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At first glance, Masdar City appears a mirage. From a distance it looks like a single multicolored building, standing lonely on the horizon. Part of the illusion is due to the city’s strange setting: next to Abu Dhabi airport, just across the highway from the Arabian Gulf, in a deeply inhospitable stretch of desert. Between it and downtown Abu Dhabi lie 20 miles of the most wasteful urban development I’ve ever seen—a featureless plain studded with ostentatious walled houses the size of the Supreme Court and crisscrossed by empty six-lane boulevards. But the illusion is also a matter of density. Masdar City, an $18-billion experiment, will hold 40,000 residents in only two square miles.
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