Recently I saw Masdar City for the first time. I was excited to visit since over the last few years at almost every ‘Green Cities’ Conference I attended someone mentioned Masdar. Masdar City seemed the big hope: with potential and excitement of a whole new city in the desert. After $20 Billion in infrastructure investments, 50,000 people would live in this “emissions free”, closed-system suburb of Abu Dhabi. Masdar is to be a city of the future; a living laboratory to develop new technology. Planners, engineers and financiers are rushing to get in on its development. Easily a dozen times in the last two years someone enthused over coffee or lunch. ‘You need to visit’, I was told many times.
What I saw worried me. Mainly it is an expanse of desert with a few buildings; some 10 MW of solar power generation (about 0.05 % of cloudy Germany), a dormitory for a few isolated university students and a great coffee shop. Most of the people working there drive in from Dubai, over an hour away (although the Mercedes and BMWs probably make the drive more pleasant). Masdar is supposed to eventually be one of the world’s most energy efficient cities, but it will still just be a small suburb of one of the most inefficient cities on earth. Abu Dhabi’s per capita GHG emissions are among the highest in the world. Tall isolated buildings sprout up like trees. A coveted vanity license plate in Abu Dhabi apparently went for $14 million in a charity auction. Abu Dhabi’s Marina Mall (the one with the skating rink) epitomized unsustainability to me – it has fifty jewelry and watch stores, and one small bookstore with only a sprinkling of Arabic titles. Cities, no matter how efficient, are not oases.
A city is not like a building or a car. Yes you need to pour concrete, string power lines, and bring in water and take out the trash. But these chunks of infrastructure are a distant second to the flesh and blood of urban life. Corpus urbanus is about relationships, trust, hope, responsibility, and above all, community. Urbanity is how residents interact with each other and with the world.
There seems to be a rush these days to build model green or sustainable cities. But first and foremost we need to make existing cities like Shanghai, New York, Amsterdam, Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, Delhi, and Toronto more sustainable. Starting something new is often more glamorous, more lucrative, and sexier than fixing what we already have. With three older siblings, I hate hand-me-downs. I was all excited to see the new streets and buildings of Masdar City.
But a city’s not an inanimate thing. You cannot just create one – it’s a living, breathing organism. The ‘care and feeding’ is what counts.
Of course we need a few Masdars, Dongtans, Hammerbys, Seatons out there as living laboratories to develop new technology. The lessons are especially important as urban planners and developers build cities for the expected 2.5 billion new city residents expected over the next twenty-five years. But we need to be vigilant that these lab-sized cities don’t distract us from the bigger job at hand, as these cities, no matter how successful, cannot make anywhere near the kind of difference we need to help get today’s cities more sustainable.