In today’s turbulent times, cities across India resemble potent concoctions of unmitigated development where a high level of importance is given to profits – political and economic. Several architects big or small, are making claims about how their next design is a “green” building, how they have accommodated for rainwater harvesting and solar energy and how sustainability has always been their middle name long before the concept even made its way into the country.
Several metropolitan cities in the country might well be staring disaster in the face – shortage of electricity, water and basic services. Bangalore for instance, is reaching a breaking point with its perennial garbage disposal problems, poor drainage systems that flood with every rain, grid-locked traffic on a daily basis and the ever growing birth of high-rise apartments of which, only a handful ever see full occupancy.
Amidst the looming crisis here and perhaps, in cities around the world, the United Arab Emirates seems to have things sorted out for them. The country for several decades has been widely discussed for its abundant resources and since recently, for the tremendous development in terms of construction that has taken place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. From a foreigner’s stand point, Dubai seems to have got it right – with the sky-scrapers and the bustling economy that is largely fueled by trade and tourism. The royal family and the government of Abu Dhabi went a step further by commissioning the design and implementation of Masdar City – a green urban planning project that is cited to be the planet’s most sustainable city.
The conception of such an idea might have come as a surprise to many given how the UAE was never known as a country who gave sustainability too much importance. This time, however, they have raised the bar; Foster+Partners having been assigned as the architects, developed the design for a $15 billion, six square kilometers Masdar City that would house 40,000 residents and have around 50,000 daily commuters. The concentrated development is located seventeen kilometers ESE from the city of Abu Dhabi and sits stark in the middle of nowhere. The location of the city at this point, seems to put it out of context, but in the future, there is always hope that several such cities come up. The city is planned with buildings that are 4 to 5 stories in height and are located on either side of a narrow pathway and roads meant for pedestrians and cyclists. The idea of placing buildings very close to each other has resulted in passive cooling for the entire city since the pathways and roads get only around 30-45 minutes of direct sunlight which, in a desert climate is ideal. Rapid transit Podcars are used to move around the city and run underneath the entire city in tunnels. This way, cars are kept away from the main discourse, thereby creating a streamlined traffic flow. The entire city utilizes different materials for different buildings, ranging from terracotta panels that shield balconies to delicate metal screens and air-filled reflective wall panels that reduce the thermal mass of the external walls while reflecting sunlight away from it. The master plan is also aligned to ensure that the maximum amount of the prevailing wind is captured. Some buildings have been raised off the ground by a floor to ensure they are able to harness the natural breeze. The site also has a 10MW solar farm that harnesses more energy than what the city consumes on a daily basis. Masdar City was started in 2006 and looks at a majority completion by 2030.
With the incorporation of simple and effective design techniques, Masdar City has definitely set an example for what cities of the future should work to achieve.
Looking at what the U.A.E. has set in motion, I see nothing but hope for our country. Imagine the day when we have stand-alone cities that are self-sufficient in every way. Cities that utilize solar energy, efficient waste management techniques and most importantly, understand and implement the need for growth in the future. Unlike Bangalore, where the city’s expansion has begun eating into the ‘green-belt’, future cities should be planned to take into account all three zoning dimensions.
While we keep looking at bigger, better and technologically advanced cities and communities, a greater importance should, perhaps, be given to the need for low cost communal housing. Urban planners can take notes from the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project that was razed to the ground in the mid-70s, less than two decades from when it was completed. Pruitt-Igoe was deemed to be the best housing scheme in the United States, but turned out to be the biggest failure that reflected on how there was more to communal housing than just fancy schemes and multi-storied housing structures.
There is a compelling need to understand the dynamics of every city in terms of the people who make the city what it really is. On several occasions, we fail to take into account the moral and cultural values of the inhabitants of spaces. This only goes on to create built masses that are aesthetically pleasing but not really functional. It is a different issue that sometimes, the users convert the spaces to suit their requirements, but in most cases, there is an evident conflict.
Planning a future city in the Indian context is definitely going to be more than a challenge, but if done correctly, there is a good chance it will set an example for the efficient planning of cities across the planet.
This has been a text-only post to refrain from non-licensed image use.
For more on Masdar City, visit Foster+Partners.