Masdar City–Abu Dhabi’s $18 billion experiment in high-tech, low-resource living–was designed to be the world’s first large-scale carbon-neutral development. In 2012, we wrote: “So far, there are a number of finished buildings, including restaurants, a library, retail outlets, and a handful of structures at the onsite Masdar Institute, a graduate institute focused on sustainability, science, and alternative energy. This is only the start.” Julien Eymeri went recently, and found a much different story. Read his account and see his eerie video of an empty city.
Located in the heart of the United Arab Emirates, about six miles from the historic district of Abu Dhabi and close to the international airport, Masdar City is the embodiment of an economic dream, an ambition on the scale of a planned investment close to $18 billion: a zero-carbon city–a challenge for a country with the third-largest global ecological footprint per capita–supposed to attract more than 50,000 people and almost as many commuters, employees of large international companies and young high-tech startups.
Once on the four-square-mile site, the area of the future city is large. Having a look around, one sees an interminable white building fence, punctuated every kilometer by a sign saying “Masdar City, the city of possibilities.” But I discovered that what constitutes the city is almost exactly what we saw two years earlier: Masdar City is the “Opening Soon City.” Walking around, there are some seemingly deserted buildings (it’s a disturbing experience to enter an empty hall, take an elevator, and discover that each floor is also abandoned), alleyways used by security guards (to protect the abandoned buildings?), or cleaning sites (it is true that the dust from the desert gets everywhere and causes damages to photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the buildings). The loud drone of natural air conditioning, a huge wind tower, is omnipresent, even oppressive. Some students–there are barely a hundred, the only inhabitants in the city–seem lost even though the surface area is small.
Ironically, a travel agency, one of the few shops open near the international supermarket selling organic products, albeit overpriced and with certainly a very high carbon footprint, seems to invite them to buy a one-way ticket somewhere to escape their isolation. Unlike Songdo, another planned city in South Korea, whose developers bid on public facilities at the beginning of the project (schools, cultural centers, sports fields), Masdar City has bet exclusively on business. A hundred startups out of 1,500 announced are still in the development stage, while Siemens has offices there and General Electric a showroom. The result is that life is simply impossible: one must drive many miles to do basic shopping.
An advertising fence surrounds the city and promises a bright future. On the other side, the dizzying empty spaces are surprising: no cranes on the horizon, a striking contrast to the rest of the region. Is Masdar City a city out of order? Asked about the future of the project, a representative remains cautious, asking for patience–a surprising statement in a state which makes a claim on all street corners to be the fastest and first–and finally admits that it is–politically–unthinkable to abandon such a project.
The Masdar City model seems difficult to reproduce: too isolated, too expensive, too empty. The embryo town appears rather as a symptom of the obsession of a state with regard to its future. What will become of this territory, once the hydrocarbon reserves underneath its soil are depleted? In response, the frenzied builders attempt to inscribe life in a permanent fashion on a land that seems hostile to human existence. It is about facing the fear of death by building quickly (an “instant city”), to help transition to an Emirates that is a techno-ecological leader. Masdar City is meant to be the laboratory. Opening soon . . . one day.