photo: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi
Masdar City was envisioned as a net-zero community of 50,000, but only a small part of the complex has been completed. Duncan Chard/Bloomberg

At the UN’s World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, attendees toured Masdar City, the master-planned eco-complex designed to show off the UAE’s commitment to sustainability.

MASDAR CITY, United Arab Emirates—The driverless electric vehicle that travels the streets of this pilot eco-city is royal blue and vaguely resembles a vintage VW microbus. It glides along at a cautionary speed for three blocks, then reverses direction to do it again, beeping like a microwave oven all the while. One of the many cats roaming the complex watches indifferently.

It’s a lonely exercise, as the streets of Masdar City seem to be occupied mostly by tour groups coming to check out the master-planned clean-tech hub near Abu Dhabi’s international airport. A little more than 10 years old, Masdar City was billed as a showpiece of compact, energy-efficient urban development, strategically located right in the epicenter of the fossil fuel industry.

Beacon of hope, feeble experiment, or fig leaf of green for one of the world’s leading polluters? The question was on the minds of the thousands of urban planners, housing advocates, environmentalists, and national delegates who came to Abu Dhabi in February for the United Nations 10th World Urban Forum, a global summit promoting sustainable and inclusive cities. The biennial meeting, organized by UN-Habitat, concluded on February 13 with a redoubled commitment to a green and equitable future, as mapped out in the Sustainable Development Goals.

A driverless bus on the streets of Masdar City. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Organizers might have anticipated questions about holding a sustainability conference in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE pumps out nearly 25 tons of carbon annually per capita, one of the highest rates in the world, thanks to the staggering energy consumption required for desalinating ocean water, pumping air-conditioning into hermetically sealed buildings, slaking the thirst of golf courses and water fountains, and powering motor vehicles along 10-lane highways.

But the nation has vowed to do better. “Developing the renewable energy sector is a core priority in our efforts to diversify our energy mix and the economy while protecting the environment,” H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment, said in an interview last year. And Masdar City, along with other interventions like a gleaming metro line in nearby Dubai, is being held up as evidence of this green conversion.

To build Masdar City, the provincial capital put in seed money for the estimated $20 billion cost. The project team, Masdar, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, brought in the British architectural firm Foster + Partners, which boasts impeccable eco-credentials. The vision was for a 2.5-square-mile neighborhood that would be close to carbon neutral, thanks to clean-energy wizardry, LEED-certified building design, and a giant adjacent solar panel farm.

At the entrance of Masdar City, a map of the entire planned development stands. Only a small portion of the complex has been completed. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Unlike virtually every other part of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is made for walking, with narrow streets in a traditional grid of short blocks and low-rise buildings packed in close together—a pocket of Greenwich Village-style urbanism amid low-slung gated mansions, superblocks, and tall buildings on podiums. Withering desert heat is countered via natural ventilation and misting; a cooling wind tower, a feature of the early Bedouin encampments in the area, rises up from the central public square, which is festooned with the work of local artists.

The problem is, there aren’t many pedestrians to enjoy all the friendliness. The 4,000 office workers in the renewable energy startups arrayed around the property pop out for an espresso now and again, but the 1,300 residents seem invisible. (The original plan called for a population of 50,000.) It reminded me of the prototype Chinese eco-city of Tianjin, which is similarly lightly occupied.

To be fair, only phase one of Masdar City has been completed, so the entire utopia is little more than one full city block in Midtown Manhattan. There’s no shame in starting small to demonstrate feasibility: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 showed millions the wonders of electricity, and a way of life changed.

But current reality keeps imposing in jarring ways. The only way to get to Masdar City is by car; across from the front entrance, every space is taken in several football fields’ worth of surface parking (I was assured that was temporary). The big-box store Carrefour—the French equivalent of Walmart—occupies a prime parcel.

One of Masdar City’s many resident cats stretches in the sun. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

There is talk of scaling back the ambitious “personal rapid transit” system—a small fleet of driverless pods that ferry people around underground, leaving the streets car-free. (That’s the reason the whole fledgling city is elevated on a podium.) Meanwhile, the light rail line, part of the promised Abu Dhabi metro connecting the area, the airport, and locations in the city center, appears to be years away.

For a Masdar City tourist, an Uber ride in an air-conditioned white Lexus it was. Visiting is like having a kale salad for lunch but reverting to a Big Mac and fries for dinner.

Meanwhile, at the World Urban Forum, there was a lot of talk about a “just transition” to a post-carbon future, incorporating fair treatment and access to opportunity for all residents of any city. So another question is whether this region can label itself as sustainable without addressing the fortunes of the millions of foreign-born workers in Gulf states who have few rights.

It’s a slow turning, to be sure. Different societies are on different tracks; people still smoke indoors here. Still, one wonders how powerful it would be if the kingdom went all-in on sustainability—things tend to happen fast once the emirs set a goal, in a way that Robert Moses could appreciate. Witness the trillions of cubic feet of sand that have been pumped to create new land in the ocean across the UAE.

Masdar City isn’t expected to be built out until as late as 2030. Finishing it would send a big signal. Then again, other nations that have recently put the brakes on their transition to a post-carbon future, aren’t in much of a position to tell anyone else to hurry up.

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