The Green Ghost Town

by NJ McGarrigle

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Masdar City (picture Foster and Partners)

‘If you build it, he will come’ is the castles-in-the-air catchline of the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’, where the regular Joe character played by Kevin Costner pursues his quixotic plan of building a baseball diamond after hearing voices emanating from his crop field in Iowa.

The (fictional) idea of building a small folly based on Midwestern murmurs coming from your meadows is a disturbing prospect to most rational beings. So where does the construction of the world’s first (real) zero-carbon city – and in the desert, no less – rank on the scale of delusion and downright daftness? Pretty high, it seems.

In 2006 work began on a masterplan drawn up by Foster and Partners for Masdar City, which was trumpeted as a carbon neutral ‘eco-city’ near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Its completion date is meant to be this year, but things don’t look good.

The city was intended to accommodate 50,000 residents and be powered by a 22-hectare field of almost 90,000 solar panels. Usage of electricity and water was to be controlled by sensors, and Masdar was supposed to be car-free: residents and workers would journey in futuristic pods programmed to go where commanded, while the compact urban scale would easily allow travel on foot or bicycle. It was hoped this utopian vision could be something of a Silicon Valley of renewable energy, and as a result attract global businesses to locate there.

However, the permanent residents that live in Masdar are all students at the Institute of Science and Technology – just 300 of them – and design manager of the city, Chris Wan, admits that Masdar is unlikely to ever pass 50 per cent carbon neutrality. The travel pod scheme was abandoned after two stops were built: the emergence of low-emission cars quickly put paid to that plan. Only a few international companies meanwhile have registered a base at Masdar, such as General Electric, Mitsubishi, and Siemens (which says it has 800 employees there) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has taken over one of the major buildings, in what seems little more than a symbol of solidarity with the ruling powers. Much of the city remains empty, unloved, and unused.

Masdar City being on the fringes of Abu Dhabi means many workers commute, and it is said there is little in the way of human activity (aside from the students) after office hours. Abu Dhabi International Airport is nearby too, so many workers shuttle in and out of the city, making the travel agents in Masdar one of the few places where there’s a thrum of activity.

Other facilities on offer to any prospective citizen sound uninspiring. It reads like a bog-standard gated-community checklist: a medium-sized supermarket; a couple of cafes; a cinema, and so on; not very exciting for a place where people will be looking to escape usual  temperatures of forty to fifty degrees on a regular basis. If people do venture outdoors, the streets are made narrow and short to reduce heat, and pathways between buildings are shaded. But still, the plans all sound rather lacklustre for the major challenge of weaving a social fabric in a new community ensconced in the desert.

So why build a city here to begin with?

The UAE is one of the world’s major oil producers (globally, their reserve is the seventh-largest) but the remarkable drop in prices in the last few years has seen moves to ween their economy away from its dependency on fossil fuels. Masdar City was seen as the antidote. The President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, backed the idea of a smart city, but the most recent estimated cost of $22bn (which naturally will rise if they ever do complete the project) it is quite a tab to pick up, even for him.

Ten years in to the project, and behind schedule, is this the ultimate hubristic gesture of our egotistic mismanagement of the natural environment? Time will tell. We have to question Masdar City’s environmental impact for good in a part of the world that hosts an annual Formula One race, that builds snow-caked ski slopes in its deserts, and constructs golf courses or islands in the sea. We also have to decide if this smart city model has any practical value for the rest of the world, considering its dependency on extreme levels of sunshine that are the norm in the Gulf states, but found few places elsewhere.

At the time of writing only five per cent of the city has been built and the resident count of a few hundred seems unlikely to grow. The completion date has been pushed back to 2030. Masdar City was meant to lead the way in smart, sustainable cities. But now that the idea of a zero-carbon city has gone up in smoke, it may have to check its ambitions and reluctantly reconfigure itself as a large modern education campus: with a very costly first lesson built in.

UTOPIAN VISIONS

Dongtan, China

It was to be built on a giant island on the Yangtze River and to eventually accommodate half a million people, with the slogan ‘Better city; better life’, Dongtan was to be unveiled as a joint-project between engineering company Arup and Chinese developers at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But dreams of a green city with water taxis, state-of-the-art recycling and energy renewal has seemingly sank without trace.

Auroville, India

Envisioned as an international community free of money, religion, and government. It was designed by French architect Roger Anger on a former French colonial area on the coast of south-east India. Its visionary founder was Mirra Alfassa, a French expat known as ‘The Mother’, who saw it as a ‘community without nations’. It was built for 50,000 inhabitants, but only 2,000 have settled there. It has struggled with crime and allegations of child abuse and corruption.

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