Between the Abu Dhabi airport and an enclave of suburban villas is a neatly delineated, 2.3-square-mile plot of…mostly desert. It’s not quite a mirage, but it is a work-in-progress: Masdar City, the most ambitious—and expensive—urban planning experiment on the planet today.
Abu Dhabi, the largest and richest of the United Arab Emirates, first announced the project in 2008. Masdar City was to be the first-ever human settlement with no negative environmental impact—zero waste, zero carbon, car-free, fed by recycled water. But even Abu Dhabi’s famous oil reserves—which power a nearly trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority—were not immune to the global financial crisis that rocked the world economy that same year. Even as the government-funded Masdar Initiative first broke ground on the city more than a decade ago, its dimensions had already begun to change.