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Masdar City, Castle in the Sand

Is Masdar City the vision of a greener future—or another Emirati excess?

From the air, Masdar City looks like a giant microchip embedded in the gray-brown desert just outside Abu Dhabi. Masdar, which began construction in 2006, was conceived as a carbon-neutral utopia. Only a few hundred people currently live in Masdar City. But when it’s finished, between 2025 and 2030, the development will encompass 2.3 square miles. Nearly 88,000 solar panels will power a sprawling mesh of condominium blocks, laboratories, parks, gyms, and cafés. There will be a mosque, and unmanned cars will shuttle everyone around on magnetic tracks. Some 40,000 people will live on site; 50,000 more will commute there daily from across the United Arab Emirates. Administrative headquarters will look like a nuclear reactor with a wavelike roof and surrounded by trees. Most residents will be very healthy: Buildings have been outfitted with hard-to-miss staircases and out-of-the-way elevators to encourage walking. Masdar City’s excess energy—there will be a lot of that, since everyone will be environmentally conscious—will be sold to less energy-efficient countries such as Saudi Arabia. Everyone behind Masdar City, starting with Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, says it will be a model of sustainability for the whole world.

At least, that’s the plan. Like most utopias, Masdar is at risk of becoming a punch line. It is, after all, premised on a paradox: a green-tinted dream imported to a place made rich by fossil fuels. Sure, there’s a great deal of sun; those sleek, driverless pods are now operational; and there is already an organic food store on the main square. But so far, Masdar City is shaping up to be the latest Emirati exercise in urban excess. Like the Palm Islands of Dubai, it’s an entirely inorganic show of oil-derived wealth.