The Second Life Of Masdar, The Green Utopia That Wasn’t

In 2006, Masdar was billed as the first sustainable city, before the original plan was scrapped. A new plan takes a more tempered approach.


In 2006, the United Arab Emirates announced an ambitious plan to build the world’s first planned sustainable city just outside of Abu Dhabi. Masdar City would be a model for a zero-carbon, mixed-use urban landscape in the middle of the Arabian desert–and a symbol of the oil-rich UAE’s commitment to shifting dependence off of fossil fuels. The renown British architecture firm Foster + Partners was hired to build it, and the firm produced a visionary master plan, complete with a car-free city-scape, shaded streets cooled by a wind tower, and a driverless-car system for mass transit.


A decade later, and the city is nowhere near zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions. Foster + Partners is no longer leading the project, and many have deemed the city a failure, a “green ghost town.”

But while Masdar will not be the zero-carbon, Jetsonian dream city that it was designed to be, construction continues. Since 2014, Boston-based CBT Architects, led by principal and head of urban design Kishore Varanasi, has quietly been at work on phase two of the city’s master plan–which it is unveiling for the first time today.

Although it is being billed as the “next step in the evolution of Masdar City,” phase two marks a decided shift away from Foster’s original plan, toward something more attainable. You may notice a subtle change in terminology: Once touted as the first city to zero out on carbon emissions, Masdar is now being described as “low-carbon.” When I speak with Varanasi, he initially glosses over the change in plans, maintaining that the overall vision of building a sustainable city is still the same. But when asked outright, he admits that the zero-carbon goal has been scrapped. Instead, he says, the goal of CBT’s phase two master plan is to build on Foster’s plan to create a city that is “highly sustainable and commercially viable, providing a high-quality lifestyle” for resident.


That’s not as catchy–nor as direct–as the promise of a “zero-carbon” green city. But a closer look at CBT’s plan shows a network of low-tech, common-sense sustainability efforts working in concert to produce a Masdar that, while not completely emissions-free, is still more sustainable than most cities. It’s less spectacular and futuristic than Foster’s plan: There are no subterranean roads or Big Brother-esque “green police.” Instead, it’s an amalgamation of energy-saving tactics we already know work, deployed all at once, and on a city being built from the ground up.

“If you purely pursued an idea for net zero for its own sake, you may achieve it through mathematics,” says Varanasi. “But when we (CBT) make cities, it’s something that is more holistic than that. The approach has been, how do we balance sustainability, not just from an energy-only approach but also continue to think about energy, economics, and quality of life for people?”

If that sounds like a lot to take on, consider the design constraints CBT also had to adhere to. Like Foster + Partners, CBT worked closely with the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, the government agency overseeing the city’s development. The council has its own rigorous sustainability standards called Estidama, which is comparable to LEED certification standards in the United States. Buildings and communities are ranked from one to five “Pearls” based factors such as how effectively they minimize water use, energy, and waste, with a greater emphasis on water conservation and indoor environmental quality than LEED. Masdar is aiming for a four (out of five) Pearl rating.


“Foster definitely set forth a pretty fantastic vision for Masdar in a way that thought about the future of sustainability,” Varanasi says. The zero-carbon dream city may be dead, but there’s still time and resources available to make Masdar a model of green city planning. Varanasi estimates phase two will take 5 to 10 years to build, and there are three other phases that will be built simultaneously to phase 2 or following it.

“A lot of people have written off Masdar, but cities in general take a long time to build,” he says. “And Masdar is trying to strike a new ground.”

New Isn’t Always Better

To accomplish that Estidama rating, CBT’s multi-tier plan addresses as many issues as possible with “passive design.” These can be design elements like orienting the buildings in a way that provides shade for streets, or clever landscaping that reduces water use. It’s not flashy; it’s grounded in tried-and-true methods, even adapting some methods from Middle Eastern cities that have worked for centuries to be livable and sustainable in a harsh, hot climate.


One of the ways CBT’s plan most strikingly diverges from earlier master plans for Masdar is the way it breaks up property. Where the old plans called for very large plots to be developed by one single entity, the phase two master plan will see lots of private lots sold off to developers who will design and build their own buildings. This is how most city plans work, and the thinking from CBT was that it shouldn’t be different just because a city is meant to be sustainable. “There is still a regular day-to-day market economy aspect to phasing in sustainability,” says Varanasi. “There are 50 blocks in phase two and maybe 50 different developers and architects building it. It’s a real city.”

A Holistic Plan For A Very Hot City

Since the city will ultimately be built by multiple developers, architects, and engineers, CBT and its partners had to establish a strong framework so that the city would work holistically to meet the Estidama standards. Part of that plan was designing what the plan terms “clusters,” or groups of buildings, pathways, roads, and parks designed to work together to save energy.

For example, designing a more pedestrian-friendly city meant developing the space between buildings into courtyards and pedestrian-only paths. Unlike the initial vision, phase two incorporates cars into the city plan, but the layout encourages walking or biking, and the clusters make it so you don’t have to cross a street full of cars every time you walk a block. Streets circle buildings facing each other in a cluster, but in between the buildings are connected by pedestrian walkways and bike lanes. Another technique for discouraging driving? There are only four parking spaces per Masdar resident.


Within these clusters, clever design elements work in conjunction to cool the city’s temperature naturally. For instance, Estidama requires that a path must be shaded for 75% of its length. CBT’s plan accommodates that by constructing buildings as close together as possible while still abiding by building codes and ensuring privacy. Overhangs and canopies shade not only the street but also the building facade so that it also reduces the building’s cooling load, and thus its energy usage.

Buildings and streets are also oriented toward prevailing winds, and the layout is designed to channel wind through the spaces between buildings. At 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a desert breeze might not seem that refreshing, but it can go a long way toward making the city feel cool. “We actually reduce the ambient temperature of the wind as it passes through these places,” says Varanasi.

An Experimental Lab For All Cities

Walkability, wind, and shade are just few of the tenets of the master plan–others include plans to reduce water consumption by 40% by using native plant species, or calling for 75% of hot water to be heated by solar power. Varanasi even described a plan to use the reject air from window air conditioners–the air that comes out on the street end–to funnel into public spaces, where it’s still 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the natural temperature.


CBT looked to other Arab cities as examples for how cities can make the heat more manageable, and adopted solutions from them. In cities like Aleppo in Syria, for instance, where buildings were constructed close together, narrow streets and alleyways fend off the sun’s glare. Many Iranian cities, meanwhile, favor wind towers that catch a breeze and direct it toward city dwellings.

One of the main advantages to building a city from the ground up, rather than retrofitting a city to be more environmentally conscious, is the ability to deploy almost everything architects and planners know about sustainable design at once. It helps that the Masdar government and Abu Dhabi officials are dedicated to it. “The city itself is treated as an experimental lab from a sustainability perspective,” says Varanasi. “What we want to produce is now something that other people can borrow from.”

One of the overarching goals of the plan is to make it applicable elsewhere, but Varanasi says key to any city plan is being able to adapt in the face of changing circumstances. “We don’t want anyone to just copy the Masdar plan directly somewhere else,” he says. The same is true of the Masdar city plan, which has to be able to evolve at every phase. “They did Foster’s plan in phase one, and they realized they needed to make adjustments and reset the course [for the remaining phases],” Varanasi says. “I think that’s very important for other cities to think about with sustainability and the example that Masdar is setting.”


In other words, the decade-long crusade to build a city in the middle of the Arabian desert with no carbon footprint ended with phase one. But Masdar is still one large, ongoing experiment in sustainable urban design. For now at least, simple, low-tech solutions beat out futuristic showmanship and expensive technology.

[All Photos: courtesy of CBT]

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.