Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Urban eco-modernisation and the policy context of new eco-city projects: where Masdar City fails and why

Federico Cugurullo – University of Manchester, Geography
The main reason for writing this article is because I fear that, across the world, we are building new cities following dangerous models of city-making.
Today, the genesis of cities built from scratch in previously underdeveloped areas is shaping the present and future of the planet and, with hundreds of new settlements under development, we cannot risk the implementation of unsustainable strategies of urbanisation. The environmental, social and economic impact of new urban developments is significant. Environmentally, for example, the construction of a new city requires vast amounts of energy, generates tons of carbon emissions and upsets the balance of local and regional ecosystems. This is not a process that we can overlook. We need to be aware of what exactly makes our cities unsustainable and develop alternative strategies of city- making.
This article uses Masdar City in Abu Dhabi as a case study, to challenge what today is one of the most popular models of sustainable urban development: the eco-city.
The focus of the article is on the policy context of Masdar City, and on how it shapes the mechanics and conceptual underpinnings of the Emirati eco-city project. I argue that eco-city projects are not standalone urban experiments, but rather tiles of broader context-dependent policy mosaics whose understanding can reveal how, in eco-city initiatives, ideas of urban sustainability are cultivated and implemented.

Masdar City (May 2015).

Source: Gianfranco Serra Photography.

Masdar City is the product of a regional development agenda, Vision 2030, which seeks to regenerate the economy of Abu Dhabi through the regeneration of the built environment. The Emirati economic system is largely based on oil: a finite resource which, in the near future, will not be sufficient to sustain Abu Dhabi’s society. The plan of the government is to develop non-oil sectors of the economy and Masdar City, designed as a living laboratory, serves this purpose by providing an urban space where Emirati and international companies can research, develop, test and commercialize new clean technologies: products, such as smart grids and photovoltaics, that will eventually be sold worldwide, thereby generating substantial returns for Abu Dhabi.

In this policy context, the concept of sustainability is understood primarily in economic terms. In Masdar City, sustainability is interpreted as profitability and the attention of the developers is put exclusively on what can be capitalized. As a result, aspects of the city such as its impact on ecosystems and the social distribution of environmental and economic benefits are not taken into account because they are seen as unprofitable by stakeholders.

In addition, in the Masdar City project, environmentalism is understood as consumerism. The developers of Masdar City encourage their customers to buy and consume the Masdarian technologies as a way of protecting the environment, but forget to mention the fact that the consumption of technology (based on energy-intensive processes of extraction, production and distribution) is one of the main reasons why environmental issues exist in the first place.

I fear that what in this paper I call urban eco-modernisation, the vision and application of urban technology as the solution to environmental problems, is becoming an established, international formula of city-making: an urban paradigm that has to be challenged before its socio-environmental consequences will become irreversible.