This Desert City Is Aiming For A Completely Sustainable, Zero-Waste Future

Scorching sun, little water, and endless sand: The desert doesn’t exactly bring to mind sustainability. But that’s just the idea behind creating Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates. This limited-car, sustainable oasis aims to change the way we “future-proof” liveable cities.

A decade ago, a development company working with the government of Abu Dhabi set out to create the most sustainable city in the world and provide a model for adaptable and regenerative urban plans for the long-term future. The idea was to create a small city where people would live and work in jobs that focus on technology and sustainability.

It looks like no city before. Terracotta walls dot the cube-shaped city, and a 148-foot wind tower modeled on traditional Arab designs sucks air from above and pushes a cooling breeze through Masdar’s streets. Designers built the city a little elevated and placed buildings close together to shield pedestrians from the sun’s heat. The city was originally designed to be car-free, with residents zipping around in personal and public transport autonomous vehicles. There are no light switches or water taps in the city; movement sensors control lighting and water to cut electricity and water consumption in half.

A decade into the project, designers are learning from different parts of the process. Masdar has some major challenges, mainly in attracting people to actually live there, says Peter Braithwaite, a sustainability engineer at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. who has studied the city and its sustainability. Masdar’s completion date has been pushed back from 2016 to 2030, and delivering on the original dream of zero carbon and zero waste has proven to be elusive, a sobering thought for the development of other cities. Still, Masdar’s greatest lesson may be that to “future-proof” cities means to let them innovate, experiment, and learn from the risks of long-term thinking — and those principles apply to older cities as well as ones planned from inception.

Masdar was designed to be completely carbon-neutral, which has so far been a mixed set of challenges. Cities occupy only 2% of the Earth’s dry land yet account for 60% to 80% of energy consumption and 75% of carbon emissions. That makes energy provision and air quality critical, Braithwaite says. While its zero-carbon concept is a challenge with 5% of development complete, Masdar will still invest heavily in solar and other carbon-free energy sources. A giant solar array powers the city, and Masdar has been engineering surfaces with pores smaller than sand particles to stop them from sticking on the panels. Scientists at the Masdar Institute are also working on coatings that repel sand and bacteria for use on solar panels as well as other applications.

Financial aspects also have played a role in the city’s slow development. For example, Masdar originally was to be built on a platform, with all transport being provided under the platform — a good use of underground space. “Generally, looking at utilizing underground space in other cities can help to relieve the demands on surface land,” Braithwaite says. However, that plan was abandoned due to cost.

As cities take in people and products, they also produce waste of all kinds. Waste management requires extensive infrastructure to recycle waste streams and divert from landfill. This infrastructure includes attracting industrial organizations who can use waste streams as their raw materials — creating a lifetime loop for plastic, metal, and glass.

While there are few residents and a limited number of shops in Masdar, it has been easy to control waste so far. But, as Braithwaite points out, Masdar has the disadvantage of being located in a place with historically no industrial-scale waste-treatment facilities. A 300,000-ton waste-to-energy plant is planned for a nearby area, so there are signs of progress. Even water will eventually be sustainable: Approximately 80% of the city’s water will be recycled, and wastewater will be reused as many times as possible, with greywater being used for crop irrigation and other purposes.

And when it comes to growing food, it’s a challenge for cities to remain completely sustainable. “Maybe the greatest challenge is for cities to be able to feed themselves,” Braithwaite says. “There is research going on into urban farms, vertical farming, hydroponic farming, and food-producing buildings, but these are all small-scale solutions to a large-scale problem.”

All in all, Masdar City has been a successful experiment — with lessons for other cities that want to adapt to the far-future world. Cities need financial and business models that allow them to experiment, enable them to invest long term, and facilitate the capture of economic, social, and environmental returns on investment, Braithwaite says. The original concept of building a sustainable city in the desert was probably overly ambitious, he says. Still, many of the technological advances could come to the aid of other, older cities seeking to build a better future.

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