When considering environmental sustainability, the Middle East is unlikely to be the first place that springs to mind. Home to over 50% of the world's known oil supplies and just under 40% of the world's gas, the region has predominantly relied on fossil fuels for energy and economic growth, and will likely continue to do so for some time. Despite this, sustainability awareness is increasing in the Middle East, particularly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where work is underway on creating a "low-carbon, renewable energy-powered city" just a stone's throw from Abu Dhabi airport.
If you've made it as far as this blog post, chances are you've already heard of Masdar City. Designed to be one of the most sustainable developments in the world, Masdar aims to be a "clean energy hub" where 40,000 people will live and another 50,000 will work. The city will be car-free, produce energy from renewable sources and monitor everything from water to waste thanks to advanced technological infrastructure so great in mass that the entire city is being built on a raised platform to allow access. Masdar promises to be a truly smart city, one where an intelligent network of technology-enabled services are an integral part of its vision for environmental sustainability.
The smart city concept has received a lot of attention in recent years, largely driven by multinational corporations realising how much money they can make from instrumenting cities with their technologies. Thankfully it's one of those situations where capitalistic desire is a good thing - providing city governments and service providers with accurate information about how their city functions liberates them from their former inefficiencies. The smart city is City 2.0 - a city where we understand what's actually going on and as a result know what needs to change to make it more effective and more sustainable.
However, an environmentally sustainable city needs more than just an impressive IT network, something which Foster and Partners - the British architecture firm responsible for the design of Masdar City - are seemingly aware of. Though Masdar is a modern city (residents and visitors are transported by Personal Rapid Transport podcars, for instance), it's not an entirely Jetsons-esque experience, with traditional architectural features playing a prominent part in it's sustainability.
The Middle East has a long history of innovating to create a more liveable built environment - unsurprising considering the region's climate. Summer temperatures in the UAE often exceed 40 degrees C (104 F), with winter temperatures also known to reach over 20 degrees C (68 F). Bagdirs, or windcatchers, are one way to address this. Windcatchers originated in Iran in the 19th Century and look like large chimneys. Unlike chimneys, however, their purpose is to direct air into a building, catching the wind above roof level and channeling it down shafts to cool the rooms below. See how they work here.
The cooling impact of thick walls and subterranean building has also been utilised in Middle Eastern construction. Ice Houses, which also originated in Iran (where temperatures are known to occasionally drop below freezing!), are ancient domed structures typically made from earth bricks. The thick walls and underground rooms act as insulators, with channels on the back of the structures filled with water to form ice during freezing winter nights. This ice is then removed and stored inside the naturally insulated Ice Houses for the rest of the year. Ice Houses fell out of use in the mid-twentieth century, though the construction principles live on in modern developments.
Talking to RTCC, Director of Sustainability at Masdar Nawal, Al-Hosany, said "Traditional architecture was designed on how to protect from the environment but also how to use the environment for your advantage, because they did not have the mechanical solutions we have now." This ethos is clear in Masdar City, where the natural environment and traditional architecture are being harnessed alongside some more modern innovations. Windcatchers will be used for passive ventilation, and wind turbines will generate energy. Insulated walls will protect inhabitants from the heat and angled streets and latticed windows will created shadowed space to further minimise the sun's impact. The region's largest solar power plant will generate over 17,000 MWh each year, displacing around 15,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Masdar City is not without its controversies. Some believe retrofitting existing cities would be a better use of resources. Others have criticised the development for being an elaborate gated community, offering sustainable living only to those who can afford it. Indeed, the question of social sustainability in the UAE is a big one - the country is a federation of absolute monarchies where citizens have no right to change their government or form their own political parties. Freedom of speech and freedom of press is restricted. Therefore whilst Masdar City has excelled on the environmental sustainability front, the economic sustainability of the project remains to be proven, and the social sustainability is, to put it nicely, way off.
But there is still much to be learned from Masdar City. Namely, that whilst technology can aid our journey towards environmentally sustainable cities, looking to the past can also offer us some inspiration.