Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, UAE

As a petroleum-producing giant, it seems paradoxical that Abu Dhabi would invest in green technology. However, the emirate has shown remarkable foresight over the last decade by expanding its interests to include the other end of the energy-producing spectrum. The emirate’s desire to diversify its economy while maintaining its status as a world leader in energy has led to its specialization in clean technology (Gurowsky). At the forefront of this initiative is a cutting-edge project in urban sustainability: Masdar City, a planned city built from scratch, is acclaimed as the first zero-emisson, zero-waste city wholly powered by renewable energy sources (Madichie, 43). The city displays an array of groundbreaking and traditional design elements, architectural practices and technological innovations. The intended result is an exceptionally integrated and efficient urban system. In particular, Masdar City demonstrates how green architecture can mediate the effects of an extreme climate while decreasing the energy requirements of the city. Three main players in this project, Masdar, Foster + Partners and The Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA) demonstrate that few of the advantages of urban living must be compromised in order for a city to be sustainable. And although the planned city benefits from unique economic and political advantages, Masdar City nonetheless provides all cities with examples of how project-led research and development can be combined with innovative technology and architecture to create a city which takes advantage of its natural environment to increase its sustainability (Pool). Further, the combination of research, education, commerce and industry in the Masdar City project shows how integrated planning which utilizes a multi-dimensional approach can push the boundaries of sustainable development.

Figure 1: The shading of the city’s outdoor spaces is inspired by the design traditional Arab cities. Source:

Contextual Overview

The very feature that makes the project possible financially is the same product that Masdar City has eliminated its need for: petroleum. Employing Masdar, a “multi-faceted company advancing the development, commercialization, and deployment of renewable energy solutions and clean technologies” (Madichie, 42), the emirate is gearing up to be a global force in renewable energy and sustainable technologies (Gurowsky). Masdar City’s purpose is: “to offer carbon-neutral, zero-waste facilities for businesses, commuters and 40,000 residents, plus to serve as an environmental example for other cities” (Gurowsky). The project is fulfilling this vision through the application of existing clean technology in combination with revolutionary, context specific technology, and integrating them into an effective urban system. Construction began in April 2007 and, after delays and issues, the completion date for the city is now set for 2025 (Masdar; Vidal).  Individually, Masdar City’s renewable technologies (e.g. solar panels, water desalination plants, waste incineration) are not unique, but their combination into a cohesive, functioning urban system that produces zero carbon emissions makes the city the first of its kind (Masdar; Foster + Partners).

Masdar City’s power will be produced entirely by renewable energy and energy-to-waste technologies (Crampsie). Waste is dealt with in the city by reducing, reusing, recovering, and recycling all excess (Madichie 43). As much as 99% of the city’s waste is recycled through composting, reuse and incineration with energy recovery (Bellini and Daglio 296). Masdar City’s water system is based on “total water management principles”, in which surface runoff, groundwater, greywater and seawater are recovered and reused through unique methods of recovery (Stilwell and Lindabury 4). The transportation methods are equally as revolutionary: no petroleum-powered cars are allowed in the city (Bellini and Daglio 294). Instead, the city is designed for pedestrian access in combination with Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), driverless vehicles are guided by magnets within the city (Hartman; Marichie 43)(Figure 2). This network is a combination of an electric-powered train, which crosses the city diagonally and connects the city to the outside world (Bellini and Daglio 294).

Figure 2: Driverless personal rapid transit in Masdar city
Source: Duncan Chard, Bloomberg, Getty Images.

Masdar City’s Green Architecture: Working with nature

Foster + Partners, the architectural firm in charge of designing the city’s master plan, combined traditional Islamic architecture and groundbreaking architectural practices in their vision (Foster + Partners). The planned result is green architecture which is exceptionally integrative, efficient, and successful in balancing the city’s extreme environment and a high quality of life for its present and future residents.

Traditional Islamic architectural elements are wisely utilized for their resilience and ability to adapt the city to its harsh climate. Passive cooling strategies are an example of this: carefully located and oriented shading strategies are incorporated into the architectural design to reduce the heat gain on the exterior of buildings, while allowing natural light to permeate through and avoid the need for artificial lighting (Brebbia, 208). Windcatchers are another typical, traditional urban feature in the region and are used strategically in main areas to “collect upper breezes and direct them downward to the public spaces” (Brebbia, 208). The city’s high density and walled nature is also characteristic of the layout of traditional Islamic cities (Dezeen). The city’s design clearly reflects that of a traditional Islamic city’s dense urban fabric, “where the proximity of buildings contributes to shielding the environs from direct sunlight” (Bellini and Daglio, 299).

Figure 3: Aerial view of concept design of Masdar City

In general, the planners’ vision demonstrates that a city’s built form can be exceptionally suited to and make use of its climate, no matter how harsh. To manage this balance, and deal with the extreme heat and dust in the region, new architectural practices are being developed and employed to maintain the city’s unprecedented level of sustainability (Gurowsky). The urban center of the city features “giant moveable sunshades” (see Figure 4), which capture solar energy during the day and release the stored heat at night (Dezeen). On a larger scale, inventive physical elements have also been implemented: connecting the city’s built form are green spaces designed to differ in height and orientation, which are claimed to: “not only to capture and direct cool breezes into the heart of the city but also to reduce solar gain and provide cool pleasant oases throughout the city” (Foster + Partners). Overall, the design results in a minimal amount of air conditioning and artificial lighting required. Further, the northeast-southwest orientation of the city functions by lessening the effect of hot winds in the daytime, and by making the best use of cool night breezes  (Foster + Partners). As seen in Figure 3, the city’s orthogonal grid is contrasted by the city’s curvilinear railway (Bellini and Daglio, 294).

Figure 4: Giant umbrellas provide shade in the daytime and release stored heat at night. Source:

The design does not sacrifice quality of living or aesthetics for climate and energy considerations. In fact, particular attention is paid to the aesthetic quality and comfort of the city’s outdoor public spaces: “Extremely well designed open spaces is one of the primary objectives of this urban settlement, which has the aim of providing exclusive accessibility for pedestrian thoroughfares and public transport” (Bellini and Daglio, 299).

Not only is the architecture aesthetically attractive, but also as a whole, the built form of the city is complementary and integrated. Setting aside the logistical freedom this planned city enjoys, the city’s combination of new and old strategies demonstrates the fruitfulness of integrating traditional and groundbreaking knowledge (Pool).

Important Lessons Learned: Initiate, Locate, And Integrate

Masdar City provides an excellent example of how innovative research can be applied to a trailblazing venture. Indeed, the project has suffered setbacks, but it nonetheless demonstrates that to move forward with green technology and lifestyles, grounded projects must be launched. Any municipality interested in increasing their sustainability can do so, but they must first initiate sustainable projects and policy, all the while locating and integrating green technology into their human and geographic contexts. Unavoidably, and as Masdar City displays, unforeseen issues (e.g. financial crises, technology failures, time issues) will arise and threaten the projects success. As construction on Masdar City advanced, project leaders had to be flexible, both with small changes and modifications to the overall vision of the project. Similarly, cities operating in an unsustainable manner can overcome the negative outdated urban elements through strategic planning. Masdar demonstrates that one of the ways to do this is by launching projects to test the feasibility of various ‘greening’ techniques.

And although questions remain on the feasibility and scalability of the project, “…history has shown that humans adapt well over time to things that were once thought unimaginable. Cities like Masdar could be the norm in the future.” (Gurowsky). Even within oil-dependent societies and regions that are organized around conventional principles that do not promote sustainable practices, there is still a place and a need for groundbreaking projects in these contexts. While the use, value and feasibility of Masdar city is disputed and the outcomes are yet to be known, the project, at the very least, displays alternatives forms of urban living.

This case study shows that sustainable projects must be grounded in their context, and development must be guided by working with factors such as climate and culture. Foster + Partners demonstrate the energy savings that can be reached by utilizing traditional strategies in combination with modern construction materials. Recognizing what climatic factors can be modified to improve a city’s sustainability, and which of them need to be modified are two important steps in this process.

Further, Masdar City exhibits that planning can work with economic forces, and not against them. This project shows that developing clean-energy solutions can be aided by “integrating the entire value chain of the renewable energy industry, from education and research to investment and commercialization” (Gurowsky). Indeed, integrated design and development is key in a city becoming more sustainable, both spatially and conceptually. Though more factors are at play in older cities such as Montreal, they can still achieve integrated design geared towards sustainability through planning that combines climatic and human elements.


Masdar City demonstrates that green technology, research and development can complement petroleum-based development and aid in facilitating a gradual economic and conceptual transition to cities being increasingly sustainable and reducing their emissions. While Masdar City may continue to face many setbacks as a flagship project, projects such as these must be at the very least attempted in order to move forward with sustainable practices. As Paulo Coelho stated, “The world is changed by examples, not by opinions” (Coelho). With this in mind, let traditional expertise, context, climate, and project-led development guide cities to becoming more sustainable in the future.


Bellini, Oscar E, and Laura Daglio. New Frontiers in Architecture: Dubai between Vision and Reality. Vercelli, Italy: White Star, 2008. Print.
Brebbia, C A. Sustainable Development and Planning Iv. Southampton: WIT Press, 2009. Print.
Coelho, Paulo. “Paulo Coelho Blog.” The World Is Changed by Examples, Not by Opinions. Tumblr, 2009. Web. 22 May 2012. <>.
Crampsie, Siân. “City of Dreams: Abu Dhabi Is Pinning Its Economic Future on Innovative, Renewable and Low-Carbon Energy Technologies. We Look at Masdar City, a Purpose-Built E`copolis’ Designed to Showcase the Fruits of the at the Heart of This Multi-Billion Dollar Initiative.” Engineering and Technology Iet. 3.15 (2008): 50-55. Print.
Dezeen. “Masdar City Centre by LAVA.” Dezeen. Dezeen Magazine, 28 Aug. 2009. Web. 20 May 2012. <>.
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Gurowsky, Joe. “Masdar City: Beacon in the Desert, Glimpse into the Future.”EcoHearth Environmental Website. EcoHearth, 3 Oct. 2011. Web. 16 May 2012. <>.
Hartman, Meghan, Mark Bone Knell, and Jay Witherspoon. “Masdar City’s Integrated Approach to Sustainability.” Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation. Water Environment Federation, 01 Jan. 2010. Web. 19 May 2012. <>.
Madichie, Nnamdi O. “Irena Masdar City (uae) Exemplars of Innovation into Emerging Markets.” Foresight. 13.6 (2011): 34-47. Print.
Masdar. “The Global Centre of Future Energy.” Masdar City. Masdar. Web. 20 May 2012. <>.
“Masdar Plan.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 04 Dec. 2008. Web. 16 May 2012. <>.
Pool, Rebecca. “A Tale of Two Cities.” IEEE Advancing Technology for Humanity. IEEE Xplore Digital Library, 25 Apr. 2009. Web. 20 May 2012. <>.
Stilwell, Brian, and Shawn Lindabury. “Masdar.” Cornell Courses. Cornell University, Dec. 2008. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <>.
Vidal, John. “Masdar City – a Glimpse of the Future in the Desert.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 May 2012. <>.

1 Response to Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, UAE

  1. Pingback: Sustainable Urbanisation in Masdar | A TOWN LIKE HOPE

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