On the Bus: Overheard on the 171

A young lady of about 30, evidently connected to the theatre, talks into her phone without apparent inhibition:

“And I said ‘Look. If you’re going to dislike me could you at least do it quietly?’ I just really hate loud public drama… He said that last night they’d slept without touching for the first time ever and apparently it’s my fault. And I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m really not interested in your sleeping arrangements.’ Do you know what I mean? …Stephen Sondheim’s boyfriend came over to our table… I’m thinking let’s just call Stephen and ask him.”

An earnest man talks to an earnest-looking woman who remains largely silent:

“A central theme in the Titanic is the lack of integrity of the middle classes. They completely lack soul and so they parasitize the working classes. It’s like in Brixton Village Market. They sell champagne now and it’s just the same price as it would be anywhere in London. And all the places there are like that now, right in the middle of an old working class district. I feel really uncomfortable in that place.”

A loud, drunk, nerd bellows at his companion in what is apparently English:

“Yeah I played it. It was really weird. It had no verticality. It didn’t talk about game information. I love Star but… One of the other sources that I listened to said that the GVC was really biased because nobody wants to play. 12 people came in and they wanted to play but it was really aggressive because nobody wanted to play a support role. No engineers, no spies. The sources that I listened to say that this totally invalidated the class…

“There was all this class synergy that we could look at and see…

“There’s a thing. It’s really important but I can’t show it to you…!

“I totally and utterly agree, it was the equivalent of seven years ago and everyone playing Level 2… You know as well as I do that 66 is two soldiers and a demo. There is no one single key to fit all locks…

“… new version of Overwatch… the opinion of people that played it. Yes there are class-class encounters… the bigger meta… One time out of ten you have the non-verbal polls and it works… What we consider in the FBS as an encounter…

“…and I know that I sound like an arsehole…

“By having 14 classes at this point maybe more… if you diversify too much it explodes. As someone who plays primarily sport classes, primarily Medic, I have the scenario when I got to the last minute and I have built up 80% uber and my team fucking disappears. Do I let them die? Or do I go in with 80% uber? I am SO potentially talking out of my arse right now…

“I cannot conceive of myself at this point of time being a professional [game name I didn’t catch] player. I’m too old, too disaffected…”

London Neighbourhoods 4: Nunhead

An edited version of this post first appeared in the SOAS Spirit (Print Edition) as Lost in the South East: Welcome to Nunhead on March 3rd 2015.

Nunhead. For years it was just a name to me, and not a particularly promising one. I knew it could be found somewhere in South East London, a bedfellow to unlikely-sounding places like Brockley and Hither Green, but that was it. Since I moved to Peckham a few months ago, however, Nunhead has leapt off the map and (almost) onto my doorstep, and I find myself falling love.

Admittedly if you arrive in Nunhead by train, first impressions aren’t inspiring. A Londis. A chippy. A fried chicken shop. Perhaps a knot of morning drinkers near the station entrance. I can practically hear the Islingtonites sneer. But just round corner, on Evelina Road, things pick up in a rather unexpected way. First it’s a greasy spoon caff and a DIY shop, then a traditional butchers and a few doors down a bakers. Next you pass a fishmongers and a retro/vintage shop and before you know it you’ve hit an honest-to-goodness village green with three pubs, a row of alms-houses and that quintessentially English of institutions, a Salvation Army Temple.

“Urban village” is a hackneyed term, but seems to do Nunhead justice. It is as far from the yummy-mummitude of East Dulwich as it is from the rough-and-tumble enticements of Peckham Rye. It’s a modest sort of place that’s never going to be the next Shoreditch. That said, F.C. Scoper (since 1897) has been described by the Observer as the “best fishmonger in London” and I can personally attest to the excellence of its mackerel. The Old Nun’s Head gastropub, meanwhile, gets rave reviews for its burgers and real ales. Nobody is really sure about the story of a nun fleeing a monastery that supposedly gave the pub, and then the suburb, its name, but “Nunn-head” can apparently be found in records dating back to the sixteenth century.

Lest you imagine it’s all craft beer and line-caught halibut, I should point out the takeaway options: Indian, Chinese, Caribbean, Portuguese… there’s even a “Taste of Barbados” (Bajan Spice) which I look forward to trying. Aside from the aforementioned DIY store there is a bike shop (Rat Race Cycles), opposite Bambuni delicatessen. This latter is the kind of place about which epithets like “the best flat white south of London Bridge” are probably bandied. I spent a happy time there ogling fresh bread, posh cheese, craft beers (yes I know, I know…) and cashew butter. The chicken shop-betting shop pairing across the road is a faintly reassuring reminder that you’re still in South London.

Arguably a bigger draw than any of this, though, is Nunhead Cemetery. In the words of Southwark Council it is “perhaps the least known but the most attractive of the seven Victorian cemeteries on London’s outskirts”. Down a quiet road, huge wrought-iron gates open onto a path that leads up to a grimly majestic ruined gothic chapel. Turn around for excellent views of the City and Canary Wharf but then press on into an eerie maze of trees, dense undergrowth and copious graves. There are no real showstoppers here – all the big names are buried in Highgate – but with a bus tycoon here and music hall artist there, there are some attractive tombstones. Most of the names you see are very Anglo-Saxon, but clustered at one end a number of Greeks, Caribbeans and even a Zoroastrian Parsi can be found.

Even better than the view from Nunhead Cemetery is the view from nearby Telegraph Hill, which comprises a delightful pair of parks, set in attractive Victorian suburbia. There is the Telegraph Hill Centre, a much-loved community centre founded by anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston as well as a Telegraph Hill Society. Much could be said on the subject, but at this point we’re straying from Nunhead into Brockley, and it’s time to catch that 17 minute train back to London Blackfriars. Nunhead – it’s not as far as you think.

 

 

 

 

London Neighbourhoods 3: Streatham

In 2002, BBC Radio 4 listeners voted Streatham High Road the worst street in Britain. Choking traffic, run-down shop fronts and violent crime were listed among its charms and the nation’s eyes rolled as its stereotypes of South London were upheld. I didn’t know this when I arrived in late 2007, although I was hardly bowled over at first. I wrote the place off as rather dowdy, full of traffic sounds and fumes, signifying very little. “It’s London’s answer to Sidwell Street” I remember telling my parents, referring to an unloved street in blitz-affected Exeter for which I nevertheless have a soft spot.

With time I put down the shallow kind of roots that are all a mid-20’s Londoner is typically capable of. I made friends with a Sri Lankan Tamil who ran a newsagent and urged me to get hitched – “Girlfriend life is happy life” were his exact words. I fell briefly in lust with an incompetent Afghan fruit-seller called Jihad before transferring my (ever unrequited) affections to an astonishingly beautiful Iraqi Kurd in an off-licence. I bought mushrooms from an old English couple at the Streatham Fruiterers, stationery from a lonely Ghanaian girl called Ekuya and jars of baby octopus at the Mediterranean Food Centre on the corner of Wyatt Park Road. I would occasionally have a Full English at the Café Vivaldi (Turkish-run, of course – you’d never catch English people serving an English breakfast in London) where a frumpy customer told me how she filled her days riding buses and making up jokes. “Dowdy” was upgraded to “Family-friendly community feeling” and traffic fumes were superseded in significance by pride at living – until 2010 – on the (self-proclaimed) longest High Street in Europe.

While the verdigris shoots of gentrification were in evidence – new bars and cafés continually sprouted up round Streatham Hill station – nothing prepared me for the discovery, from an ex-colleague, that decades ago Streatham had been the Knightsbridge of South London. The nation’s first supermarket (part of the Express Dairies group) opened in the early fifties, followed (unbelievable as it now seems) by the first large Waitrose. Internet nostalgia forums buzz with accounts of the Locarno nightclub that is apparently where Come Dancing (pre-Strictly) and Miss World were first filmed.

The epicentre of this douceur de vivre, however, was Pratt’s, a drapers-turned-department store that became part of the John Lewis partnership. A thriving café scene sprung up around Pratt’s, and wealthy residents (“lots of Jews” a hairdresser told me in a conspiratorial whisper) lived in the gorgeous red brick apartment blocks that line the street.

What happened next is one of those sad stories of urban decay. People moved out to Croydon and Sutton, the traffic volume picked up and everything spiralled downhill. Pratt’s closed in 1990 – I don’t know the full story but the hairdresser blamed Lambeth Council and told me with tears in her eyes about the death of the café life. Lambeth Council planners have since told me that, when consulting on the Streatham Masterplan, dozens of older Streathamites wrote in to say that all they cared about was bringing back Pratt’s. But Pratt’s is gone forever: even the building was demolished and replaced with a half-hearted attempt at architectural “sympathy” now occupied by an Argos, a Lidl and a Peacocks.

Today, though, Streatham seems to be on the up. On the stretch north of Streatham Hill station small boutiques and restaurants (including the marvellous Tapas Bar 61) hold their own among the chicken shops and betting shops. On nearby Leigham Court Road, Fish Tale, a fishmongers-cum-deli has been serving fresh octopus and walnut oil for the past five years. If that’s not to your taste you can brunch on Eggs Benedict in fancy new café-bars and then come back for White Russians in the evening, and if you want to really settle in, a rash of Estate Agents has sprung up to serve your needs.

Further down the road is something I’ve never come across before: a chain halal butchers. This is no scrappy open fronted affair with tinny Bollywood and a little Lebara phone stall at the front, such as are two a penny in Brixton and Peckham. Tariq Halal Meats is brightly lit, spotless and resounds with piped Qur’anic recitation. The man I spoke to in there (in Urdu, as he seemed unused to English) told me this outlet was only five months old, but that there are others in Ilford, Hounslow, Fulham and elsewhere. Lamb’s feet go for 70p, and there are also tastefully displayed delicacies such as ginger-and-lime chicken and smoked guinea fowl.

What struck me on my most recent visit to Streatham was how there seemed to be more of everything. More Polski sklep (Polish shops) including Bartek Express, which appears to be modelled on Tesco Express, even down to the font used for “express” on the sign, although the chicken gizzards and kielbasa inside suggest otherwise. More Somali restaurants on the “Little Mogadishu” stretch down the hill towards Streatham Station, which also has dahabshiil money transfer outlets and the Al Jazeera East African café. More fairtrade organic latte joints, such as Brooks and Gao, decked out according to the unwritten handbook of gentrification – rustic wooden tables, water in a mismatched liquor bottles, sugar in old Japanese tins and a goodish amount of exposed brick.

Meanwhile, the great Lusophone march south from its Stockwell epicentre is in rude health judging by the number of Portuguese and Brazilian shops now open. In one of these I met a lovely girl from São Tomé and Príncipe, who told me that the shop is actually owned by an Indian man with no apparent Portuguese connections whatsoever. Clearly a market worth tapping into, then.

There are still plenty of pawn shops and nasty pubs, and the traffic still roars past, but for every relic there is something new. A ghost of Pratt’s has risen up in the form of Pratts and Paynes, a newish member of the mostly-South London-based Antic group of pubs which serve good beer and better sausage rolls. The Hideaway Jazz venue, meanwhile receives rave reviews and might one day occupy the same space in Streathamites’ hearts as the Locarno did. Down towards Streatham Common (which in my view is one of London’s most enticing open spaces) the most blatant urban renewal of all comes in the form of a Tesco of mind-blowing proportions. It is hard to see this new “hub” (which also includes 250 flats, a leisure centre and a replacement for the much-loved old Ice Rink, another lost Streatham Gem) turning into a new Pratt’s, but who knows what this part of Streatham might look like in a decade’s time?

London Neighbourhoods 2: Great Suffolk Street

Borough is justly renowned across the world for its market, where a super-abundance of delights drain even the most assiduously-guarded wallets. Pigeon, partridge, camel and kangaroo – all there for the carnivorously-inclined, with over forty types of mustard to put on them, not to mention a multitude of spices, chillis, salts and chutneys. More varieties of cheeses than you can imagine fill up the stalls, and if you’ve got a sweet tooth you’ll find endless possibilities for satisfying it.

I lived in the area for four years and had a mixed relationship with the market, loving its produce but frequently a little daunted by the crowds it drew and happy to escape into the relative obscurity of non-market Borough. In the final year I lived ten minutes south, just off the grimy High Street in the middle of a community that I had never suspected of existing here: Great Suffolk Street. Although transient toe-dippers, we lived right in the thick of it, with our bedroom directly above a good old-fashioned butchers and the living room above a good old-fashioned café.

The latter, Terry’s, is the kind of place that cries out for the label “Institution” and its cheery awning beckons you in to a cosy space lined with old framed photos. The eponymous founder is no longer with us, but his son upholds the traditions of solid British food and a takes friendly interest in his customers. Breakfast ingredients are sourced from Smithfield and Borough Markets and are graded on the eye-stomach scale with names like “The Standard”, “The Blow-Out” and (replete with Cumberland sausage, egg, bacon, bubble and squeak, black pudding, beans, tomatoes and mushrooms) “The Works”. Outside, a coffee machine serving another Borough Market classic, Monmouth coffee, used to be operated by a prickly but gold-hearted Lithuanian until she left to work in a pub. Her lattes remain the best I’ve had in London.

Just opposite is Ollie’s, a chippie with the same enlightened attitude to portion size as Terry’s. Its hyperactive Turkish Cypriot owner shovels mountains of chips onto white paper and wraps them up with a mesmerising series of flicks and jerks. Two doors down is the marvellously-named Giggling Sausage café which loyalty to Terry’s prevented me from entering, and in an unintentional allegory, sandwiched between them, is a funeral parlour. I joked that Great Suffolk Street catered for our every need, even death. Shiny hearses were sometimes in evidence, although the best was saved until the day we moved out – a full-blown funeral procession for some local legend that paused outside Terry’s, which stood up en masse to the strains of Dixie on clarinet and guitar.

Next door to Terry’s on the other side of the butcher’s is a Turkish barber, Jeff’s, whose owner deftly flicks a lighted ball of cotton wool into his patrons’ ears, singeing any stray hairs. On my most recent visit he told me he was actually Kurdish and is proud of the fact that he has Turkish staff working for him! His father owns a greasy spoon, also Jeff’s, on nearby Webber Street. Another local business empire is the newsagent OL, run by friendly and unflappable Sri Lankan Tamils. I was surprised, recently, but happy to run into some of them in a corner shop they also own near Clapham Common.

Round the corner is a Homelessness Shelter specifically for people with mental health problems. Its residents are a familiar sight on the street, for the most part benign and a little eccentric although for a period the street’s calm would be shattered by a clearly troubled man who railed at the world at length, mostly in words of four letters. Other familiar street characters include a rueful old lady with dazzlingly colourful shoes, who once told me to enjoy my life because she no longer could. “I had friends once” she said with a sad smile. On Sundays, a number of Nigerian families head out for church, a glorious sight in their boubou and kaftan.

The street packs an extraordinary amount into this short stretch (it’s worth pointing out that north-west from here it extends up nearly as far as the river) and there are plenty more shops on the parade – a bakery-cum-deli called Mustard, an organic fruit shop, a betting shop, a tanning salon, a master locksmith and a florist. There is a pub called The Libertine which serves excellent pizzas but is too brightly lit, and I much prefer The Goldsmith round the corner. Just off the dense stretch of shops is a Chilean Café, El Vergel, which is pleasant and airy although it lacks the uniqueness that marks out Terry’s.

Having lived there for only a year I am under no illusions that we really joined the Great Suffolk Street community. Sure, I struck up some friendly acquaintanceships along the way, and had some excellent food and much-needed haircuts and peppered my banter with the odd word of Turkish or Tamil, but other than the “Where are you living now?” I’ve been greeted with on a few return visits, there is no indication our departure has left any dent in the street’s psyche. And why should it? My upstairs neighbour, in his own words, has lived on the street “for a very, very long time” although clearly not as long as Alfred Smith, the Funeral Director, which was established in 1881. And, as www.greatsuffolkstreet.co.uk points out, the “parade of independent, family-run shops has been serving the local community since the 1950s”. Long may it prosper.

London Neighbourhoods 1: Thornton Heath

This following is adapted from a piece I penned purely for my own amusement in early 2009. A recent return visit to the place in question suggests that it is still a reasonable reflection and I hope it will be the first in a sporadic series of odes to the less celebrated corners of London.

Thornton Heath, on the northern fringes of the London Borough of Croydon is a land that seems little touched by recent decades. Out of the station you step onto a busy road that on first glance is devoid of charm. There are no nice restaurants or shops in sight, the architecture is forgettable and the street-life is seedy without the mitigating vibrancy of Brixton, Peckham or Dalston. Across the road is an infinitely drab Wetherspoons, the Flora Sandes, named after the only British woman who officially served as a solider in World War I. Peer inside and the likelihood is a row will be breaking out between a couple of Caribbean men, ignored by the old Indian crosspatches who drink in silence, enervated by the demands of South London life. In the mornings, belligerent English alcoholics sit joylessly with their pints outside so they can smoke.

But resist the urge to turn back into the station: give the place a chance. With years of intimate acquaintance you might even come to love it. The classic South London hallmarks are all here – tiny jerk chicken emporia presided over by affable mommas; insalubrious kebab joints whose Turkish and Afghan staff produce minor miracles out of all proportion to their bargain prices; halal butchers which have Pakistani names and play Indian music; greasy spoons such as the Brigstock Café where a charming family of Copts serve (arguably) the best bacon in London. And everywhere you will find outlets for the beautification of Afro-Caribbean womanhood – nail parlours, wig shops, make-up salons, the works.

This is a corner of London untroubled by Starbucks, although it boasts a large Tesco, and Subway made it in in mid-2007. I can’t imagine anybody campaigned against either of these in a bid to keep Thornton Heath local. The poshest joint in town is generic Mediterranean and serves meze at passable prices. Perhaps the most famous local amenity, other than the charming 1900 clock-tower, is the Leisure Centure, whose much-loved swimming pool appears to act as a focal point for the community. All are welcome here, from doggy-paddling Punjabi matriarchs to voluminous Jamaicans who bob and sway in the name of exercise to some anodyne derivative of reggae, their efforts magnified in waves across the pool.

Any timelessness you sense is probably an illusion. The leisure centre, for example, only dates from 2004, and required the demolition of an earlier public bathhouse built in the suburb’s Victorian heyday. Indeed, in the late 19th century Thornton Heath was quite something, jolted out of rural anonymity by the arrival of the railway. There was a cinema, plenty of pubs and a bustling parade of shops serving the area’s respectably middle-class residents. But a combination of time and urban development has not been kind. The cinema has long since gone, the pubs are down-at-heel and today’s shops are of a kind that, as a friend once described it “could only survive in South London.” The once-famous Thornton Heath Pond was drained in the 1950’s to make way for a roundabout.

The respectable middle-classes, meanwhile, have by and large upped sticks and made way for a motley snapshot of London’s human tapestry: impeccably upright Caribbean grandmothers and their hooded adolescent grandsons; rambunctious Nigerian taxi drivers; shy Tamils hurrying to the “Ghanapati Temple”; Pakistanis and Kashmiris selling meat, fish and veg; East African Indians such as sweet-natured Surinder from the sandwich shop who calls himself “David”; and, judging by their garb, even the odd Wahhabi hanging about outside the Islamic Centre.

On deeper acquaintance you discover gems, of course. There is a peaceful wooded park on top of a hill, while the Jam Rock café serves an excellent goat curry and the beer garden of the Railway Pub is a fine enough spot for a summer evening. Even the godawful Wetherspoons which, being on the ground floor of the block that used to house my office, claimed more than its fair share of my Friday evenings, turned out in retrospect to be a rich den of humanity compared to the dismal blandness of the successor we appointed when we relocated to East Croydon. A recent reunion there with ex-colleagues reacquainted us with the advantages of good, cheap beer and a spacious saloon bar.

In all, though, not much seems to happen here. Granted you see the occasional police drug search and on some days an Evangelist comes to harangue her fellow sinners while the legless man effs and blinds in his wheelchair over a can of Old Speckled Hen, but mostly you have the sense of a neglected, but oddly content little community lost between London and Croydon. There is no real sign of gentrification – it’s not going the way of Brixton any time soon, let alone Shoreditch – too much effort, and who’d come anyway? For now, I like it like it is.

 

 

On the bus: three London vignettes

These all occurred over six years ago, but they could have happened yesterday.

Route 250: Between Norbury and Thornton Heath (August 2008)
A Jamaican woman is screaming down her phone, slamming her fist. “I’m goin’ home to pray for my sister, because she’s a wicked woman! She’s a wicked woman. Dem church people doin’ shit. She’s a wicked woman!” Her anger seems to be welling up from a bottomless pit connected to an ocean of every conceivable evil: racism, slavery, oppression, depression, poverty, depravity, disease… Yet suddenly she peers out of the window and spots a little boy she knows. “Hello darlin’!” she coos, radiant, it seems, with happiness for two seconds. And then it’s back to rage and hatred. “She’s a wicked, wicked woman…”

Route 59: Somewhere around Oval (October 2008)
The last leg on a trip back from Paris. Somewhere around Oval a handsome young black man gets on and sits next to me at the front. I casually glance at a billboard outside the window, which uses the metaphor of slavery to advertise a Card Protection Plan. My companion bursts out laughing.

“It’s like slavery but changed” he observes. “That’s what art is all about – taking something and changing it. Metaphor. English people don’t understand metaphor.”

A pause. He introduces himself as Chief Kingsley, from Cameroon.

“Who can understand metaphor, then?” I ask, slightly puzzled.

“Africans can understand it. And most Europeans too.”

Another pause.

“Oh, and the Irish. The Irish are very good at understanding metaphor.”

He proceeds to tell me about a recent visit to the Writers’ Museum in Dublin.

“Have you read any Irish literature?” I ask.

“No, I didn’t stay there long enough – only a few days.”

I point out in my puzzlement that it would surely be possible to read Irish literature here in London.

“I don’t trust English bookshops. They change things, you know, they change things. I only like originals. I don’t like fakes.”

A night bus: Somewhere between Soho and South Woodford (June 2007)
It is well after midnight. We are going back to a friend’s house from a club and the same is probably true of many others on the bus. Behind me is a noisy bunch of English lads, and somewhere towards the back a mixed group speaking in Polish. At some point the English boys pick up on this fact and decide that it would be hilarious to shout the only Polish word they know at the top of their voices: kurwa (literally whore, but often used as a more general expletive).

I mentally roll my eyes and turn round to them.

“If you want to be a bit more original you could sayŁadna dupeczka’ – means nice arse.”

“Awesome! How do you say it again?”

“Wad-na du-pech-ka“ I enunciate as carefully as my tired, drunk state will allow.

“OK. Wad… Wadna du… Dupiska.”

I laugh and let them get on with it. Their enthusiasm outstrips their accuracy:

“Wadna dupiska!”
“Wapna dupashka!”
“Wazna Dubrovnik!”

I smile to myself as I imagine what this must sound like to the Poles (assuming they are anything other than oblivious to the cross-cultural badinage going on in their honour):

“Nice arze!”
“Niece urse!”
“Norse ears!”

Green Living in the Desert: Masdar City and its Place in the World

In the Desert Kingdom of Abu Dhabi a world-famous eco-city is springing up. But does Madīnat Maṣdar point the way forward or is it just a gimmick?

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

What makes a city sustainable? Something to do with the energy efficiency of its buildings and industry, perhaps? Or maybe an effective public transport system running on clean fuels? What about the materials used to build the city – are they sourced locally or shipped from across the globe following a questionable mining process? Same goes for the food, of course – where does it come from? What does it cost in energy, water and land? And we haven’t even begun to think about the people – surely a truly sustainable city would offer a wide range of fulfilling jobs and lifestyles to a healthy populace free to participate meaningfully in civic life?

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe we should step back and ask whether the city as a concept is sustainable. Cities certainly have their apologists. Economist Edward Glaeser, for example, whose Triumph of the City reads like a love song to urban life, argues that city living is inherently sustainable. Densely-packed buildings are usually more energy efficient to run than sprawling rural ones, and the proximity of housing to offices, shops and entertainment tends to mean low reliance on personal vehicles. Moreover, cities provide favourable conditions for initiatives like public transport and low energy community heating. But cities also offer ample scope for hedonistic, polluting lifestyles, and even the most frugal citizens are highly unlikely to be self-sufficient in terms of food production.

The whole question becomes ever more relevant as the world’s urban population skyrockets, most estimates agreeing that it has now outstripped the global rural population. What’s more, this urban population is projected to nearly double by 2050. Small wonder, perhaps, that self-consciously “sustainable cities” are being planned and developed all over the globe, from the International Business District in Songdo, South Korea to Auroville, India’s spiritually-inspired township with a sideline in renewable energy. Perhaps the most famous eco-city of all is Madīnat Maṣdar (“Source City”) in the United Arab Emirates.

Masdar City, as it is usually referred to in English, was conceived in the mid 2000’s on a wave of ambition. The UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa, recognising the finite nature of the Emirates’ oil supply decided the economy should diversify by embracing renewable energy. The result was Masdar, or the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, whose mission is to invest in renewable energy and clean technology in Abu Dhabi and worldwide through a business model that encompasses higher education and research and development. At its epicentre would be a carbon neutral, waste-free city of 40,000 sitting amidst a new Silicon Valley for sustainable technology, luring businesses, scientists and students from all over the world. With architect Norman Foster in charge of the design, and the goodwill of global entities from Greenpeace to the US Government, Masdar as an idea shone like a beacon of hope for the future.

Masdar as a real city presents a more complicated picture. Take transport, for example. Initial plans were for a city free of private cars where citizens could move around through a series of shaded walkways or using driverless pods powered by renewable electricity. While the pods are in operation and play well with tourists, their scope has been scaled down and a public transport system including electric buses is proposed alongside an extension of Abu Dhabi’s existing rail networks. Meanwhile, much of the city’s workforce commutes from outside, rather denting Masdar City’s credibility as a sustainable transport hub.

Where energy is concerned, the city boasts impressive credentials – building designs optimise natural light and come with high levels of insulation, efficient lighting and a range of smart systems and appliances. Visitors compliment the pleasant daytime temperatures in the streets achieved, in part, by an entirely passive “wind tower” which sucks up hot air to make way for a cooling breeze and should reduce the need for air conditioning. Masdar City’s electricity is currently provided by a vast array of solar photovoltaic panels but again, this rings a little hollow when we consider the UAE’s carbon footprint as a whole, which ranks 5th or 6th globally in CO2 emissions per capita. More directly, there have been rumours of embarrassing design flaws such as solar panels located on shaded roofs and lights that were difficult to control, but it is to be hoped that these flaws have been rectified with lessons duly learned.

Technicalities aside, how well does Masdar City function as a living, breathing city? Here opinions are divided. Detractors gleefully point out the limited extent to which the original dream has (yet) been realised. A city of 40,000 it certainly isn’t – current projections suggest that it will host 10% of that population by the end of the year – and most current residents are students at the prestigious Masdar Institute for Science and Technology, the Gulf’s answer to MIT. Success in attracting international green technology companies has so far been restricted to Siemens, whose award-winning regional office is open for business and will house 800 employees.

Others argue that its very existence is a testament to a government putting its money where its mouth is, especially when compared to similar projects elsewhere such as Dongtan in China, whose construction is firmly on hold at the moment. By all accounts, visitors come away impressed by the hi-tech, but often lacking any genuine sense of place in what feels more like a project than a city.

Whether a gimmick or a blueprint for the future, Masdar City is clearly a work in progress and a learning experience and it is only fair to judge it as such. Ultimately, I can’t help wondering whether the Masdars and Dongtans are a bit of a distraction when cities like Dhaka, Lagos and Jakarta are still mushrooming and face mounting problems of energy supply, water abstraction and pollution. Whether or not we can build sustainable new cities, surely the most urgent question is how to make our existing cities sustainable and that, I fear, would take more than a newspaper article to answer…