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The Walled City of Sustainability
Sarah Rich, 18 May 07
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A couple of months ago, we wrote about Abu Dhabi's Future Energy Company and their plans to build a huge solar power plant as part of the Masdar Initiative, a multi-part agenda for promoting and developing renewable energy and sustainability in the UAE. A few days ago they announced the next big thing to roll out of their master plan: a walled city in the Emirates desert which will purportedly be "the first zero carbon, zero-waste city in the world." Perhaps the only other sustainable urban projects of comparable scale and ambition are Dongtan and Huangbaiyu in China (by ARUP and William McDonough + Partners, respectively) which in some ways share a similar context to this project, in that they are each situated at the edge of a burgeoning 21st century metropolis, and at the crest of dramatic cultural transformation.

The Abu Dhabi development -- called "Masdar" -- will be designed by the celebrated architecture firm, Foster + Partners, and will house the Future Energy Company's headquarters, as well as a new university. As Foster + Partners describes the project:

The principle of the Masdar development is a dense walled city to be constructed in an energy efficient two-stage phasing that relies on the creation of a large photovoltaic power plant, which later becomes the site for the city’s second phase, allowing for urban growth yet avoiding low density sprawl. Strategically located for Abu Dhabi’s principal transport infrastructure, Masdar will be linked to surrounding communities, as well as the centre of Abu Dhabi and the international airport, by a network of existing road and new rail and public transport routes.
Rooted in a zero carbon ambition, the city itself is car free. With a maximum distance of 200m to the nearest transport link and amenities, the compact network of streets encourages walking and is complemented by a personalised rapid transport system. The shaded walkways and narrow streets will create a pedestrian-friendly environment in the context of Abu Dhabi’s extreme climate. It also articulates the tightly planned, compact nature of traditional walled cities. With expansion carefully planned, the surrounding land will contain wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, so that the city will be entirely self-sustaining.

Foster + Partners isn't the only celebrity firm planning large-scale architectural installations in the desert. Rem Koolhaas' OMA has plans for a whole new city on the edge of the northern emirate, Ras Al Khaimah. It's not a stretch to suggest there's something to the opportunity uniquely offered by the UAE's combination of sprawling undeveloped space and overflowing wealth. For a starchitect, it's the next level of seduction -- why have a single building as your chef d'oeuvre when you can make a whole city?

Ideally, the Foster + Partners city will be a model for sustainable development and thereby a valid, and maybe even bar-raising, use of space. But having recently been to the UAE (more on this still to come), I'd say it's absolutely clear that whether or not architects choose to build green there, they will build, and build fast. Skyscrapers sprout like mushrooms well before there are occupants sufficient to fill them, based on a Field of Dreams-style faith that once it's all built, the rest will follow. Looking at Dubai's booming tourism, it seems reasonable to expect an influx of residents and visitors for as long as there is new infrastructure to entice them. And while there's a very low murmur of concern about the environmental impact and lack of foresight involved in the building frenzy, the dominant tenor is one of excitement and anticipation about what feels like a theme park-in-progress. One hopes that projects like Masdar will be successful and attractive enough to spur greater support for a development ethic that considers the UAE's natural capital and prioritizes sustainability.


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These green minded plans have a lot of potential in countries that are still developing quickly. It seems that these countries must take stock of their resources and ration them with care if thier population is to continue to grow, and their economy can support that.

Compared to Canada, where the population and government together are taking their natural resources for granted, India, Korea, and countries in South America and the UAE all have such forsight.

We could take a page out of that book...

Posted by: Luke on 19 May 07

This idea of a walled sustainable city sounds somewhat flawed by this requirement of a wall.
Werner Grundl

Posted by: Werner Grundl on 20 May 07

These cities will be only for Princes and Kings of middle eastern countires.

Posted by: jack on 24 May 07

Wall is what'll keep it sustainable, otherwise it would entice unsustainable amounts of people.

Posted by: Arkwright on 30 May 07



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