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Not-Superb Idea: The $22 Billion "Green" City That Only 50,000 People Can Live In

Interesting piece came out this week about Masdar City, that still-imaginary suburb of Abu Dhabi that is being built as a zero-carbon, 100-percent- renewable-energy-powered oasis in the desert. We already talked about the amazing "personal rapid transport pods" that are straight out of the Jetsons. But..\n


Interesting piece came out this week about Masdar City, that still-imaginary suburb of Abu Dhabi that is being built as a zero-carbon, 100-percent- renewable-energy-powered oasis in the desert. We already talked about the amazing "personal rapid transport pods" that are straight out of the Jetsons. But what else do developers have on tap? And, more importantly, how well-thought-out and responsible are their plans?Right now the city is basically a couple of tractors and construction materials, but if you ask Masdar's head developer, as Danny Fortson at the London Times did, he'll tell you he's got his sights set on making it the most technologically advanced, environmentally friendly city in the world.How? For starters, they're going to build it on stilts. Indeed, the entire (tiny) 2.5-square-mile city, designed by British architect Lord Foster, will live in the sky on three tiered levels. (What comes to my mind when I hear that is a multilevel parking garage in Los Angeles, but I imagine they have something nicer in mind, especially since the place will be car-free. See diorama at left.)Sounds good so far, right? Actually, it's rather problematic. As it stands, the maverick developer is pouring money into a city that doesn't exist yet, basically to prove that we're thinking about cities all wrong (he's got that part half-right). And so Masdar City will be a very expensive model to prove just how wrong we are. It will be an example the world can point to; an inspiration; maybe even a tourist destination. Which is exactly the problem. Or part of it.Off the top of my head I can think of a few cities that are already doing a better job, in some way or other, to prove that we can and should rethink the way we live in, and get around, cities. We wrote about one just last week.The catch, of course, is that "leading by example" only gets you so far, especially if it's an example no one else can or will follow. The model here is, hire a fancy architect and collect tens of billions of dollars to fund an experiment that isn't scalable, and can't really be replicated. The second problem with "leading by example" is that it runs the risk of being something of a gimmick. An extreme example that feels novel for a little while (but can't point the way for existing cities on how to course-correct).Still, the most pressing issue is that the city's going to cost $22 billion to build, and only 50,000 people will live there. Not a whole lot of bang for your buck, especially in a part of the world that's rapidly populating. Fortson proposes (and I agree) that there are far better uses for that kind of money, especially these days. For starters, we could invest in infrastructure overhauls and renewable-energy investment in places where people already live. We could also invest in better building practices and public transportation, and make use of space in more innovative ways.So while I'm hesitant to shit on what seems like a superb idea in theory-especially because it's all too easy to do that from behind my desk, on the other side of the world-I'm kind of going to anyway. Because this strikes me as a misguided and possibly very irresponsible use of resources. Worst of all, it feels like the commodification of things we should all be taking pretty seriously.What do you think?