No, that’s not the title of my latest novel. Sorry.

This past week, my collaborator and friend Mario Chacon invited me to give a talk at New York University – Abu Dhabi and work together on a project on Brazilian environmental policy. I was really excited because I have never been to the Middle East. The region, of course, plays a major role in energy policy as the main supplier of oil to the world market. So how would it look like? Where did all the billions of oil money go? Since Abu Dhabi holds almost all of the oil in the United Arab Emirates, it is hard to imagine a better destination to answer these questions!

One of the great things about Abu Dhabi is that it really made me think about the importance of the communities we live in for our lives. I am a city/town person myself, and Abu Dhabi is a perfect example of how not to build a town. Here is an amateur diagnosis:

– A great city is made for pedestrians. Without pedestrians, how can one have street culture or interesting coffee shops to visit? Community organizing is pretty much impossible if people drive by you in SUVs. The cultural poverty in Abu Dhabi is shocking, and I’m pretty sure it’s because the city was not build for walking.

– It is also a little disturbing that one of the most carbon-intensive places on the planet then builds a “model sustainable city” — Masdar City — some 40 kilometres away from the center. The right approach would have been to vigorously reduce Abu Dhabi’s carbon intensity and start correcting the mistakes made earlier. Alas, this would have required mobilizing the community and creating a real culture of sustainability. It’s a lot easier to team up with MIT and build a little haven away from everything.

– The architecture consists of one generic high-rise next to another. This is completely outside the scope of my expertise, but I wonder if these could have somehow capitalized on the region’s rich history and culture.

– I am not sure why there is so much fast food in the city, but it is truly gross. The two smells that accompany one everywhere in the center are gasoline and fried chicken. Good thing I wasn’t feeling sick.

So anyway, I realize that Abu Dhabi was not built for people like me. Locals may well enjoy this lifestyle and, its deleterious on the planet notwithstanding, this is all fine. But for anyone interested in sustainable and livable communities, please do check out Abu Dhabi — remember what you saw, and work really hard to achieve the exact opposite.

So, to conclude: if NYUAD is interested in investing its untold billions of oil money in me, the offers need to be very generous. Just as FYI.

Later, I am going to write another post about Abu Dhabi. For fans of the city, fear not: this one will say something more positive!

PS. This weekend, I visited Bath in the United Kingdom — now there’s a town to my taste! I just couldn’t help smiling all day…

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