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Masdar City: Carbon-Neutral Living for 50K

Posted May 29, 2013 12:30 PM by HUSH

In the past five years or so, there have been countless efforts the get young children interested in the STEM fields of study. And here in the U.S., there has been a lot of concern about the disproportionate number of minorities and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related careers. The Girl Scouts of America have added STEM badges to their assortment of cookie badges. Last July, President Obama launched an initiative to improve higher education opportunities for African Americans, particularly in STEM fields, and the National Science Foundation has identified a similar disparity in the Hispanic American community.

In an effort to get all students involved and interested in STEM, the Future City Competition has been held each fall in middle schools across America since 2006. The program provides classrooms with a team-based curriculum in which students enhance skills such as problem solving, math and science proficiency, community awareness, engineering challenges, and even civic planning. Classes are assigned an engineering mentor, a professional engineer who provides the students with his or her input and oversight. Each January and February competitions are held and the winners receive a trip to Space Camp (which, growing up on a healthy dose of 1980s Nickelodeon, is every kids dream!).

Notably, the students in the FCC must detail critical municipal components such as energy, transportation, and city layout. While these adolescents are only being introduced to these engineering problems, they grasp concepts and discover solutions that have real-world applications. And some of these solutions are coming to life in Masdar City, United Arab Emirates.

Since 1962 the UAE, and in particular its constituent city Abu Dhabi, has been one of the most developed and richest countries in the world. It benefits from enormous profits generated by oil and natural gas exporting, which have been funneled into healthcare, education and infrastructure. Though the UAE government has certainly cashed in on its oil-rich location, officials have long suspected that there would be a day where the reserves dried up or something will replace oil. This concern prompted former UAE Prime Minister Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum to say, "My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel."

With the belief that UAE's economy would be doomed if the country's finances weren't diversified, the government of Abu Dhabi did something very unorthodox for an oil-producing nation. In 2006, they pledged $22 billion to sustainable energy and resources. This money was earmarked for an experimental 50,000-resident city that would be erected from 2.3 square miles of empty desert floor. What's more is that this city would be carbon-neutral and zero-waste.

Initial designs indicated that PV cells would cover every roof, thereby actually feeding more energy into the grid than what it withdrew. Cars were completely replaced with small, futuristic travel pods that accelerated individuals to local destinations via an underground roadway. The engineering company behind all of the innovation would be the Masdar Insititute of Science and Technology, a government university that was established in cooperation with MIT. No less than 13 Ph.Ds have been hired away from MIT, and dozens more from prestigious universities around the world.

But when construction on Masdar City started in 2008 a hiccup occurred: everyone went broke. Even the money provided by the sixth-largest oil reserves in world could not insulate Masdar City from budget cuts. The revolutionary city that was going to begin housing people by 2009 and be completed by 2015 now had a completion date of 2025. The underground personal transport system was deemed too expensive and very limited use of electric vehicles has been approved. Meanwhile the PV cells had been moved from rooftops to the perimeter of the city, and designers are planning for wind farms and geothermal and hydrogen energy plants as well.

Click the image on the right for an enlarged visualization of Masdar's city-scape.

However, these financial constraints have been somewhat of a blessing. Engineers are now focused on making Masdar City economically sustainable as well. It is extremely unlikely most cities would have the resources of Abu Dhabi when constructing new settlements or updating existing ones. City streets have been made narrower to help funnel breezes captured by wind towers, making it comfortable to be outside in Masdar's 110° heat. A perimeter wall helps keeps out desert winds and leaning buildings maximize shady areas. Water will be treated by solar powered desalination plants and greywater will be harnessed to water crops. Solid waste will be used as soil and fertilizer, or be completely recycled.

Essentially, the construction of Masdar City is an experiment. The engineers and architects behind Masdar have just as much to learn as the American children who participate in the Future City Competition. As the world moves into an era where sustainability has become a deciding factor in each decision, America's young children are learning creative new ways to confront this problem. In conjunction with the research being done in Masdar, maybe Western cultures should begin looking to our youth to get a better idea of what tomorrow will shape up like.


(Image credits: GSA; Penn Live; Construction Week; NY Times)

Masdar City Official Website

Wikipedia - Masdar City

Pop Sci - Inside the World's Most Ambitious Eco City; June 2013 (print)


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