Housing Complex

The Insidiousness of Model Cities

The site of Masdar City.

The site of Masdar City.

Nicolai Ouroussoff had a mind-boggling piece in Saturday's Times about Masdar, the beginnings of a one-mile-square burg on a sandy expanse outside Abu Dhabi. In concept, the plan is breath-takingly ambitious: To create a self-contained, carbon-neutral city of 45,000 people, making use of intense sun and desert breezes to supply their electricity (all funded by oil wealth, of course). The modern-day urban miracle comes courtesy of Foster and Partners, a London-based firm that also designed Washington's own mirage-like development, CityCenterDC.

Ouroussoff, however, isn't won over by this stunning vision. Instead, he sees something "noxious" in the whole concept of a detached model city, which remind him of a gated community where access is controlled by a landlord, which in this case is the government of Abu Dhabi. And in creating something out of whole cloth, Masdar makes no progress in solving the real problems of existing cities all over the world.

"Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief–accepted by most people today, it seems–that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large," Ouroussoff writes.

Creating new towns, of course, is nothing new. Back in the 1960s, planners designed Reston, Virginia, a high-density community with thought-out places to work, play, and live. Like Masdar, the motivating impulse may have been to escape then-deteriorating inner cities to create something fresh rather than tackle the issues of the urban core. But the difference is that Reston, and other New Towns, are fairly replicable, and an alternative to the thoughtless sprawl flooding the rest of the nation. Even if they did nothing to improve the ghettoes of D.C., they were at least built on sound principles of urban planning that could be transposed there in the future.

Masdar, by contrast, may be too expensive for anyone other than a petro-state like Abu Dhabi to undertake for any significant chunk of the Middle East's burgeoning population. Rather than building a better suburb, it's like building an encampment on Mars, which is what humans look to as an escape hatch for when we've polluted Earth beyond repair. It's too early to start thinking that way about existing cities. Rather than creating a magical biosphere in a place where humans really have no business living, I'd rather see Foster and Partners' brilliance applied to making cities more sustainable for the masses who'll never make it to Masdar.