Masdar City is designed to embrace the dynamics of technological development while drawing what it can from Abu Dhabi’s natural desert environment. Chris Wan, Head of Design Management at Masdar City, gives an insight into just what goes into building a sustainable city of the future and how Masdar City is setting an example with global impact with liveability considered throughout its grand design.

The foundations

With the number of people living in urban areas forecast to double by 2050, a new approach to city development is needed. The idea to build the world’s most sustainable city from the ground up was unveiled in 2008 by Masdar, a leader in renewable energy and sustainable urban development.

“Masdar City started as a sustainable development with the aim of building a community with resource demand reduction in mind,” says Wan. At the core of the project, he explains, are the issues of how we deal with energy, water and waste – issues we face on a global scale.

The City is located just five minutes from Abu Dhabi International Airport, ideally positioned to access emerging markets in the Middle East and Asia. At 1,483 acres, Masdar City, once complete, will host around 50,000 residents and 40,000 daily commuters.

“We started off with a university, which today is the Mohamed bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence. Then we added commercial offices and then residential buildings.

“Along with buildings, we have been building public parks and places for the family,” Wan adds. “Central Park was opened a couple of years ago and has features such as vertical green walls to help children understand the foundations of sustainability. We have invited local artists to contribute to the City, and today we have a series of pieces that are related to sustainability.”

More homes, schools, mosques, and green parks are set to be developed over the coming years. According to City Monitor, there are plenty of studies showing that designing urban spaces with nature in mind, has considerable benefits for mental health. Indeed, as many as 20% of all deaths could be prevented if cities were designed to meet the recommendations for physical activity, air pollution, noise, heat and green space. In other words, cities like Masdar City will offer holistic health and wellbeing benefits for residents.

Commercially, Masdar City boasts a thriving ecosystem for sustainability focused companies and startups that benefit from being located close to large enterprises such as Siemens, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), as well as world-class universities and other leading research and development facilities. More and more residents, academics, entrepreneurs, and investors from around the world are drawn to its unique offering within the energetic community that has taken shape. And this is just the beginning.

“We have become a growing cleantech cluster, we are a free zone, and at the same time we are an investment zone,” explains Wan. Today, Masdar City offers companies 100% foreign ownership and 0% corporation and personal tax, business setup licences starting from AED1,000, alongside a wide variety of support services.

Pillars of innovation

The project has three key elements. The first is its master plan, which constitutes the philosophy behind its design.

“The master plan concentrates on passive design, meaning making full use of how we integrate overall city planning with the local desert environment,” explains Wan. Ingenious building architecture such as highly insulated, reflective wall panels and angled facades minimise heat and glare from the sun while optimising natural light. Narrow streets are designed to receive passive solar shading from the surrounding buildings, which is complemented by street-level shades for the comfort of its residents and visitors. This level of scrupulous design is evident even in the City’s orientation, which aligns the City’s grid with the prevailing wind to harness natural ventilation through funnel-shaped plazas that make the most of this airflow. Inspired by traditional housing designs found in the Arab region adopted to assist natural cooling, these re-invigorated innovations are breaking new ground in the field of passive architecture, serving as a tangible model of what is possible, while being visually appealing and inspirational to visitors from around the world.

The design also takes a “people-centric” approach, providing the City with a much higher percentage of walkable zones than vehicular ones. As cities around the world seek better transport options, Masdar City is home to the world’s first sustainable public transport system of its scale, demonstrating the potential of innovative options like electric and driverless vehicles and PRT (personal rapid transport) systems.

“The second key ingredient is the buildings themselves,” Wan continues. “We are already moving towards net-zero energy buildings, where integrated photovoltaic (PV) panels offset the energy consumption of the building over a 12-month cycle,” says Wan. “In terms of waste, we have achieved up to 90% diversion from landfill, by collecting construction waste and reusing it. Before Masdar City came onto the scene, the bulk of construction waste went to landfill

“The third ingredient is the all-important financial aspect,” Wan explains. “To build a green building and to make it commercially viable against the competitive market is where the challenge lies. Our buildings are sustainable but also attract buyers on the real estate market.” This serves as a powerful demonstration to investors, homeowners, and developers around the world that sustainability can indeed be married with profitability.

An evolving hub

How the project addresses such concerns has resulted in huge progress towards its goals. For example, extensive testing of energy sources has been necessary, as local climate conditions – high temperature and humidity – affect their performance. Abu Dhabi provided the perfect environment in which to test solar panels from different parts of the world to better understand how their performance is affected by environmental conditions. Solar power has proven to be the most apposite and, over time, has become more affordable at large scale than traditional sources.

When the project first began, the aim was to build low-energy buildings, to achieve up to 40% energy reduction. Now, Masdar City is well on its journey to net-zero. Around two years ago, its Eco-Villa was installed with 87 solar panels, which proved sufficient to offset all its energy requirements. This has since become a model for net-zero building that has been adopted elsewhere around the world. “Fast-forward to today: we’re about to commence construction on our first major net-zero energy projects, embracing large-scale PV panels,” says Wan.

These efforts have made Masdar City an international hub for renewable energy. In 2015, IRENA relocated its headquarters to the City. “IRENA HQ is virtually in the geographical centre of Masdar City,” says Wan. “It gives us permanence. It also expands our global impact. IRENA has lots of visitors and delegates who are interested in building a more sustainable world. These visits to IRENA are a great way to communicate to the rest of the world what we are doing.”

A research and development hub

Attracting IRENA is just one example of the way more organisations are being increasingly drawn to Masdar City. With its innovative, high-tech infrastructure, easy access to a wide talent pool (many of whom are drawn to the City because of the exciting opportunities and healthier way of living in an urban environment on offer), make it an ideal location for all kinds of businesses from tech startups to overseas subsidiaries of large corporations, including many household names. The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, the world’s first university dedicated to the study of AI, is located in Masdar City, helping to create a hub for development work in AI, while Siemens also has it Middle Eastern headquarters there.

And it is this combination and integration of education, research and development activity, investment and business opportunities that has become a hallmark of the Masdar City Free Zone. When combined with the appeal of the 100% exemption from corporate and personal income taxes and 0% import tariffs and an approach to regulation that has created an environment in which it is easy and cost effective to set up and do business, it is clear to see why so many investors and businesses are looking at Masdar City. And central to this appeal is an approach built around smarter partnerships and collaboration.

Broader ambitions and partnerships

“Partnerships of all kinds are a very important component of the work we do,” says Wan. Masdar City has partnerships with a range of corporates as well as government entities, including the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme.

“The basis behind partnerships is the opportunity to share,” says Wan. As a global hub of ground-breaking innovation, Masdar City is of increasing interest to international investors and developers for its focus on sustainability, increasingly a factor for large investors and corporations looking to expand overseas.

“We share our sustainability standards with investors, who are often pleasantly surprised that they can achieve higher levels of sustainability while delivering projects within a commercially robust market.”

As more green economy advocates, corporations, and investors from around the world recognise the increasing need for going net zero, the potential of Masdar City as a place to work, live and build is increasingly attractive. “I truly believe that we collectively need to scale up this movement of building sustainable development, because this is the only way that we can achieve meaningful impact,” concludes Wan.

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