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Hurdle for future cities: human habits

Technology will not solve all green problems, some say.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2008

The model city: Visitors look at the design of Masdar City during this year’s World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. The project is touted as both a sustainable campus and test bed for future green innovation.

Karim Sahib/Getty Images


Cambridge, Mass.

Among the United Arab Emirate’s seemingly endless construction sites, developers outside of Abu Dhabi have broken ground on perhaps the most ambitious green-city project in the world. With government support, the Masdar Initiative will create a carbon-neutral city capable of housing 50,000 residents. Upon completion, the city will act as a living test site for the latest in sustainable urban innovations.

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While Masdar has ignited curiosity beyond the nation’s borders, it has elicited limited enthusiasm from a key audience: locals. For many Abu Dhabians, the concerns range from weak air conditioning to limited access to automobiles – car culture is deeply entrenched in the UAE.

Though designers hope the final product will dispel concerns, the project has done little to impress green city planners not connected with the venture. A utopia spawned by petro-dollars is not a practical solution to real-world emissions problems, they say. Current cities must address political and social concerns that are irrelevant to the UAE experiment.

Masdar designers and scientists argue that the project’s value as an urban model works on several different levels. The Masdar Initiative invites other cities to take lessons from its smaller innovations, like real-time energy calculators that allow consumers to see exactly how much it will cost to lower the thermostat; and its larger applications, like a city layout that takes advantage of building shadows to cool city streets.

“The city is bringing more than just the whole city concept,” says Khaled Awad, director of public development at the Masdar Initiative. “It’s trying to develop solutions that could be replicated partially.”
What science can’t cure
Despite the city’s technological offerings, a number of experts say they mean little in the face of the societal challenges preexisting cities will face.

“The question of technology is probably a secondary one,” says Peter Droege, author of “The Renewable City: A Comprehensive Guide To An Urban Revolution” and a sustainable-city consultant. According to Mr. Droege, the tool kit to begin greening cities has existed in one form or another since the 1970s, but was never adopted by a major metropolitan area in any serious way.

“Existing cities need to be looked at as social and economic systems that require transformations that match what they actually stand for. They’re not machines that can be retuned,” he says.

Aside from professional and family considerations, most people decide where to settle based on the character of the city. For example, an artist might choose Paris while an outdoorsman would pick a small town in the Rocky Mountains, in each case because the overall culture of the city supported their lifestyle.

“The first fundamental thing in urban design is about people. Why would people want to be here?“ says William Mitchell, a professor of architecture and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Smart Cities project in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s not so much the technology and the organization of infrastructure and systems, although those ultimately become very important things.”

Virtually all ecocity planners point to moving away from the private car as a major step toward creating greener cities. In 2000, Robin Chase created Zip Car, a car-sharing program. Eight years later, it has expanded across the country and continues to grow into what is becoming one of the most effective steps away from privately owned cars. It is also a system easily implemented in pre-existing cities.