Cities: A Walled Green Utopia Rises in the Middle East

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In Sunday’s New York Times—which I consumed along with a bagel on my iPhone—architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff has a report from Masdar, the zero-carbon, ultra-sustainable city growing up in the deserts outside of Abu Dhabi. The Masdar project is the result of a government initiative by the sultans who control Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, and it was meant as a model that would help prepare the country for the post-petroleum era. Designed by the British architect Norman Foster, Masdar City is stuffed with every greenish option for urban design you can imagine: massive solar arrays, driverless electric cars, even walls that capture the rare desert breeze, cutting down on the need for air conditioning. Many critics dismissed Masdar City as $22 billion public relations boondoggle, but with the first residents preparing to move in, Ouroursoff says the mirage is very much real:

Norman Foster, the firm’s principal partner, has blended high-tech design and ancient construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community, in a country whose oil money allows it to build almost anything, even as pressure grows to prepare for the day the wells run dry. And he has worked in an alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward modernization are no longer in conflict — a vision that, at first glance, seems to brim with hope.

But is Masdar really “sustainable”? That depends on how you define the term—and there’s a darker side to the Arabian utopia. As Ouroursoff shows, Masdar may be a marvel of green technology, but it’s also a literal fortress in the desert, shutting out the outside world:

But his design also reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades. Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are 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.

The result is a green Disneyland—an assessment Foster doesn’t really fight. And it’s a little scary to think that this is the way the world is going, the well-off in ever-smaller enclaves, protected by walls—visible and invisible. (I had the same thought at the Clinton Global Initiative‘s annual meeting in New York last week—all those global do-gooders, talking about the importance of enhancing development around the world while meeting inside an obnoxiously tight security bubble, cut off from the outside.)

As Ouroursoff points out, Masdar is a tremendous improvement over the sealed suburban units where most of the rich in countries like the UAE live today. But if Masdar can only remain green by staying cut off from the rest of the world, it will never be more than a nice experiment. Already more than half the world’s population, some 3.3 billion, now live in cities, a number expected to rise to some 5 billion by 2030. And most of those people won’t be living in cities like New York or London, or even Beijing—they’ll be living in the rapidly developing and very poor megacities like Lagos or Karachi, where it’s tough to imagine the kind of social controls that enable a Masdar to arise.

Not that these concerns are new—I visited the Masdar site myself twice, first in 2008 when it was announced, and again in 2009. And whatever your feelings about Masdar City, the fact that it’s going up in Abu Dhabi—and not in the U.S. or the U.K.—should worry us all, as Foster told me in 2008:

It shows there is another side of this place that is totally unexpected. I think that as you read about some of this in Western newspapers, you’ll be shocked. Your immediate reaction would be, Why aren’t we doing this? We’re expanding London, and we’re just repeating the old model of sprawl. Why elsewhere is there not one experiment like this? Why not in the U.S., with its total dependence on oil? Why can’t this collective of European wisdom and power create a similar initiative? I have to ask myself, Why is this initiative, which in urban terms is the most progressive, radical thing happening anywhere, happening here?

Even if it’s not a perfect example of the future of green city building, it’s a worthwhile experiment—and an experiment that we should be conducting. But right now Masdar is one more measure of the way we’re falling behind the global race for sustainability.