Packaging Utopian Sustainability

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Are carbon neutral cities, Eco-cities and sus tain able cities discursive cover ups for synthetic design in the desert of Abu Dhabi or something stemming from an honest utopian desire? Questioning Foster’s scheme for Masdar, Matt Lewis reaches revealing conclusions on the marketing of design in the Gulf. — By Matt Lewis

In a world in which human egos dominate, where more is better, bigger and taller are the only aspirations. Places like Dubai are an architect’s playground. Here we see one ego trip followed by another through an architecture of excess. In a parallel world, however, the Mies van der Rohe’s words ring true again, though in a different context. ‘Less is more’ now applies to our carbon footprint and an architecture of performance. Yet as these two worlds begin to intersect a new competition is born – the race to become the world’s first sustainable city.

Abu Dhabi, an early front-runner in this race, has already developed some promising strategies for addressing the problem of polluting cultures. Global alliances have been created as part of the Masdar Initiative, a long-term plan for the sustainable future of Abu Dhabi. This program will help Abu Dhabi position itself as global leader in renewable energy and sus – tainable technologies. The flagship of the program will be the Masdar development, a carbon neutral city master planned by Foster + Partners. Given the desert environment, the Initiative’s commitment, and the financial backing of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Com pany, Foster appears to be living a planner’s fantasy – building a city from scratch.

In the process, however, Foster + Partners are ignoring current discourse to create their own sustainable utopia. One discourse is the conceptualization of modern – or global – cities, the other, a means of achieving sustainable environments. Both notions are upended by a machine mentality and the creation of a closed system. This negates any notion of the open, continuous landscape that currently defines the next generation of city models, and natural, sustainable systems that are defined as a fluid area constantly shifting between change and equilibrium. Foster + Partners deliver a socially engineered cocktail to the marketing team at the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company – a synthetic culture for their synthetic city.

Located adjacent to the Abu Dhabi International Airport, nearly 20 miles outside the center of Abu Dhabi, Foster + Partners employ the traditional planning techniques used to build ancient Arab cities. The city is populated with dense, low-rise buildings to create a compact community with narrow streets for climate mitigation. All this is contained within a city wall which defines the 6 square kilometer development. Construction has already begun on this ambitious project, with completion of the first phase expected in 2010. Subsequent phases will span 8-10 years before Masdar reaches its target resident workforce of 47,500.

Measuring the success of a project like this can be difficult, but there does exist a generally accepted definition of sustainable development. The criteria are simple, suggesting that three conditions – environmental, economic, and social sustainability – must be met but execution proves extremely difficult.
To face this challenge, a ‘dream team’ of sorts has been assembled to support proper development. Foster + Partners are providing the planning and the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company will provide the financial support to cover the projected $22 billion price tag. The World Wildlife Fund is the last member of this team and has been brought in as a resource to develop the goals for environmental sustainability. This group should be able to address all three conditions with a strong level of responsibility and accountability.

Environmentally Masdar is a highly calculated system designed to achieve carbon neutrality. This will be pursued through the following methods: zero waste, sustainable transport, local and sustainable materials, local and sustainable food, and sustainable water.

Most of these are not new sustainable practices, nor are the specific systems applied, they are just happening on an unprecedented scale. Most importantly of all these is the area in which Foster + Partners appear to hold the most conviction – mobility.

First and foremost, fossil fuels are not permitted within Masdar. This naturally means no automobiles. Residents and commuters will rely on a three-tiered transportation network. The first mode is Abu Dhabi’s light-rail which cuts through the heart of Masdar creating a spine for spatial organization. The second mode is a personal rapid transit system, or PRTs, which will provide the principle means of travel above the third mode, which encompasses foot traffic.

This third mode, effecting people most directly, also has the largest impact on the urban form. Based on studies from European urban development agencies, a maximum walking distance has been set at 200m. The plan is compact, producing narrow pedestrian streets which further mitigates the climate.

Having solidified a maximum distance, Foster + Partners can now calculate an appropriate design density: roughly 400 people/hectare. They can thus calculate a population range within which Masdar can maintain its performance. What is curious, however, is the reliance on an outside workforce to make this plan viable. Only 30% of the development is envisaged for a resident work – force. Does this mean Masdar is only 30% efficient?

Economically the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company is in a position to invest $4 billion of its own capital to initiate the project, but will have to leverage its assets to borrow the rest. To help the project pay for itself they have raised funds on in an unprecedented manner and on an unprecedented scale. Since Masdar will perform better than any pollution regulations require, they are selling carbon emission offsets to companies that do not meet local standards. This should provide an immediate return on investment, in addition to the annual savings of a carbon neutral system.

With a built-in method to reduce the time frame of recouping initial costs, Masdar has the opportunity to address even longer term issues of economic sustainability. Therefore the real question becomes: how does this city create a built-in system for sustainable economic growth?

To this end, the infrastructure is being developed around the research and development of sustainable technologies anchored by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The aim is to foster innovation and funding to attract current global leaders to relocate their operations to Masdar which will permit them to build a financial foundation through the cultivation of products and expertise. Reaping the economic windfall of this emerging market, Masdar can leverage its early entry to become the authority of the sustainable movement.

Socially this project becomes more controversial purely from the large pendulum swing required to move Abu Dhabi from one side of the sustainable spectrum to the other. Lifestyles must change, or so the thinking goes among Foster + Partners. In their proposal they have rewritten the script of daily life within the walls of Masdar.

Starting with a blank slate – alas, tabula rasa is back – they are able to eliminate contradictory preconceived lifestyles. With a fresh palette Foster + Partners plan to create new standards of consumption and waste through a process of redefining norms. This new, sustainable lifestyle is contextualized against the maximum capacity of Masdar, a limit visualized by the wall zone.

This perimeter wall serves as a gate, filter and container of purity. Within these walls the air is cleaner, the people are smarter and all systems are in harmony. Perfection, right? Visitors and residents will have to get used to checking their liberties, like a ‘potentially dangerous’ bag at a museum of antiquity, at the City Gate. Residents’ cars will be confined to parking garages within the wall, and not permitted within their own city. Commuters who do not rely on public transport will also be stripped of their cars at the perimeter. Thus Foster + Partners have replaced the car culture with a ‘personal rapid transport’ culture, leaving the machine analogy not far off.

Of course this does not solve all the problems. There is still water use, energy consumption and waste to optimize. Foster + Partners are not blind to these challenges. ‘Individual behavior can have a significant effect on energy consumption, and thus [greenhouse gas] emissions. Individuals accustomed to a certain mode of living to could find it hard to instantly change their behavior once working/living at Masdar.’

Foster + Partners
They have developed a few tactics to negotiate deeply ingrained individual habits. The first of these they borrowed from the public health profession: education. Promoting awareness is not just for condoms anymore.
The second strategy is much more of what we’d expect from an architect. Their mission is to make ‘energy- and water-efficient living as ‘easy’ as possible.’ Apparently all you need is an intelligent energy management system, a little calibration, and the residents of Masdar are capable of new lifestyles. This path is likely chosen because incentives do not yet exist to encourage people to make the necessary, radical changes required of a carbon neutral environment. Thus, Foster + Partners must rely on these ancient Arab methods of city planning to control Masdar’s environment. Control applies to both the residents and the climate.

So, is Masdar purely about social engineering or is there some broader context at work? On one hand, traditional planning methods help mitigate the climate, but they also serve a not-so- hidden agenda. On the other, we are seeing similar eco-cities across the East for China is joining the Middle East in the development of sustainable cities. In this way Foster + Partners’ model may appear to be a popular trend to address the looming environmental crisis. We don’t have to look as far as China to under – stand Masdar as a contextual response to the Persian Gulf, however. Additionally in the UAE, Ras al Khaimah and Dubai join the ranks of Abu Dhabi, where Rem Koolhaas has planned Gateway Eco City and Waterfront City. Strikingly similar.

This leads me to ask: is an architecture of control the only means to create sustainable development? Perhaps, but perhaps this isn’t the right question. Koolhaas would posit this clear definition of the urban edge is a means of trapping urban energy rather than keeping it out. This sounds viable, but what we’re seeing can be attributed to creating a product.

Masdar, for instance, appears to leave very little room for error, almost as if it has been conceived as a packaged product. After all, each party of the partnership is out there marketing Masdar’s carbon neutrality and they need a way to measure it, achieve it and defend it. So, perhaps we’re over-analyzing here and it is purely about selling utopian sustainability to the investors.

Excuse me, my PRT is here…