Cities in the Sand – Lessons Learned from the Failed Eco-Cities of the Past

The world’s first zero-emission, fully sustainable city was how Masdar was promoted to the world when Abu Dhabi first announced the $22billion project back in 2006. Architects Foster + Partners drew up beautiful concept art. Masdar City would float on a raised platform, beneath which electric cars would ferry passengers; the six-kilometre-square site would house 50,000 residents and support 1,500 new green businesses. Another 60,000 workers were expected to commute to Masdar daily, employed by the green technology companies that were going to sprout up.

Abu Dhabi, which is aware that its oil reserves are expected to run out within 100 years, knows that it needs to have other industries to replace petroleum. The idea was that Masdar would be to Abu Dhabi what the Nasa space program was to America – a crucible for future eco-friendly technology.

The Abu Dhabi population was also receptive. They knew what it was like to live in a country where water was scarce and the temperature can hit 52°C in the summer. So Foster + Partners set about designing an eco-friendly city based on Arabic architecture that had shielded the local population from the pitiless sun for hundreds of years.

But there is a gap between the concept art and the city that was actually built. When the worldwide recession hit in 2008, Abu Dhabi was forced to bail out neighbouring Dubai. The (remote-controlled) lights were quietly switched off one-by-one on Masdar City. Masdar today is just half a dozen streets and a university. Around 1,000 people live there, mostly working or studying at the Masdar Institute, a postgraduate university developing green technology.

Masdar is not the only futuristic eco-city that has run into the sand. China’s own eco-city, Caofeidian – which started construction in 2003 – is 200km southeast of Beijing. Construction was financed through huge bank loans that were called in halfway through building. The rising cost of materials and lack of government support also left Caofeidian stranded. The city was planned to accommodate one million inhabitants – yet only a few thousand live there today.

Caofeidian - Chinese Ghost City
Eco-city, Caofeidian, China

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city is another stalled venture. This £24billion development – a joint project between China and Singapore – was trumpeted as a “model for sustainable investment” when work first began in 2008. Today, Tianjin only has 6,000 inhabitants compared to the 350,000 planned. There are no hospitals or shopping plazas and what shops there are are mostly closed. The roads lead nowhere.

Caofeidian and Tianjin have joined the growing ranks of China’s ghost cities. However, it may be that the lasting achievements of Masdar and Tianjin are what they did not do, rather than what was achieved. In building these cities, engineers understand what green technology works as opposed to more fanciful solutions.

For example, Masdar originally planned to have solar panels on the roof of each building. Planners realised that it was much more efficient to spread the city’s 88,000 solar panels beside the extended urban area. Rather than clambering up hundreds of ladders, engineers could clean and repair solar panels lying flat in the desert. These solar panels now supply up to 30 per cent of Masdar’s energy.

And the Chinese have also learnt valuable lessons from the Tianjin experiment. Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city has been a laboratory for solving some of China’s enormous problems: permanent traffic gridlock, drought and astronomical electricity bills. For example, the rivers around Tianjin were so polluted with heavy metals they had to be cleaned with specially developed technology. Given that 70% of China’s rivers are too polluted to provide drinking water, this technology developed for Tianjin has huge internal potential.

So, while these cities were incomplete failures in a development sense, they have been able to show us valuable lessons in what not to do and at the same time uncover new design potentials moving forward.

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