Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Middle Eastern City of the Future.

If leaders of the United Arab Emirates get their way, there will be a revolutionary new urban landscape built in the desert. Masdar City is only a theory now, but if its planned construction outside of Abu Dhabi actually occurs, then the United States could end up falling behind the Middle East in the new global energy paradigm. The word "masdar" means "the source" in Arabic, and considering the global commodity that has transformed this nation of city-states, observers should be stunned when they find out what will actually power the new development. Unlike the Sun Belt cities sprawling through the American Southwest, Masdar City is deliberately being constructed to be sustainable.

The goals of this project are formidable. First of all, there will be absolutely no cars. This proposition by itself is virtually heretical to modern society. The predominant mode of conveyance will be magnetic light rail. The city's energy will be derived mostly from solar and wind powers- sources to be found in great abundance in the dry climate of the region, and alongside the Gulf waters. Age-old wisdom and sensitivity to geography will be employed as well. Designers have imagined narrow streets whereby convective air forces will provide a natural type of "air conditioning". When all is said and done, Masdar City is to have absolutely no ecological footprint, since there will be no carbon emissions or other wastes. This would be remarkable, as the UAE currently produces five times as many carbon pollutants as the world average.

The official plans have set a target for 15,000 inhabitants by 2018. Apparently it is also expected to employ 50,000 workers on a regular basis, and may eventually expand to a population of 100 thousand. Obviously, in a city of any substantial size, energy is not the only problem. In a region with more energy than it can possibly use, water is a much more valuable premium. The planners of Masdar City expect to meet their needs with desalination technology that's been slowly evolving for decades. Meanwhile, palm and grove trees will profit from this inexhaustible supply, and yield biofuels (which the Emirates anticipate as a possible replacement for oil in the future). Crop production will be facilitated by the use of "gray water".

All of this activity will be monitored with a network of sensors and data miners. Academics and efficiency experts will have the chance to continuously re-evaluate their methods, and learn from the mistakes. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology will be formed, and will work in conjunction with MIT to offer Masters and PhD programs. The real world expertise gleaned from the observation and management of a functionally sustainable city will help provide solutions to current energy and ecological problems throughout the world. Alongside with ambitious plans for carbon sequestration (CO2 Capture and storage), the UAE could well position itself as a global leader for generations to come.

Preparations for this model city mirror a similar project in another nation with a similarly brutal environmental record. China's proposed "zero-emission" city is called Dongtan, and will be located on an island at the mouth of the Yangtse River. Anyway- it's ironic that a Middle Eastern country that has so prospered from the world's dependence on oil can form a vision of foresight that includes a sustainable future once its key resource has run out. While the UAE invests its treasure in alternative energies, the United States wastes its own increasingly limited resources on wars to stabilize their access to "black gold". Even our former Cold War opponent Russia has embraced green technologies with a huge project at the heart of Moscow (using Japanese expertise). If we continue our current trajectory, we are doomed to increasing irrelevance.

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