Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich emirate, has unveiled a plan to build a zero-waste, zero-carbon, car-less city in the desert.
Famous for a history of development that triumphs over nature — so much so that it transformed a desert strip into a place known for greenery and parkland — the region’s latest grand development project is for what is billed as the world’s first carbon-neutral city, a community that will eventually house 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses near the emirate’s airport.
Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the plans for Masdar — Arabic for “the source” — feature low-rise buildings with solar panels on their roofs, unlike the skyscrapers of the United Arab Emirates’ capital just down the road. Although the six kilometre-square site has no fresh water and temperatures reach 50C in the summer, sponsors and designers say it will incorporate methods used by ancient settlements to survive in such a harsh climate.
For example, the city will be sited to take advantage of cooling sea breezes and a perimeter wall will protect it from the hot desert air and the noise of jets landing and taking off from the airport. In addition, many of the buildings will be cooled by wind towers, a feature of traditional Gulf architecture, that use the natural circulation of air to cool interiors.
Much of Masdar’s electricity will be generated through solar power, which will drive the cooling systems and a desalination plant producing fresh water. At present, sunshine in Abu Dhabi is an ignored resource — it is only used to power parking meters.
Landscaping within Masdar and crops grown outside it will be irrigated with recycled and treated waste water. Pedestrians will never be more than 200 metres away from a public transport option, including a light railway that will move people to and from Masdar to Abu Dhabi, while “personalized rapid transport pods” running on tracks will be used inside the city.
“This is a place that has no carbon footprint and will not hurt the planet in any way,” said Khaled Awad, director of the Masdar project’s property development unit. “At the same time the city will offer the highest quality of life possible for its residents.”
It is all part of a plan by the government of Abu Dhabi, which holds more than 8% of the world’s oil reserves, to invest US$15-billion in developing alternative energy sources as the country diversifies to reduce its dependence on conventional hydrocarbons revenue. As oil prices hit ever-new heights, Persian Gulf nations such as Abu Dhabi are awash in petro-dollars, earning an estimated US$1.5-trillion in the five years ended 2006, twice as much as in the previous five-year period.
Now, rulers are preparing for the day the oil runs out and construction cranes are sprouting across the region as ambitious construction projects get under way.
The United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital, emits more pollution per head than any other country, according to a World Wildlife Fund report of October, 2006.
Residents of the Gulf state use 12 hectares of the Earth’s resources per person annually, compared with 9.5 hectares for the United States.
Power demand is expected to double to 16 gigawatts in the next six years, as the oil-rich sheikhdom uses windfall crude revenue to develop new infrastructure and industries.
In addition to Masdar, Abu Dhabi plans to build the world’s largest hydrogen-generated power plant, with 500 megawatts of capacity. Last week, it signed an agreement with France for co-operation on the development of nuclear power.
The capital of the United Arab Emirates also hopes to put itself on the map culturally. It is planning to spend close to $1-billion to build a Louvre in the desert that will showcase pieces on two-year loan from the French institution in Paris.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be housed in a futuristic building, designed by star architect Jean Nouvel, who also designed the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
It will be situated on Saadiyat Island (“Island of Happiness”), which is already home to a 30,000-square-metre branch of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry.
In neighbouring Dubai, a similar building boom includes the world’s tallest skyscraper, Burj Dubai, expected to be completed this year. Expensive hotels are sprouting up along with a series of man-made islands in the shape of palm trees and filled with luxury villas that have been sold to such notables as David and Victoria Beckham, and eight other English soccer players.
In Saudi Arabia, more than 38,000 workers have been toiling for two years to complete a huge petrochemical plant at Rabigh on the Red Sea. This will produce the feedstock for plastics used to produce televisions in Japan, cellphones in China and thousands of other products worldwide.
The project is part of the kingdom’s US$500-billion investment program to build six new cities that double as housing and commercial hubs for the country’s young and growing population. The hope is the new centres will be home to five million people by 2020 and create one million jobs.