Zero-Carbon City of Masdar: A Model for the Future?

If the future also has jetpacks, perhaps

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Masdar, a sci-fi like, sustainable city being planned in the U.A.E. promises to be the next big step in responsible city planning. Or, from a different perspective, another self-indulgent experiment for the wealthy. Despite Masdar's promise, most folks are leaning toward the latter view. The Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff describes the project:

Designed by Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels. The project conjured both a walled medieval fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland.

The city is currently under construction, and Ouroussoff points out that Westerners' first dismissal of the town as "a gimmick ... turned out to be wrong": people have begun moving into the "first section of the project" in the past week. But even if the oddity gains residents, and manages to make good on its promise to be "the world's first zero-carbon city," critics say it's not clear it should be imitated elsewhere.

  • The Good, the Bad, the Ugly  Nicolai Ouroussoff praises designer Norman Foster for starting with "a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo" and figuring out how to cool buildings naturally with elevation, narrow streets, and "tall, hollow 'wind towers.'" But he is bothered by the city's "utopian purity," which includes "clos[ing] Masdar entirely to combustion-engine vehicles," putting their electric replacements underground, and "locat[ing] almost all of the heavy-duty service functions--a 54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants--outside the city." Thus,  he decides, "what Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance." It "reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades" and is "grounded in the belief--accepted by most people today, it seems--that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large."
  • How to Think about U.A.E. Projects Like This  They're "best regarded not as structures that will actually be built but as a regional subgenre of science fiction," writes Jesse Walker at Reason. Though he admits Masdar is going farther than most, he continues to say that even "if it is completed, I doubt that everything will work out as planned. Much less ambitious utopias have found themselves taking paths their founders never imagined. The lessons drawn from vernacular building methods do sound sensible," he allows, "but the plans here go far beyond that."
  • The 'X Factor' in Cities  Grist's Sarah Goodyear take's Ourossoff's criticism and runs with it:
The principles of New Urbanism have to a certain extent become ingrained in the planning lexicon of industrialized countries. But the dynamic and often messy energy that created the world's greatest urban centers--Rome, London, New York, Tokyo--is sometimes seen as problematic by governments that want to market their municipalities to businesses, investors, and tourists.

Planners and architects in a place like Masdar can control a lot of things. Then there's the X factor that makes a collection of buildings into a city worthy of the name. Can a place like Masdar find a way to let that inside the walls?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.