You might not expect to find an eco-city in the middle of the desert but Masdar, just 11 miles from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, is just that. In fact, the contrast between endless miles of sand and the gleaming high-tech city is just one of many seeming contradictions that I encountered when I visited earlier this year.

A casual visitor could be forgiven for thinking that sustainability is not high on the UAE’s agenda. Oil revenues have allowed apparently endless construction over the last few decades, forging high rise cities from the desert towns of fifty years ago. Large amounts of fresh water have to be extracted from the sea to supply the sprinklers that keep the golf courses green and the flower beds blooming. And, of course, the car is king here, with very limited public transport. So I was intrigued by the idea of an eco-city in this environment.

Arriving in Masdar

We took a taxi from Abu Dhabi, as the buses do not come out this far, and were dropped off in the underground car park to wait for a PRT (personal rapid transport, or driverless electric car) to take us to the centre of the city. While we were waiting we noted a large water feature and a sign advertising water-free car washes (apparently a sort of dry cleaning).

We travelled across the sand and past the site where the city will expand one day. Although construction started in 2006 there are still only a few buildings, primarily to support the research institute. There are student residences, together with gym and prayer rooms, and a big library and research area, as well as a few eating places and a big organic food store.

Masdar City, UAE

The city looks out across the desert

Contemporary Eco Design

Ecological factors have been taken into account in the design of the city, whose stated aim is to be carbon neutral. Although the buildings are modern, they have been built according to the principles of traditional Arabic street design, with tall buildings and narrow streets, so that cool breezes are channelled throughout the city. A vast wind tower also reduces the impact of the hot desert air: a marked contrast to the rest of the UAE where energy consumptive air conditioning is the norm.
Masdar City wind tower

The wind tower


Solar panels produce electricity and thermal collectors on the rooftops provide hot water. In the longer term wind farms and a solar power plant are planned, and geothermal energy is also being explored. The city boasts of its aim ‘to eliminate the concept of waste’, with a comprehensive recycling programme.

Although the main activities at present are research and conferences, as the city expands it is envisaged that new businesses will start up here, and that residential and retail developments will be incorporated within the city. In the longer term it is hoped that Masdar will be a model for eco-cities across the world.

Masdar City, UAE

Masdar City, UAE
The city has been built in accordance with the principles of Arabic street design


A Diverse Population

We stopped for lunch at the central sushi bar and were impressed by the buzz of enthusiasm all around us. A group of Americans at the next table were eagerly discussing their project and scribbling equations onto paper napkins. A lively group of Japanese sat at the outside tables and an Emirati in traditional robes was reading in the corner. It is a diverse collection of people here, including students, businessmen and Embassy representatives. We seemed to be the only tourists: we spoke to an American on a two-year teaching contract who was surprised but very pleased to see us. However it is likely that tourism will be encouraged as the city grows and seeks to share its vision.
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