- By Prerna MankadPrerna Mankad is a researcher at Foreign Policy.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has just officially unveiled its plans to build the world’s first carbon-neutral city. Situated on Abu Dhabi’s desert outskirts, “Masdar City” is designed from the ground up to be the first completely environmentally sustainable city and a hub for renewable energy research. The UAE’s rulers hope Masdar will eventually house at least 1,500 businesses and 50,000 people, powered by solar and other renewable energy sources.
Residents will be able to get by on foot, despite the region’s blistering climate, thanks to architectural techniques that promote shading and help generate cooling breezes. Stops for the city’s solar-powered “personalized rapid transport pods” will be no further than 200 meters apart. Lord Norman Foster, the founder and head of the architectural firm in charge of the Masdar development, said the project “promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future.” Is he right? Is the project even viable?
Ann Rappaport, an urban and environmental policy specialist at Tufts University, spoke with FP about the project a while back. She seems to share Foster’s optimism:
[F]or almost everything, it’s easier to do it right the first time. That’s true of a new building versus renovating an old building, [so] why shouldn’t it be true of [building] a new city, [rather] than transforming an old one? …
[Y]ou can think about spatial patterns, you can think about their notion of creating walkable spaces… shading—all these things that we now understand to be very important to our carbon budget. We just weren’t thinking about that hundreds of years ago when our major world capitals were developed. So that’s exciting…. [Your first reaction may be that this is] a city in the middle of a place that others might define as a desert. On the other hand, I think that climate change is challenging us all to think about where the good locations are for human development…. When many of the world’s foremost cities were developed, we were looking at transportation access by boat, and now that means that these cities are really vulnerable to sea level rise… [T]he prospect looks attractive, and perhaps the devil’s in the details, but it’s not a ludicrous concept.
No country needs this type of innovative thinking about the environment more than the UAE, designated by the World Wildlife Fund as the country with the world’s worst per capita ecological footprint. Obviously, one project is not enough to exonerate the country’s wasteful and unsustainable practices. But at least it’s a start.