Hurdle for future cities: human habits

Technology will not solve all green problems, some say.

Karim Sahib/Getty Images
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.

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.

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.

But when Ms. Chase started, borrowing the idea of communal automobiles from Europe, people told her the idea would never work in the United States. Now Europeans are trying to expand their programs with limited success and people say that car sharing is an American thing. For Chase, the contradiction drives home the importance of effectively marketing new environmental programs.

“It’s not as if you can say, here we did it in this one city and it will definitely work elsewhere. It can work and succeed in a city, and it can work and fail in a city,” she says.

Cities act on their own
Aside from cultural considerations, geography further complicates transferring energy systems from one city to another. While solar power might slash Arizona’s energy use, for example, in Seattle, which rarely sees the sun, residents rely more on hydropower.

“There is no silver bullet and it’s impossible for me or any other person to come in and say ‘Thou shalt do the following and you’ll be decreed a green city,’ ”
says Stephen Hammer, director of the urban energy program at Columbia University in New York City. “It’s just totally location specific.”

Which is perhaps why some of the biggest green pushes have come from city rather than federal or state governments. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, for example, has gotten more than 700 mayors to agree to help their cities meet or beat the targets outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to end climate change.

“City government is the layer of government that’s really closest to the people,” says James Elsen, president and CEO of Sustain Lane, an online company based in San Francisco that works with cities to become more environmentally friendly. “[Greening cities] is being institutionalized. It’s on the docket of city councils. There’s a real budget ascribed to it. If they don’t have departments or offices of stainability they’re opening them and they’re hiring personnel. It’s being driven by real economics and good planning for the future.”

Most ecominded urban planners agree that in order for the necessary changes to take place, some level of government must support and enforce these new practices. If they do, fast growing cities, which change between 1 to 5 percent a year on average, could be completely renewed within 25 to 40 years.
“If the right change environment exists, within one to three generations, statistically speaking, a city could be renewed and transformed if the mechanisms exist to avoid a replication of the old practices,” says Droege.

“Cities have evolved over time. Paris is not the Paris you had 200 years ago where you had horses. The culture is there and the civilization is there, but the city has evolved,” says the Masdar Initiative’s Mr. Awad, who points out that just a few decades ago Paris didn’t have a subway system. “All cities are evolving all the time.… Masdar is just using what Paris and London are doing and amalgamating it all into one place because we can afford to do it.”

Correspondent Matt Bradley contributed to this report from Abu Dhabi.

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