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cityscape

Public Works: Building a Brand-New, Totally Green City

Abu Dhabi is creating an eco-friendly city from scratch. Can we learn from its example?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

An artist’s rendition of the planned eco friendly city of Masdar  Image courtesy of Masdar City

An artist’s rendition of the planned eco-friendly city of Masdar. Image courtesy of Masdar City.

Though you may never have been to the United Arab Emirates, you probably have a decent handle on its basic stats. One of the world’s richest countries, a leading exporter of crude oil, producer of nine times the global average of per capita carbon emissions—it’s your typical oiligarchy. So when Abu Dhabi, UAE’s capital, pledged to build an completely new city based on clean energy and environmental sustainability, it seemed both a little out of character and entirely feasible—after all, UAE is famously capable of imagining and then realizing any surrealistic urban dream that over 2 million barrels of oil per day can pay for. The likes of GE and MIT have already contributed their expertise, or money, or both. But is this eco-city plan a genuine attempt to offset the country’s massive ecological footprint, or just a cosmetic gesture by one of the world’s worst polluters?

In 2006, the City of Abu Dhabi launched Masdar, a multi-part project to promote the use of renewable energy through education, research and development, commercialization, and investment. It includes an investment firm, a clean energy company, and a science and technology university. The crown jewel is Masdar City, a utopia of eco-friendly urban infrastructure.

Ground was broken in 2008, and today Masdar City is about the size of a single block. But by the time construction is finished, Masdar will be a fully functioning community of 40,000 residents who can “live, work and play” within city limits; it’s predicted that another 50,000 people will commute into town for work or school. GE, Siemens, and Mitsubishi have already committed to opening facilities in Masdar City.

All buildings in Masdar are built to a minimum standard equivalent to LEED Gold. The architecture mixes traditional Arabic design (which takes advantage of natural winds to cool enclosed spaces) and modern green technology, including greywater recycling and a heavy reliance on solar energy.

Masdar City is poised to rely on zero-carbon and low-carbon transportation, too. Its planned “Smart Transportation Network” includes an electric vehicle rideshare program and a Rapid Transit System of personal, point-to-point pods. Seriously. The potential of electric city buses is still being explored.

It’s an incredible vision for a futuristic city that changes the way we approach urban design. And, thanks to an agreement between Masdar and Portugal’s largest utilities provider, this eco-friendly infrastructure will soon be rolled out in projects around the world.

It sounds legitimate and sincere enough, this will to develop large-scale green communities. But we still might want to hold off on buying into the Masdar franchise.

We’ve all heard the cautionary tales about these advanced, manufactured paradises crumbling under the weight of their creators’ hubris, elitism, and abuse of power. It happened, like, a hundred times on the original Star Trek alone.

Actually, the most frightening stories of all are the reports of indentured servitude on UAE government-funded construction projects. At its outset, the Masdar City project pledged to follow World Wildlife Fund’s One Planet Living principles, which include fair wages for all workers. But continued concerns about a lack of labour regulation in the country raise the question of whether Masdar City will stain UAE with human misery long before it cleans up its environmental record.

It seems unlikely that we here in Southern Ontario could build a Masdar City, what with our lack of oil revenue and corporate investment and possibly semi-enslaved workforce. But there are cities around the world that have accomplished projects similar in spirit, if not in scope, to Masdar. L’Aquila, Italy, for instance, is home to the “Smart Ring,” an area of more than 4 kilometres in diameter that contains electric public transit, intelligent streetlights, and other green innovations.

Maybe we won’t see (or want to see) a Masdar City ’round these parts any time soon. But who’s to say we can’t dream about our own version of it? A green city without Masdar’s overtones of oppression and corporatism—that would be a real urban paradise.

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