of the political will behind Masdar and the level from which it comes. In both Dongtan and Huangbaiyu, which were backed by a single political figure on the Chinese side, the level of the official was much lower than that of in Masdar. In Masdar, the backing is coming from the highest levels of the Abu Dhabi government, not a city or district level official. Furthermore, the political system in Abu Dhabi is such that the backing of a top member of government carries much more weight than in China. Take the case of neighboring Dubai, for example. The reason that there are Palm Islands and a map of the world in the ocean is all the result of a vision by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Similarly, when he proclaimed that in January 2008 all buildings must be LEED Silver or better, suddenly everyone knew the terminology of green. (Note: Due to the recession and lack of codifying that mandate into the building regulations it has not been followed, but if you look at trends in LEED project registration in Dubai, there is a huge spike after 2008 because of the mandate.)

It was explained to me by several people that action in the UAE comes from the top. When a leader makes a proclamation, there is a rush to follow it. So, if His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan makes a statement that Abu Dhabi will be a center of culture and the future energy hub of the world, then supporting organizations will fall in line to make this happen. For Masdar, this means that the word and backing of the ruler could be enough to ensure that the project occurs successfully. However, for this to happen, two conditions have to be met: 1) the current ruler stays in power with the same objective and 2) Abu Dhabi’s financial success and ability to back the ambitious project continues uninterrupted.

Let’s take a look at the first point. It certainly seems likely that given the ambitious plans for Abu Dhabi that His Excellency Sheikh Khalifa has laid out until 2030, of which Masdar is a key part, his mind will not change any time soon. He has a vision for the emirate that, in my opinion, is to help elevate the capital above the prominence of its better known neighbor up the peninsula. Given the money already sunk into this ambitious plan (the construction of Yas Island, Al Raha Beach, and other areas), it seems unlikely that he will shift course. Given the sheikh’s age (63), it also appears unlikely that he will be removed from power soon and his authority reversed by the following ruler.

Now let’s consider the second factor—finances. Just in reading the news articles and following the development of Masdar, it is easy to see that the political and economic framework in place is not immune to external and market forces. The admission by top leaders that investments are not flowing in as predicted is evidence that the financial backing of Abu Dhabi alone is not enough inertia to keep the project on its originally projected course. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi recently had to bail out and refinance one of its major developers, Aldar; Aldar is now a partner in the Masdar project as well [29]. This signals that the political will from the Abu Dhabi government is certainly strong enough to liquidate funds when necessary in support of the ambitious projects but also that Abu Dhabi is not immune to market forces. Extended build outs and dropping demand have taken a toll on both Aldar and Masdar and are resulting in both groups reorganizing their plans. Because Abu Dhabi is financed predominantly on oil wealth (unlike Dubai which built based on an unsustainable real estate bubble until 2008) it is likely to have a stable source of income for the foreseeable future. The question only remains as to whether there will come a point when it is felt that the money is better spent on another project rather than Masdar. Thus the effect of a change in finances is not likely to end Masdar City but may scale it back as is currently being seen.

So, putting this all together, because of the political structure and ability to direct funds where the leaders of the government deem necessary, the fact that there is only one main backer of Masdar City may not be as much a problem as would be the same situation in China. However because of changing political and economic tides, it could result in a smaller or scaled down version of the city and in fact, may have already. Thus if the definition of success or failure is limited just to whether the city was completed as planned, then the one-party backing very well could imperil Masdar City’s success. However in the next section I will offer some collected thoughts and opinions on what the definition of success should be as it pertains to Masdar.

Too Ambitious?
Reading the blogs about Masdar following last year’s announcements about redoing the build out plan for the city, one finds a number of commentators feeling disillusioned and bemoaning the death of this city which had been seen as a model for the future and hope for carbon neutral urban living. Certainly these skeptics have reason to be disappointed—looking at the official wording on Masdar has seen it switch from a “zero-carbon” city to a “carbon-neutral” city (there is a difference between the two) to a “city powered by on-site renewable energy” to a “city powered entirely by renewable energy” not all of which will be on-site. The logical thought then becomes “if a place like Abu Dhabi with great oil wealth cannot achieve a carbon neutral city, what hope is there for the poorer nations among us?” The next step for many is then the disillusionment and feeling of failure on the part of Masdar.

At the same time that many sigh at the perceived failure already of Masdar, others shrug and offer that the plan was too ambitious from the start. Though the city had a very intelligent passive design, it relied heavily as well on new technology, much of which is largely unproven or untested on a city-wide scale. While Masdar was meant to provide this test-bed, trying to include all of these technologies at once may have just been too much. In an attempt to provide every luxury to residents in an environmentally-friendly manner, Masdar may have bitten off more than they could chew. This spirit seems to imply that the project was doomed from the beginning.

However there are other viewpoints. Many architects and engineers with whom I met shared some of the disappointment initially, perhaps guided by the idealist or environmentalist in them who really wanted the project to succeed. Yet this was quickly followed by saying that modifying the initial goals of the city is not failure on the part of Masdar. Many pointed to the fact that ideas from Masdar’s planning such as shading of sidewalks, passive design features, and the integrated design process have been strongly incorporated into Abu Dhabi’s Urban Plan 2030 and Estidama green building rating system as a sign of early success. These same experts were also optimistic that more developments would come from the living laboratory of Masdar on best practices for energy and water generation within the arid climate of the UAE. They saw the new goals as a smart reality check that could be used to fuel innovation in the right direction in Masdar rather than blindly following a plan simply because it was the originally stated goal. Thus, even though the city may not fulfill its original goals it may still yet succeed, these experts claimed. If it produces new research for the region, it will have succeeded.

However, to succeed on this level, Masdar will need more integration with the surrounding community. At this point, the city has developed to an extent within a silo. For example, some of the press releases about the city have proclaimed that one of the reasons for abandoning rooftop photovoltaic panels throughout the city was the discovery that sand in the air in Abu Dhabi inhibited power production. The press releases treated this as new research, when in fact similar studies or knowledge has been available in the region and around the world for years. Similarly, Masdar is proud of having developed lists of green suppliers of materials in the Gulf region, yet no other developer had seen Masdar’s list as yet. Furthermore, each developer or consultant with whom I met seemed to be developing their own list of green suppliers and materials. Therefore, for Masdar to be a success in this arena, it must break out of its silo and inform the broader community of its progress and achievements frequently and in an open manner. It is not enough just to influence the Abu Dhabi plan and norms—the architecture and engineering community must also be included.

The Sustainability of Masdar
The point I made in the last paragraph speaks, in my opinion, to the question of whether Masdar will be a “sustainable” city or not. Even if it had achieved its carbon-neutral goal, this question would still be a valid one in my opinion. Many get caught up in “sustainable” as it pertains to environmental impacts. The scope of the word can often be limited to the environmental impact as quantified within some bounds. However financial, social, and cultural sustainability must be included in any true assessment of the overall sustainability of a city or project. There is little question that Masdar will be environmentally friendly in some capacity, but consideration of the social and cultural factors must be independent of the environmental aspects of the city. Many online sources have questioned the financial sustainability of Masdar in terms of its replicability simply because it is a city built on money acquired from sale of a resource which few outside of the Middle East possess. Thus the capital required cannot be replicated easily on a broader scale. While this is important to note, I believe that many countries could find some mechanism for financing cities such as Masdar in stages should it be necessary. Therefore I do not want to address this question. Instead I want to turn to the question of social sustainability.

One author, Nicolai Ourossoff, blasted Masdar in the New York Times, claiming that the city was just a new form of segregation and social exclusion. His arguments of eco-exclusion (creating in the name of something good a city which is only accessible to the rich and condemning the poor to a higher impact lifestyle) has been echoed in reference to other eco-city projects worldwide [30]. Certainly Ourossoff has a point in that true sustainability within a city requires a cross-section of the population to be present and ideally should not include such features as perimeter walls which separate rather than invite. Importing 50,000 workers a day from nearby Abu Dhabi is not a sustainable solution, and unless the workers can be shown not to be emitting carbon on their transportation, also would make the city inherently miss its goal of carbon neutrality. Unfortunately because of the expense and image associated with Masdar, it had no choice but to make all residential space high-end. However this means that the city should not be copied wholesale as a sustainable model for the future. The Masdar model must be adapted to include lower-cost housing if it is to become a sample that can be adapted.

From my conversations, the exclusivity of Masdar seemed also to permeate into the professional world as well. Some architects and engineers felt it was hard to earn projects for the city or to have their voices heard by the decision makers and many had yet to see significant ripples through the region as a result of the project. Though all lauded its aims and strategies, in my opinion, sustainability means sharing knowledge with those around such that the whole region can support Masdar in its goals. The city cannot develop in a silo—it must rely on the surrounding infrastructure for people, finances, materials, and resources, and therefore it must work to improve this area as well as that within its walls. Certainly to maintain a financially sustainable business Masdar must withhold some knowledge, but that can be pertaining to aspects of the project’s execution, not to material availability, available technology, and design methodologies. Part of the community sustainability of any project must include enhancing and supporting the professional community around the project, and aside from issuing contracts, Masdar has yet to proactively do this. Such initiatives are starting, spurred in part by the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, the Emirates Green Building Council, and the UAE Business Council for Sustainable Development, but they are slow in coming.

The Future of Masdar
For those who are feeling a bit of despair about the missed targets of Masdar, the beacon of urban environmental hope, do not fear—the project is not going away any time soon, or at least it does not seem so. Certainly it has faced some challenges and will have more, but with the focus of the world on the project it seems as though it will succeed in some form. Regardless of its final form, if it can inform the professional community on what it means to create an environmentally-friendly urban environment in the desert, it will be a success (Note: an important question to consider that I did not discuss and leave for you is whether “sustainable desert city” is an oxymoron—some would argue that it is, others point to historical precedent and say it is not—you decide). As for myself, I look forward to watching this project eagerly over the next 15 years to see how it progresses and changes (because it undoubtedly will change) with the hope that when it is finished, it will have developed into a smarter, more realistic city that has lessons which can be adapted to other urban spaces in the Gulf region and beyond. Many I have met in the UAE, India, and China see it as the most advanced city in the world at least environmentally, and I still share this optimism despite the changing plans for Masdar. I hope that the coming years will prove us right, and not the skeptics.






[4] “Why Is Masdar City Sustainable?” Pamphlet by Masdar, Revised March 2010




[8] “What is a Cleantech Cluster?” Pamphlet by Masdar, Revision 2, March 2010













[21] “Masdar to be Scaled Down,” by Ben Watts for Build Green magazine











  1. Masdar City is a very ambitious build but the Abu-Dhabi government have already started building and it will be finished in the year 2018

  2. I agree it is a very ambitious development that is underway. The University is complete (I was lucky to be able to visit) and Masdar HQ is out for tender (it may have been awarded by now, actually). However because of unforeseen difficulties, I do not believe it will be finished by 2018. The Masdar Holding Company has repeatedly announced that completion has been pushed back to between 2020 and 2025 for full build out. Phase I may be finished by 2018, but I think that full build out will not be completed until later.

  3. Anybody who had a modicum of international construction experience (this excluded the Masdar Project Manager, a recently graduated Emirati)who was involved in the early planning and procurement for Masdar sadly knew it was pie-in-the-sky.

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  9. Hello Everybody,
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    4. Amount in request………..
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