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The Future of Urban Living: What to Expect from Saudi Arabia's 'The Line'

‘The Line’.

The envisioned utopia to be built in Saudi Arabia by 2030 in the shape of a straight line, promises many things: 1) driven by technology, it will integrate artificial intelligence and automation into every aspect of daily life; 2) prioritizing sustainability, it will be powered entirely by renewable energy sources while also being completely free of cars and roads; 3) challenging the traditional flat and horizontal cities, its urban network and infrastructure capabilities will ideally embody all city functions for a 170 km long belt of vertically layered communities.


The project has met a great deal of interest from certain groups, but many others have dismissed its feasibility. The public has brought up reservations about potential financing difficulties that may arise during the years of construction. Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth private investment fund of Saudi Arabia, finances the entire project. Being reliant on the kingdom’s oil exports, which have experienced volatility in recent years, raises doubts about the project’s completion.


A large portion of experts and civil society, while acknowledging the possibility of its completion, have been very vocal with their concerns about the potential implications of the project. A lot of criticism has been thrown as controversies surrounded the planning stage of the project: environmental contradictions of how ‘The Line’ promises a bona fides emphasis on climate action while leaving a vast carbon footprint behind its construction; or the Saudi Arabian government’s displacement of indigenous tribes, particularly the Huwaitat tribe who have presented allegations of being forcibly evicted and displaced to make way for the project; or the political interests behind diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy, and the issues this may bring about legal liberalization and multicultural coexistence, have been expressed as major concerns among the public.


‘The Line’ seemed unrealistic until excavation works commenced late last year. With so much attention directed towards financing doubts and human rights allegations, it is easy to overlook the most fundamental challenge surrounding this utopian project: its urban planning.


Modular Living.

‘The Line’ will be developed in modules that represent individual communities. Holding as a tenet minimizing the time people spend commuting while still having the city be connected without the need for cars or roads, it promises residents access to nature and all of their daily needs within five minutes of walking distance. These modules will come to be the basic building blocks of the city, and each is meant to provide everything that makes a city livable: health, retail, work, wellness, commutes, green spaces, education, and others.

Modular Living in ‘The Line’. Source: https://www.neom.com/en-us/regions/theline


And as the structure is equivalent to a conventional 125-floors-tall skyscraper, to provide an open and accessible public realm, also promises each resident would enjoy an average of 1,000 cubic meters of urban volume, where green spaces and parks will be integrated as the primary walkway of the city.


Each module within the city is also to be divided into multiple layers; the top layer is reserved for pedestrians, green spaces, and infrastructure. Underneath this, a sophisticated transportation system will be built. And as walkability defines life within ‘The Line’, this system is the only structure maintaining connectivity between modules.

From the urban planning side, the system of modules brings a lot of skepticism:

Will ‘The Line’ allow individuals, businesses, and other entities to express themselves freely, or will every city module be a uniform replica of the previous one? The notion of independent expression in urban planning is an important element in conventional cities, but it may prove difficult to achieve given the rigid design of the city.


The module system also artificially separates communities, limiting the amount of space they can access for a given distance. As walkability defines life within ‘The Line’, a transport system with limited space would be the only structure connecting modules between each other.


Internationally awarded architect Pedro Aibéo put it as follows: “It reminds me of the idea of Dallas, Texas: a highway into the desert with people along the highway, an endless series of pop-up self-contained ‘communities’. <…> As the cultural center remained in the city center, these ‘communities’ became just bedrooms in the desert.”


However, without examining the models of urban planning, it is impossible to reach a conclusive opinion on the potential of ‘The Line’ to reshape the conventional notions of the city grid.


Brasilia.

During the 1950s, Brazil worked on consummating its utopia: Brasilia. Scientifically designed, built and organized under a perfect grid, and relying on a structured and modular design, Brasilia’s ‘Plano Piloto’ was impressively designed in the shape of an eagle or airplane and built in less than one thousand days. Yet, although urban planners have praised the urban design of Brasilia, the city is not widely considered by its inhabitants to be a successful layout.

Brasilia. Source: https://www.benedictflett.com/blog/tag/Brazil


Lucio Costa, head architect in charge of the design of Brasilia, envisioned the ‘Plan Piloto’ area to accommodate 500,000 people, separated by a stretching green belt area that would preserve the distinctive form of the city. However, as soon as construction began, construction-worker camps settled around the metropolitan area into whatever land they could, creating satellite cities lacking transportation systems or civic services. As real estate prices rose, many residents who couldn’t afford to live in the central area populated and drove the expansion of satellite cities, crowding far away from the city center. Designed for 500,000 people, the metropolitan area is today home to over four million.

Costa’s capital was meant to be self-contained, close, and so the plan for Brasilia did not foresee such uncontrolled demographic growth and couldn’t account for the actual population that showed up. Authorities recognized these satellite cities, and planners restructured them according to the zoning principles of the ‘Plano Piloto’, converting them into dormitory settlements, while leaving the most relevant public and commercial spaces inside the metropolitan area.


With the long distance between satellites and the city center, residents had to take long and expensive commutes for work. Besides this, inside the metropolitan center, the scale at which the ‘Plano Piloto’ was built was also perceived as ridiculous by its residents, as “pedestrians reject walkways that are too long, formal and monotonous and instead opt to walk across the green areas, creating their own organic, human-centric trails.


Writer Benedict Flett explains that residents travel into the center only when necessary, hence the aphorism: “In Brasilia there is only casa e trabalho”. In contrast to other Brazilian cities where the street, square, or beach serve as a space for gatherings and festivities, Brasilia's urban design seems to lack such a third element. Having no spaces built for public gatherings or cultural events, Brasilia is known for being a boring city with no sense of community, to where you would never want to move to unless you work for the government.

LSE Professor of Urban Studies Ricky Burdett shares that “people run away on Thursday evenings and go to Sao Paulo and Rio to have fun. All you have to do is to go out of central Brasilia and you get completely normal plazas and streets with kids playing”.

Brasilia’s failure presents how when urban planners impose their vision without community engagement, they risk creating a city that fails to meet the needs of its residents. If citizens are consistently engaged in shaping their city, its layout will reflect the dynamic interactions that occur in public spaces. The key element that cities such as Brasilia lack is the opportunity to foster organic development resulting from collaboration between designers and the city’s inhabitants.


Economic Urban Life.

There are many reasons why a city or town may become abandoned or deserted, but it almost always concerns the economy. Perhaps the city or town flourished with logging, mining, or industry. But when jobs disappear, so do people. Author of Ghost Towns of Texas, T. Lindsey Baker defines a ghost town asa town for which the reason for being no longer exists.


Along these lines, french sociologist Christian Topalov, affirms that the origin of the city lies in the fact that it offers all the general conditions for companies to develop their businesses. Distinctively, the urban organization offers three fundamental elements to entertain economic activity: 1) physical infrastructures necessary for production and transportation, such as roads, ports, trains, and electricity services; 2) a reserve of labor force, which grows and stays within the city by the means of collective consumer assets and institutions, such as houses, schools, hospitals, and public spaces; 3) brings together a set of private capitalist enterprises whose cooperation in urban economic space increases productivity.

London in the 19th century. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/19th-century_London


This reveals a lot about the true nature of urbanization: Large cities have transformed the social organism that manifests itself in the countryside, as urban development comprises an economic socialization of commercial public interaction. Urbanization can be understood as a contingent conversation between citizens and productive forces, where the city’s identity and form, instead of being something intuitive and rigid, depends on and moves through a set of relations.

Similar to the ideas of economist Friedrich Hayek, who said thatknowledge never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge”, the transactions that happen within a city are better understood if considered ‘a collective agreement’ by its citizens. The understanding of a citizen, acquainted with his surroundings, his co-citizens, and the special circumstances of the city, lies outside the reach of what can be considered scientific knowledge that authorities of central urban planning have access to. That is, the allocation of resources and spaces, when managed based on the scattered knowledge shared by all individuals taking part in urban planning, brings about better satisfaction for its inhabitants.


The criteria for urban expansion are based on the anarchic form of the free market economy. Costa’s flaw in the urban planning of Brasilia was that he approached the city as if it was an architectural problem instead of taking into account how city systems work: networks of economic life that meet the needs of its citizens.


In her book Death and Life of American Cities, Urban studies theorist Jane Jacobs wrote: “converting into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life. The results of such profound confusion between art and life are neither art nor life. They are taxidermy.


Paris under Napoleon III.

From the establishment of the Second Empire in 1852, Napoleon III chose Georges-Eugène Haussmann to carry out enormous public works projects in Paris, and almost two decades of careful planning and construction brought about an impressive transformation of the city.


During a period of great economic expansion, Haussmann's work of urban planning was based on consolidating the relations between capital and space, which provided significant disposal to economic activity. The opening of the grand boulevards, new avenues, and streets; the increase in the amount of infrastructure and urban roads in Paris; the improvements in transport and communications (railways and the telegraph); and the construction of various parks and architectural projects, are fundamental elements associated with the development of capitalism in France, and materially represents the modernity achieved by Haussmann.


An official parliamentary report of 1859 found that Haussmann’s public works had “brought air, light, and healthiness and procured easier circulation in a labyrinth that was constantly blocked and impenetrable, where streets were winding, narrow, and dark”.


In this regard, just as a healthy organism requires efficient circulation to function properly, cities also require well-designed transport and communication systems to thrive. Hausmann’s open boulevards serve as Paris’ veins, allowing for a better flow of goods and people. Just as an organism must have healthy organs to survive, cities must also have vibrant public spaces that cater to the diverse social needs of its citizens. Hausmann’s public spaces provided a venue for people to come together, interact, and foster a sense of community.

Boulevard of Haussmann’s Paris. Source: ‘Avenue de l'Opéra’ by Camille Pissarro.


From Paris, it can be learned that anarchic urban development on its own is not enough: urban planning is also necessary. However, the key takeaway is that urban planning must be understood as a distribution, not a stagnant arrangement, of the essential components of economic activity that transforms cities from static entities into complex organisms with vitality and energy. Incremental growth is the best approach to urban planning. Building these projects to finished and final products makes them vulnerable to a constantly changing layout. Cities that better respond to the needs of their citizens are those built around people, not perfect grids.


Consummation of the Planned Utopia.

Being a controlled urban plan with limited land development, ‘The Line’ appears to deviate significantly from cutting along the dotted line of their path towards a balanced and livable urbanization for its residents. If the urban planning of the project is to be devoid of the possibility of organic growth that makes cities alive and adaptable, ‘The Line’ risks becoming an artificial construct; a monument to hubris rather than human needs.

However, the planners claim to have learned lessons from other city-building projects and promise the creation of a monumental city with an artificial growth model. Executive Director of the project, Giles Pendleton states thatWe're not building this all at once, but it will be rolled out between now and 2045. So you don't build all your stadiums in one go. You build them to meet whatever population they serve. Every single thing you can think of in any city in the world will be on THE LINE at some point, but it may not be in the very first module”.

If planners manage to comprise said model of urban growth, ‘The Line’ may be a city that truly adapts to the needs and preferences of its people and lets communities shape their own environments, beyond imposing a singular vision on a landscape. If thoroughly designed as the model of a living organism that grows and changes over time, ‘The Line’ may come to be the consummation of futuristic urbanization.

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