A furious race to design and build the model "green city of the future" is on. It is a concerted attempt is to counter global warming. But such projects raise as many questions as they claim to answer.
Many are skeptical of the possible impact of such projects on the global environmental crisis. "You have to wonder what that money could have done to make existing cities more sustainable," says Daniel Lerch of the Portland Post-Carbon Cities Institute.
A $22 billion mega project employing cutting-edge solar power and water treatment systems and non-polluting underground light rail has just been launched in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Well-known architectural firms have signed on to create massive green projects in China, which will effectively test the ability of engineers and urban planners to manage that country's staggering and often environmentally ravaging growth.
In a similar vein, the governments of Costa Rica, Norway, and even Libya have announced grand, state-sponsored development plans that promise some version of carbon neutrality—offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, often by producing clean, renewable energy.
Smaller private and public developments throughout Europe and North America abound, powered by everything from solar energy and hydrogen fuel cells to even human waste.
"These sites—even the more experimental projects—matter because they set 'stretch' goals," says Ann Rappaport, a lecturer in the urban and environmental policy department at Tufts University.
Rappaport says the most ambitious plans are likely to quicken the pace of technological and architectural development in much the same way corporations that set stringent green goals for themselves in the 1980s and 1990s learned the most, even if they did not always meet initial goals.
"Frankly, we need an avalanche of innovation," adds Alex Steffen, the co-founder and executive editor of Worldchanging.com, a leading environmental blog and nonprofit. "Such projects serve to push the boundaries of green practice and expand our sense of what's possible," he adds, suggesting the practice of urban design stands to gain from the trend.
But the question is whether we can build our way out of urban overcrowding, especially so when the number of urban dwellers is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2030, points out Matt Vella, writing in BusinessWeek.
Retrofitting or greening existing structures do not seem to have received adequate attention, it is regretted.
Besides there are concerns about so-called greenwashing, or misleading sustainability claims. Michael Kinsley, with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability research firm in Colorado, urges monitoring of the new grandiose projects.
After all, some much-vaunted planned green communities never made it off the paper they were printed on, while others have progressed at a much slower clip than originally hoped. The experimental green village of Arcosanti outside Phoenix, which was begun in 1970, is still under construction, for example.
And some of the best existing green urban planning may not have been billed as such until recently. Since at least the 1970s, Canada's third-largest city, Vancouver, has earned accolades from urban planners around the world for a development strategy that has managed the city's population growth while minimizing its impact on the environment, partly by maximizing the efficiency of public transportation.
Still, those behind maintain there are enormous technological and practical advances to be made via new projects that can be applied to retrofit projects—and other industries.
"If this project fails," says Masdar's Khaled Awad, "it will be a major, permanent blow to the idea of sustainability."