Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Masdar

Most of us only know Abu Dhabi as the far off destination for Garfield's nemesis Nermal. The capital of the UAE is easily eclipsed by the towering skyscrapers and artificial islands of the next door city-state Dubai. Dubai has comparatively few oil reserves and they have been prudently investing (or so they think) their oil revenue in a tourist infrastructure that is second to none. Abu Dabi, on the other hand, sits on around a tenth of the known global oil reserves.
The ruling family of this tiny fiefdom made a decision to diversify their economy and they have been diligently working to attract international educational and research institutions. The leaders seem to have fully bought into the idea that green technology is the future and as a way to guard against falling demand for oil--I'm holding my breath)--they've made a major investment by way of a functioning demonstration project of a car-free city called the Masdar Initiative.

I had the chance to sit through several presentations on Masdar and was able to get a hold of several images used in them. All in all, Masdar is by far the most impressive undertaking by any developer that I'm aware of. Their discussion about sustainability is more than mere lip service to the green movement, and although their plan is far from perfect, it is a genuine step in the right direction.There is a lot to talk about when discussing Masdar, but I'll try to keep it focused and. It will be necessary, of course, to provide a bit of background on the development.

The development will be constructed on stilts, about 12 feet above grade. This allows for freight delivery, emergency access and simple public transportation installation in the public basement--eliminating the need for wide streets. Narrow streets, once common throughout the world, are of particularly well adapted to this area of the world, where temperatures exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

The development is integrated into Abu Dhabi with large parking structures (15k spots for residents and 15k spots for visitors), buses and a proposed rail system. Within the development, which will hold around 50k residents and another 50k workers on about 1500 acres, mobility is provided through a PRT system designed by 2GetThere.This is certainly not the sort of car-free development proposed by JH Crawford, rather this scheme has a massively implemented personal--yet public--transit system. There will be dozens and dozens of PRT stops, removing any need to travel by foot at the street level and in my opinion, obliterating the idea of local character.While the designers seem to have solved scores of problems associated with cars, they have failed to correct a significant drawback of auto-based transit--universal access. While we generally think of access as a good thing, auto-based access leads to people's desires to build cul-de-sacs and wall off communities. When you create the type of universal access shown in Masdar, you homogenize the entire place. You don't allow little crevices to develop their own local culture. Borders are impossible to define because they can be so easily crossed underground and out of sight. I'm not opposed to the similar effect that mass transit has on limited areas around transit stops, but when the closest stop is never more than 175 feet away, you alter the urban fabric for the worse.

On to some better things. I'll skip over the freight delivery, garbage collection, emergency access, and climate orientation strategy--though they were all handled in an impressive fashion. What I'd like to focus on is the platform that Masdar itself is built on.I like this a lot. There are an outrageous number of highly technical issues associated with cities. We bury most them underground, but some of them--most notably transport--are done at grade. Working under the soil is difficult and expensive. By building on a platform, we can establish a different bifurcation between the technical and the social city. Free from onerous technical requirements, users--not just developers--could construct buildings on a scale to their liking.

Just as importantly, by constructing a platform, we can create an additional bifurcation between the city and the country. Urban areas lie on the platform, rural areas lie off of it. Suburban-esque densities would never be built on such a platform because those areas of high infrastructure quality would create scarcity, the true driver of density. When the city needs to expand, more platform is built. Especially in seismically stable regions, the cost would not be so great.


  1. Looks impressive. I think you're being too pessimistic about the number of PRT stops though. People will still walk and areas will still develop their own character.

  2. By the way, do you know what the large white three-lobed structure in the center of the photo (not the city) is?

  3. The reason that I'm pessimistic with the PRT has both to do with the homogonizing effects and also the seeming disconnect with the private nature of arab culture. Though the New Urbanists detest them, cul-de-sacs and gated compounds were a ubiquitus feature in traditional arabic cities. Foster did extensive studies of other ancient arabic cities, so it comes as a surprise that he would step out of that model so strongly when it comes to access.

    Though distant villas have replaced urban compounds, arabic culture (at least in these very wealthy places) is still very closed.

    This place was designed to be comfortable for transient westerners, after all, they are the ones who'll be running all the research shops.

    As for that building, I have no idea. It seems to appear on some renderings but not others.

  4. @ "auto-based access leads to people's desires to build cul-de-sacs and wall off communities."

    Couldn't you also say the same thing about electricity and water?

    The station spacing in the Masdar transit system is 400m -- close to the 562m spacing of stations in the Paris Metro system. I wouldn't call Paris "homogenized."

  5. surely removing these barriers to communities is a good thing. I think gated communities have a terrible effect on an area, they stop people getting to know their neighbours and facilitate anti social behaviour. what is gained by locking yourself away from the rest of the city, except self inflicted segregation