Building a sustainable city in an Arabian desert

Back in 2007,
when the government here announced its plan for “the world’s first zero-carbon
city” on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, many Westerners dismissed it as a gimmick
— a faddish follow-up to neighbouring Dubai’s half-mile-high tower in the
desert and archipelago of man-made islands in the shape of palm trees.

 

Designed by
Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the
city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side,
raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth
of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate
silently through dimly lit tunnels. The project conjured both a walled medieval
fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.

 

Those early
assessments turned out to be wrong. By this past week, as people began moving
into the first section of the project to be completed — a three-and-a-half-acre
zone surrounding a sustainability-oriented research institute — it was clear
that Masdar is something more daring and more noxious.

 

 

 

Hi tech meets
ancient construction

 

Norman
Foster, the firm’s principal partner, has blended high-tech design and ancient
construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community, in
a country whose oil money allows it to build almost anything, even as pressure
grows to prepare for the day the wells run dry. And he has worked in an
alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward
modernization are no longer in conflict — a vision that, at first glance, seems
to brim with hope.

 

But his
design also reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like
a cancer around the globe for decades. Its utopian purity, and its isolation
from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief — accepted
by most people today, it seems — that the only way to create a truly harmonious
community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.

 

Mr. Foster is
the right man for this kind of job. A lifelong tech buff who collaborated with
Buckminster Fuller, he talks about architecture in terms of high performance,
as if his buildings were
sports cars.

 

 

 

Study of old
Arab settlements

 

He began with
a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of
Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which
date from the 16th century. “The point,” he said in an interview in New York,
“was to go back and understand the fundamentals,” how these communities had
been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.

 

Among the
findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground,
not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds.
Some also used tall, hollow “wind towers” to funnel air down to street level.
And the narrowness of the streets — which were almost always at an angle to the
sun’s east-west trajectory, to maximize shade — accelerated airflow through the
city.

 

With the help of environmental consultants, Mr. Foster’s team estimated
that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70
degrees cooler. In so doing, they could more than halve the amount of
electricity needed to run
the city.

 

 

 

Closed to
combustion vehicles

 

But Mr.
Foster’s most radical move was the way he dealt with one of the most vexing
urban design challenges of the past century: what to do with the car. Not only did he close Masdar entirely to
combustion-engine vehicles, he buried their replacement — his network of
electric cars — underneath the city. Then, to further reinforce the purity of
his vision, he located almost all of the heavy-duty service functions — a
54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants —
outside the city.

 

The result,
Mr. Foster acknowledged, feels a bit like Disneyland. “Disneyland is attractive
because all the service is below ground,” he said. “We do the same here — it is
literally a walled city. Traditional cars are stopped at the edges.”

 

Driving from
downtown Abu Dhabi, 20 miles away, you follow a narrow road past an oil
refinery and through desolate patches of desert before reaching the blank
concrete wall of Masdar and find the city looming overhead. (Mr. Foster plans
to camouflage the periphery behind fountains and flora.) From there a road
tunnels through the base to a garage just underneath the city’s edge.

 

Stepping out
of this space into one of the Personal Rapid Transit stations brings to mind
the sets designed by Harry Lange for 2001: A Space Odyssey. You are in a large,
dark hall facing a row of white, pod-shaped cars lined up in rectangular glass
bays. (The cars’ design was based on Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a
compact urban vehicle, the D-45, which helps explain their softly contoured,
timelessly futuristic silhouettes.) Daylight spills down a rough concrete wall
behind them, hinting at the life above.

 

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