Achieving that sustainability requires planning, and the planned city has long been the dream of architects, engineers and others, from the re-creation of Paris by Baron Hausmann in the 19th century to redesigning the city around "green" in more recent decades. However, much like the sterile planned cities imagined by imperial rulers—from the caliph Al Mansur founding Baghdad in A.D. 762 to Brasilia born of an idea from an imperial-era planner and finally built to open up Brazil's interior to settlement in 1956—these new designs aimed at improving the ecological soundness of cities suffer from an inability to be organic. The "garden cities" of the U.K., like Letchworth built outside of London in 1902, quickly faded into the surrounding sprawl as people repurposed the planned communities.
"No matter how creative we are when we design a new city from scratch, it has a sterility to it," says New York City–based urban planner and developer Jonathan Rose. That is certainly true for Masdar, despite the organic shapes of its main architecture. Masdar at present is essentially a walled city for rich students in the midst of an arid, dusty plain—perhaps not a sustainable vision for the bulk of future urbanites. "It really feels like I'm living in a spaceship in the middle of the desert," current M.I.S.T. graduate student Laura Stupin wrote in her blog.
Even worse, Masdar is located in an area that demands it must consume a lot of energy, perhaps to the point where it cannot ever be considered green. "This is being built in a location that in principal is hostile to human settlement," argues Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, secretary general of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a local government group. "The fact alone that you would build a city where you have to apply and use huge amounts of energy to work against nature—whether that's the way to go I question."
In fact, on a per capita basis, the citizens of the United Arab Emirates are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet, thanks to controlling some 8 percent of the world's proved reserves of oil coupled with a desperate need for air conditioning in the brutal heat of the desert. Masdar's neighbors include an airport, a Formula One racetrack and, a bit farther away, an oil refinery—all major sources of greenhouse gas pollution, among other environmental ill effects.
And like most eco-cities—whether Masdar, Dongtan or even Curitiba in Brazil—Masdar's roots lay in fiat, decreed by authoritarian regimes ordering the cities to go green. Masdar has a "green policeman" who shames those for using too much energy as well as shuts off showers after a few minutes. Whether this approach makes sense for other cities and for long-term sustainability remains to be seen.
But Masdar may yet prove a source for planning lessons that can then be applied elsewhere. In fact, if cities are going to save us from future-past environmental perils, it will have to start in the cities that already exist. "It is more a laboratory than an option for the millions of cities in the world," notes sociologist Saskia Sassen of Columbia University. "We need laboratories, but they are by no means enough to address the problem."