The City of the Future, Lord Foster

Like many Middle-Eastern states, Abu Dhabi built its modern economy on oil production. However, it is unique in the region in recognising that we must develop alternative energy models if we are to reduce the environmental impact of our contemporary lifestyles. The Masdar Initiative in Abu Dhabi was

established in order to promote renewable energy solutions through research and development and to create a model for future energy security within a wholly sustainable framework.  Masdar has far reaching significance in global terms, in that it tackles design in a holistic sense. It is not specific in terms of individual buildings, important though they may be. Instead it looks at the bigger picture. If energy consumption is a consequence of demand, then you could argue that demand is a consequence of design – and that everything in our world is the result of a conscious act of design. In that sense, you cannot divorce the issue of energy from architecture and urban planning. But really architecture comes down to buildings, and urban planning comes down to infrastructure. Those two elements are normally considered separately, ut Masdar brings them together as its central thesis – and you can only do that at the level of community planning. That is what makes Masdar so critically important and progressive in a global context.

Another way of describing this process is ‘urbanisation’. If we look at what urbanisation really means, in an industrialised society, and look at energy consumption, you find that transport represents some 35 per cent of the total and buildings 44 per cent. There is a critical interaction between the two in design terms. As we look at global population and its redistribution, it is also important to note that that process of urbanisation is changing rapidly. Today, more people live in cities than in the whole history of civilisation and that pattern is accelerating. What took 200 years in Europe or North America is now taking twenty years in countries such as China – acceleration by a factor of ten. It was not that long ago, in 1939, that London was the most populous city in the world, with a population of 8.6 million, but it has been overtaken by a number of mega-cities around the world, with populations in excess f 15 million. That raises several questions: what are the models for these new cities; and how do we adapt existing communities to accommodate rising populations? First, as an optimist, I would say that to believe in a sustainable future is to trust that it will result in a better world. The city of the future has to be more attractive place in which to live and work. If Masdar or any sustainable initiative does not result in a great place to be, if it isn’t a city that you really want to live in or visit, if it does not lift the spirits, then it is not fulfilling a central part of its function. Second, to be sustainable, we have to build for the long term. Flexibility is a key consideration. Masdar is being planned in 2008 and will be finished in 2018, so it has to be able to respond to new technologies that will have an impact on the way we live in the next ten years and beyond – things which have yet to be invented and that we can only dream about now. It would be wrong, however, to focus wholly on technology in this context. There is a very simple pyramid diagram that says the biggest environmental gain really comes from the least financial investment: it rests on primary decisions about the city’s orientation and form. This is equally true of the buildings that separately comprise the city. As you move closer to the apex of the pyramid – to more active controls – the environmental gains reduce. However, somewhere in the middle through passive controls such as responsive shading, the use of daylight and natural ventilation, you will find very good value for money. Currently the smaller contributions for the higher cost are coming from emerging systems such as photovoltaics. That situation will change of course. In five or ten years this diagram may very likely be described in different terms. However, even if we could reach the point where we could design a building that consumed zero energy, we would still have a problem. This is because we also have to look at transport. If you analyse that energy figure of 35 per cent, you find that a large majority of it – some 26 per cent of the energy total – is consumed by people commuting on a daily basis. Add that to the 44 per cent figure for buildings and you see that some 70 per cent of all the energy we use is accounted for by the daily interaction between buildings and transport systems. Obviously we have to look at this pattern of consumption in an integrated way if we are to shrink that figure. (There are complicating factors at play too: you can have a beautifully designed car that operates on a thimble full of petrol, but you can still be stuck in a traffic jam.) There is a crucial relationship in urban terms between energy consumption and density. The lowest density cities, those that sprawl, are huge per capita energy consumers. At the other end of the scale, very high density cities have low levels of energy consumption. Somewhere in the middle there is an interesting balance – a city that is high density, economical and civilised. That city has a mixture  of uses; it is socially diverse; people live and work in the same environment; it is well served by public transport and the pedestrian experience is enjoyable. Such cities – Zurich, Geneva, Copenhagen – become destinations or tourist attractions. In any quality-of-life survey they come out on top. Interestingly, Hong Kong, one of the highest density cities, has the greatest life expectancy of any city. Monaco, which is very high density, also sustains one of the most  affluent communities in the world, even if a significant proportion of its residences are second homes. You could polarise it and say that there are traditional cities that have taken 1,000 years to evolve and newer cities that are perhaps less than 100 years old – roughly the same age as the car. What can we learn from these models? If you take a new city like Detroit and compare it with an old one like Copenhagen, you find that the old is twice the density of the new, and the difference in fuel consumption is a factor of ten. You also have to factor in the quality of life in terms of downtown Detroit and downtown Copenhagen. Interestingly, if you look at densities you find that Monaco has just over 16,000 people per square km; Hong Kong has 17,000. The most desirable areas of London – Mayfair, Chelsea, Knightsbridge – are of remarkably similar densities. Yet, if one says that the answer is high density, people tend to assume that they are going to have to make sacrifices, that it is a poverty driven future scenario. That is why it is critical to learn lessons from the past. Look at the most desirable areas of London and you find that they are built to higher densities than the poorer parts of the city and significantly higher than typical modern developments. People that live there have access to public transport; they can walk to a restaurant or theatre; there are parks and generous public spaces. These attributes have a value, which is reflected in property prices. The ambition of Masdar is to create a high-density, welcoming, enjoyable community that is also carbon neutral and produces zero waste. To do that in any climate, in any country in the world would be a challenge. In a desert environment it is especially demanding – I have likened this to the challenge in the past of putting a man on the moon. Masdar covers a site of 580 hectares, will have a population of 90,000, and be constructed in several phases over the next ten years. The starting point was to look at traditional Arab settlements, which invariably are quite compact and oriented so that the buildings provide shade and channel cooling air currents. The way in which shading can be used, and the quality of the public spaces is obviously a fundamental design decision and has a significant impact on energy consumption. The city is completely integrated – there are no separate zones for industry or culture. The university and traditional business elements are embedded in the heart of the community, as are entertainment and leisure facilities. Weaving through the city is a green ribbon that links to small parks and squares. Living and working there, you will find everything you need close at hand. The land immediately surrounding the city will be used to ‘farm’ renewable energy for use by the community and this organisation will produce a carbon-neutral balance over the year. The city relies on a range of renewable energy strategies, including the extensive use of photovoltaic technology, both to provide power during the construction phase and over the city’s lifetime. Every roof and shading element will be fitted with photovoltaic panels to harvest energy and those will be capable of retrofitting and change over time, just as the avionics in an aircraft can be changed, even though the air frame remains the same. Evacuated thermal tubes will be integrated into buildings to provide hot water; and the feasibility of a deep geothermal ‘hot rock’ borehole is being evaluated to provide a constant source of high-temperature water or steam to drive a system that will provide twenty-four-hour cooling. Throughout the city, waste streams will be segregated and recycled. Applicable waste streams will be composted and the product used to fertilise the surrounding plantations. The remaining waste will be employed in a waste-to-energy plant to provide supplementary power. The plantations that edge the city also form a landscape barrier which provides a natural filter against sand storms, which occur frequently in the region. In the spring and early summer, the climate in Abu Dhabi is generally very pleasant. Yet at the height of the summer it can be uncomfortably hot. Out in the open, where there is no shade, the temperature can reach 60 to 70 degrees Celsius. However, if you look at some of the vernacular architectural devices – such as colonnades, whose shadowy recesses offer respite from the sun – you find that the temperature drops quite dramatically, down to a more bearable 50 degrees. If you go further and introduce planting, green canopies and water you not only help to lift the spirits, but you see further drops in temperature. Other vernacular devices, such as thermal chimneys, which encourage cooling air currents, can also help to modify the microclimate. All of these devices have been reinterpreted in modern terms and put to work in Masdar to create a comprehensive system of passive climate control. Cumulatively, they have the effect of prolonging the moderate season in the city. Interestingly in terms of its scale and density, Masdar is comparable with Venice, which is also a car-free city. In Masdar the car and all carbon-based transport is left at the city boundaries; within it you travel by elevated light railway or use one of the specially designed personal rapid transport (PRT) vehicles, which are powered by photovoltaic installations. These vehicles will provide the convenience of the private car or the taxi, the difference being that they are driverless and fully automated, directed by an intelligent control system to take the quickest route between locations. Passengers will be able to call up the service on their mobile phones and expect it in minutes. The PRT network is located at a lower level, along with the distribution of goods, waste collection and infrastructure distribution, which means that at street level pedestrians have absolute priority. The PRT stations are distributed evenly across the city to ensure that the maximum walking distance between stops is an easy 150 metres; and the shaded streets and walkways encourage you to walk. Importantly, Masdar is strategically located close to the international airport and linked to the principal transport infrastructure as well as the proposed high-speed coastal rail links and local light-rail links to Abu Dhabi city and Al Raha beach. All of which means it will be possible to get to and from the city without relying on your car – the bigger picture again. Shifting focus yet further, what makes Masdar especially significant is the fact that it offers a blueprint for the sustainable twenty-first century city, not just in Abu Dhabi or the Middle East but worldwide. Crucially, its design springs from the recognition that to survive, we have to change, and that with change can come a better way of life. Imagine such a city in an American, European or Far Eastern context and while it might be physically different its underlying philosophy would be the same. It is a classic example of the need to think globally and act locally; and never has that imperative been more appropriate than today.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue 11
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