Viewpoint (October 01, 2010)

In 2006, there was considerable excitement when a government-run firm in Abu Dhabi announced its intention to establish the world’s first carbon-neutral city. As part of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi possesses enormous oil reserves yet realizes that its precious resource is finite. To help diversify its economy, the emirate has been pursuing a strategy of expanding its green technology and renewable energy sectors in an effort to attract world-class universities, research institutions and businesses to the region. This strategy is what supports the planning, financing and construction of Masdar City. Located just outside of Abu Dhabi, this car-free mini-metropolis will generate its own electricity through wind, geothermal energy and a 54-acre photovoltaic field. Set behind enormous walls to divert hot desert winds, the 2.3-square-mile city will eventually be inhabited by 45,000 residents with 45,000 additional commuters. In late September, the first few hundred residents–mostly students attending the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology–began moving into a small section of this green utopia in the desert.

Designed by Foster + Partners, Masdar City is elevated on a 23-foot-high base, and many of its streets and buildings will capture desert breezes for cooling or will increase air circulation using traditional Arabian wind-tower design concepts. Narrow streets will maximize airflow while minimizing exposure to the sun. Underground, computer-controlled driverless electric cars will shuttle people around. The city has already received a wide range of criticism in architecture and planning circles. Nicolai Ouroussoff, TheNew York Times architecture critic has referred to the project as “a walled medieval fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.”

The essence of Ouroussoff’s condemnation, and that of others who have visited Masdar City, is that the place represents a textbook case of a richly funded enclave for the exclusive use of the educated and the wealthy. But Masdar City is not alone in receiving this criticism. It has become a part of a larger global trend to create readily identifiable and richly funded districts within a greater urban infrastructure. Recent examples of considerably more modest new or rehabilitated enclaves include Toronto’s Distillery District and the Shops at Don Mills–both of which demonstrate an ambiguous connection to the city and are places designed for the wealthy. Masdar City is far more ambitious a project than suburban–and sometimes urban–gated communities which have restricted and/or secured access from the public, but it certainly shares common aspects of social exclusion as part of its design concept.

In Canada, new large-scale sustainable projects are being completed on a regular basis, municipalities are continuously introducing green-friendly legislation, and financial institutions are evolving their products to assist us in adopting new technologies that reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. The ambitions for Masdar City are no different, except for two significant distinctions: it is being financed with billions of dollars of revenue from petroleum exports–a level of financial backing that few cities on the planet can afford, and it aspires to be a speculative manoeuvre to attract new people and investment rather than improve the quality of life of an existing population.

At least Masdar City’s architecture and planning eschews the temptation to build yet another mega-mall in the desert, and the Foster-designed city is a seemingly more sustainable counterpoint to the recently completed Burj Khalifa–the tallest building in the world–in neighbouring Dubai. Clearly, it remains to be seen if Masdar City will approximate the level of social complexity found in other cities that evolve more organically, but its existence reminds us of the well-intended but misguided ambitions relating to building new enclaves, no matter the size or altruistic vision supporting their creation.

Ian Chodikoff