An inspiring green initiative in Abu Dhabi, of all places

Here’s what I intended to share, before that Thailand thing sidetracked me.

Regular readers of my blog know that I don’t have many good things to say about the petro states of the Persian Gulf–e.g., my post on Khaleeji Consumption Disorder and other postcolonial malaises–but once in a blue moon something genuinely forward-thinking gets done in the Khaleej, too. A case in point is the Masdar city under development in UAE (Masdar means “source” or “root” in Arabic). It is a bold and fascinating experiment that could actually contribute valuable lessons for new paradigms in urban development, and not just in the Arabian Peninsula.

Critic’s Notebook – In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises –

Designed by Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels. The project conjured both a walled medieval fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.

The details are intriguing. It’s refreshing to see a major building project that takes the region’s climate and geography into account for a change. 

Here’s more, from   Masdar City: A Source of Inspiration | Renewable Energy World:

Much of the design will adopt local, vernacular architectural principles, but this will also be mixed with a lot of cutting-edge technology, some of it still in the experimental phase. The city will incorporate traditional medinas, souks and wind towers, and make use both of open, public squares and narrow shaded walkways to connect homes, schools, restaurants and shops. The buildings themselves will then adopt a wide range of passive measures, and should consume well under a quarter of the energy used by comparable buildings elsewhere in the region.

There will be no cars in Masdar City; indeed, no internal combustion engines of any type. Instead, there will be a network of electric trams (an LRT or light rail transit system, which will also link to the planned Abu Dhabi LRT system), and smaller, ‘personal rapid transit’ vehicles, effectively an automatic, driverless system of electric taxis controlled by a central computer. These will be programmed so that, once occupied, the passenger has privacy and no other passenger can board along the route.

All the energy used in Masdar will be renewably generated, not only the electrical power, but also that for heating, cooling and transport. The bulk of this is likely to come from solar of one form or another. There will be power generation for a smart grid from solar thermal power and concentrating PV, and also distributed PV throughout the city.

The NYT writer slips in some skepticism on the viability of this project.

Still, one wonders, despite the technical brilliance and the sensitivity to local norms, how a project like Masdar can ever attain the richness and texture of a real city. Eventually, a light-rail system will connect it to Abu Dhabi, and street life will undoubtedly get livelier as the daytime population grows to a projected 90,000.

To which I say, where are those “real” cities now? Based on my admittedly limited experience living in the Gulf in 2002, I suspect the writer is overlooking how compartmentalized public space already is in the Gulf is even in normal cities. Thanks to the brutishly inhospitable climate during much of the year, which drives everybody indoors; the deep-seated aversion of the minority of nationals (i.e., citizens) to fraternizing with the majority (foreign nationals) for various reasons; and the ethnically and linguistically balkanized nature of these societies that made up mostly of unassimilated laborers drawn from different parts of the world, it’s not like people are accustomed to interacting with strangers, anyway. (Am I wrong, oh readers with more experience in the region?)

In that respect, it reminds me a bit of Scandinavia, whose denizens are known for being a bit reserved and difficult to break the ice with, perhaps for somewhat similar reasons. (Which has it’s pros and cons. It may be harder to make friends, but when you do it means something, unlike in the USA, where forced friendliness and informality can make acquaintances appear to be more than they really are or wish to be.) My theory is that it’s mostly a function of climate and weather, as opposed to anything inherent local culture like Jante’s Law or Arabian mores. Whether you’re shivering in a fjord or roasting in a wadi, harsh weather that makes being outside uncomfortable prevents the emergence of a culture of outdoor socializing and makes people more reserved in public. They spend most of their social lives in subgroups of people they already know like family, co-workers, and so on, comfortably away from the elements and the public.

I’m more skeptical about the likelihood of Emiratis giving up their Toyota Land Cruisers for little underground cars.

While we’re talking about the environment, though, we should not lose sight of how incredibly wasteful and unsustainable the rest of the Emirates are on multiple levels. In his eye-opening expose of the abhorrent exploitation and short-sighted developmental vision upon which Dubai has long been based, Johann Hari wrote:

The dark side of Dubai – Johann Hari, Commentators – The Independent:

Sheikh Maktoum built his showcase city [Dubai] in a place with no useable water. None. There is no surface water, very little acquifer, and among the lowest rainfall in the world. So Dubai drinks the sea. The Emirates' water is stripped of salt in vast desalination plants around the Gulf – making it the most expensive water on earth. It costs more than petrol to produce, and belches vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it goes. It's the main reason why a resident of Dubai has the biggest average carbon footprint of any human being – more than double that of an American.

And there’s a lot more where that came from (not to mention the incredibly revolting but not particularly surprising torture scandal that broke out shortly after Hari’s article was published). The tidbit about human feces washing up on the beaches of luxury hotels as a result of grossly incompetent city planning was a memorable illustration of the shaky foundations of this city that aspires to be the Paris of the Persian Gulf.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote:

I want to see the the ameers of the Gulf boasting to the international media not about the latest glitzy prestige projects but of real strides in bringing about equality and justice in their own societies, and for working to put their God-given wealth to a higher purpose than currying favor with the international BCBG. That would be real leadership and vision.

I hope this Masdar is a sign of things to come. For a change, money well spent.

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