Masdar City: A Trip To The Future

Last Saturday we here at Out & About UAE were looking for somewhere new to visit on a family day out. Eventually we decided that we would head to Masdar City on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. Having heard mixed-reviews about this ‘future city’ we were not sure what to expect, but were pleasantly surprised by what we found….

First off let us start by giving you a brief history of Masdar City, its vision, and design concept:

“In 2008, Masdar City broke ground and embarked on a daring journey to develop the world’s most sustainable eco-city, creating a “greenprint” for how cities can accommodate rapid urbanisation and dramatically reduce energy, water and waste. The city, which combines ancient Arabic architectural techniques with modern technology, is naturally cooler during the high summer temperatures of the UAE.” – Masdar website

A few short years later and Masdar is now fully functional as the world first zero-carbon city and what a marvel of modern technology it is.

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Despite all of the positive sustainable ideas that Masdar City represents, it is unfortunate that it has not really taken off as one of the capitals ‘must see’ tourist attractions, and we imagine that most residents have not even taken a trip out to this wonderful place. Due to this, Masdar is not the easiest place to find, and even once on site there are no real maps to speak of. So we suggest perhaps printing this blog post and taking it along, to enable you to understand exactly what it is that you are seeing and experiencing.

Masdar is easily accessible by car (GPS: 24.436291, 54.620043) and the simplest route to get there is around the back of Abu Dhabi airport, as this leads you directly to the car park for the Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) system – which is the crown jewel of Masdar’s attractions.

Once you have parked your car follow the signs to the PRT and prepare to be amazed! As soon as you walk through the station doors and see the driver-less cars you will feel as though you have stepped into the future. A computer screen indicates which cars are available to use, and which docking bay will provide you access to the vehicle.

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Once the feeling of being in a science fiction movie has worn off, you can board your vehicle and take the short journey into Masdar City itself. The white pod-like vehicles can seat up to four passengers, and are the epitome of luxury, with their leather seats and touch screen navigation system. Pressing the large play button on the screen starts the vehicle, and the experience is an interesting one – as the PRT is controlled by sensors and does not run on any tracks or contain any human intervention. As the vehicle reversed out of the dock and began travelling into the city, we couldn’t help but crack a smile, as images of Blade Runner rushed through our heads.

So how exactly does the PRT work? Is it remote controlled we here you ask? In fact the electrically powered PRT travels on corridors located under street level along a distance of 1,700 meters and the journey takes approximately three minutes. The advanced system uses a combination of magnets and sensors to navigate the vehicles along their route.

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Exiting the PRT we were greeted with some very sleek architecture and design features. A spiral staircase winds upwards towards street level, flanked by gold tiles and some tranquil waterfalls – on first impressions it felt as though we were certainly in for a special experience, and one that it transpires was very calming and serene.

After ascending the stairs we emerged blinking into the sunlight,  and were greeted with some truly spectacular architecture – a mixture of traditional Arabic influenced terracotta buildings, interspersed with futuristic looking designs, like something straight of Minority Report. We no longer felt that we were in Abu Dhabi (or even the 21st century), yet here we were out in the desert experiencing something truly unique.

The ground area of Masdar City is actually quite small, but navigation through the warren of narrow streets can be difficult, especially as the few maps on site are pretty much useless and do not display items such as restaurants or points of interest. So we have included this more extensive map for your viewing pleasure:
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The joys of Masdar are evident from taking a walk through the streets and letting the ambiance soak in. The city really is a technological marvel and seemingly very prescient – people may not have fully embraced the vision that it has to offer, but realistically the concept of an eco-friendly, sustainable, and carbon zero city really is a desirable one.

As previously mentioned the residential areas of the city are Arabic in design, but made of terracotta to keep them cool. Other interesting factors and design features incorporated into these structures include: window shading, narrow spaces between buildings and light reflecting roofs – all of which help to redirect sunlight and keep the temperature down. The entire city is constructed on a northeast-southwest orientation to optimise the shading of streets and aid natural airflow throughout the city.

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From a distance Masdar looks like a large cube looming out of the desert, and even the smallest of details have been meticulously planned with sustainability in mind. These features include: horizontal and vertical shading  (to prevent direct sunlight entering buildings), fully shaded colonnades (reducing direct sunlight on building exteriors to ensure cooler temperatures), and fountains that flow water over surfaces (rather than up  into the air) to help lower the temperature. Everything that you see in terms of designs has been thoroughly thought out and implemented as a way of enhancing the city in some way.

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The temperature in the streets of Masdar is generally 15 to 20 °C cooler than the surrounding desert and this is due to the city’s construction. A 45-meter-high wind tower modeled on traditional Arab designs sucks air from above and pushes a cooling breeze down through the streets. This wind tower is an iconic symbol of Masdar and is an absolute joy to walk beneath, especially on a hot day. The site is also raised above the surrounding land to create a cooling effect and the buildings are clustered close together to create streets and walkways shielded from the harsh desert sun.

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The city also has a very modern feel and complement the ideals of what Masdar is trying to achieve. Windows make up less than 40% of the buildings exteriors and apparently there are no light switches or water taps in the city! Instead movement sensors control lighting and water to cut electricity and water consumption. The entire  city is basically serving as a test site for renewable energy to see what is feasible and what could be implemented in other sites elsewhere around the world.
As a visitor you really have to admire the ambition of this project, and to actually see it come to fruition is even more astounding. So after you have finished exploring, why not take a rest and some time to reflect on what you have seen at one of the many cafes and restaurants on offer. The options are some of the best in the Emirate and include: Barbacoa, Cafe Il Di Roma, Caribou Coffee, Cento Cafe, Jim’s Kitchen Table, Osha Gourmet, Melees, PappaRoti, Spinney’s Cafeteria and Sumo Sushi. It has also been reported that both Quiznos & Just Falafel are due to open branches here soon.

For residents there are also a number of facilities such as: Eco Planet Educational Toy Store , Organic Supermarket, a travel agency, a branch of Emirates Post, Etisalat, a laundry and a number of banks. The city may not have quite all of the infrastructure in place that it needs to allow people a comfortable life, but it is certainly getting there.

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All in all Masdar is a wonderful place to visit and acts as a nice spot to get away from it all. During our visit the streets were pretty secluded with just a few people dispersed throughout the restaurants and coffee shops. It is also a lovely place to visit at night, as the buildings are beautifully illuminated and the sound of the water fountains makes a beautiful accompaniment to an evening stroll.

With a few thousand people living and working in Masdar City, it is on its way to realising its vision, yet it is far from complete. The plan is to add new businesses, schools, restaurants, apartments and much more. When complete 40,000 people will live within the city, with an additional 50,000 commuters expected daily to work and study.

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Seemingly the appeal of Masdar has not quite taken off and the original concept of an automobile free city, has already been abandoned. The PRT will not extend any further than what is already on site, which is such a shame, as it is such a unique (albeit expensive to construct) concept.

Best of all a visit to Masdar will cost you nothing! It’s a great day our for families, and adults and children alike will think the PRT alone makes it a worthwhile visit –  but ensure that you do take a wonder to admire everything that this new city has to offer. If this is the future, then we are all for it!

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ll views within this blog are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE, unless otherwise stated.