Oil money has conjured up a pricey experiment in sustainability in a patch of desert between downtown Abu Dhabi and its airport. There, the city of Masdar ("the source") is rising. It is meant to signal a shift away from fossil fuels by hosting a variety of ecofriendly approaches, such as a system of subterranean electric cars—Personalized Rapid Transit—that whisk visitors and residents from point to point. Yet despite its ambitious goals, innovative planning and best intentions, Masdar may likely be only a mirage for other cities hoping to mimic its approaches to sustainability.

The brainchild of ruling Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan as funded by Mubadala Development Co. and envisioned by architect Norman Foster, nascent Masdar is certainly a city to behold. The sun's power is harvested via concentrating mirrors or the photovoltaic panels in a 10-megawatt array just outside the city walls. Wells may be drilled to tap Earth's heat, and the entire city will be built in a perfect square raised some seven meters into the air to help capture desert breezes. A 43-meter-tall wind tower that looks like a grated oil-rig funnels these breezes to street level, and those avenues are shaded by their orientation to the sun. The buildings range from undulating red sandstone curves with an Arabic flair that are student apartments to a squat armadillo shell that shelters Masdar's anchor tenant—the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (M.I.S.T.), a joint venture of higher learning between M.I.T. and the Abu Dhabi government.

M.I.S.T. is now graduating its first crop of scholarship students specializing in renewable energy. For example, in conjunction with aircraft-maker Boeing and Des Plaines, Ill.–based refiner UOP, LLC, M.I.S.T. researchers are studying the potential for salt-tolerant plants to serve as an energy crop for biofuels for jets—and Masdar hosts one of the first sewage sludge–to-power demonstration projects in the world. It also is the future home of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

"Masdar should receive a lot of credit for being explicit about the integration of energy into the planning of urban environments," says Uwe Brandes, vice president of initiatives at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education think tank.

Sustainable elements
But is Masdar truly sustainable? That word has economic, social and environmental implications: the city must help its inhabitants generate wealth; it must make them, at least in their view, healthier and happier; and it must be able to continue to secure the resources—natural and otherwise—to continue. Cities can and do collapse—whether it be the ur-city, Ur, in Mesopotamia or the decline and fall of Rome from a million-inhabitant imperial capital two millennia ago to a village of shepherd's flocks and a miserable 10,000 peasants over the span of 10 centuries (although it has rebounded to be a global metropolis as modern Italy's capital).

"When we talk about sustainability, we're really talking about balance," ULI's Brandes notes. "We're not talking about an end state but a process."

The modern world highlights a slightly different focus for the term sustainable, which the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." That is further elaborated for cities by a set of 10 guidelines—known as the Melbourne Principles adopted in 2002 and ranging from long-term vision to enabling good governance—to determine a city's relative sustainability.

Sterility guaranteed
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."