The Line City is set to span 170 kilometers of the Neom region, an innovative urban expanse in the northwest of the Saudi Arabian Tabuk Province. According to the Neom website, the Line will be a “cognitive city” standing at “500 meters above sea level, but a land-saving 200 meters wide.” It will use “100% renewable energy,” contain “9 million” inhabitants on “just 34 square kilometers”, and boast a “high-speed rail – with an end-to-end transit of 20 minutes.”
Neom’s website depicts a utopian vision of sustainable urban planning, with five main focal points: “sustainability, community, technology, nature, and livability.” In keeping with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which ideates “a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation,” Neom’s site states that “people’s health and wellbeing will be prioritized over transportation and infrastructure [in the Line], unlike [in] traditional cities.”
On paper, the Line city could be a model for a greener urban future.
The ambition behind the Line City project is commendable, but many fear this ambition may never translate into reality
The former Director of ExperienceLab Middle East, Kristine Pitts told al-Arabiya news that she has “no doubt this will change the way people live, work, travel and in terms of quality of life, it’s really looking at the opportunity that we have here.” She added that, for her, “starting from nothing, while it has challenges, it has the opportunity to throw out what doesn’t work about cities as we know them and really finding new ways of living.”
Yet, Professor Philip Oldfield at UNSW insists that “you cannot build a 500-meter-tall building out of low-carbon materials.” This doubt is shared by a large number of Neom’s employees, The New Arab writes, as the “project […] has been hit by a wave of resignations”.
To unpack this controversy, we should look to the four widely accepted “types of sustainability.”
These categories include “Human, Social, Economic and Environmental” sustainability, wrote Robert Goodland, chief of the Environmental Division in the Latin America Office of the World Bank. The question that remains pertinent is therefore the following: does the Line qualify as a sustainable city of the future with regard to these categories?
Earlier this year, Dániel Kondor, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Complexity Science Hub, and Rafael Prieto-Curiel, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, co-wrote an article for the npj Urban Sustainability journal, arguing for an alternative to The Line City: “The Circle.’
The pair of researchers write in this publication that “sustainability is emphasised in many aspects of the [Line City] project,” and “having a minimal urban footprint is touted as contributing significantly to The Line being an example of a green and sustainable city.’ They go on to note, however, that the construction “raises questions on the livability and technologies required to achieve this and their real environmental impact.
As the publication observes, the Line City “is planned to be incredibly long, extremely tall, and surprisingly dense”. For Chief Operating Officer of the Line Project, Giles Pendleton, this shape will combat “urban sprawl.”
This speaks mostly to the human and social types of sustainability, wherein the sense of community necessary for social sustainability can be fostered in a controlled environment, and the “health” and “education” services needed for human sustainability can be provided.
Yet, according to Kondor and Prieto-Curiel, this structure may hinder sustainable practices in the city, and the more traditional “circular shape” may actually be more efficient:
“By changing the shape, we can achieve greater flexibility when considering the trade-offs between density and connectedness. In The Line, a person willing to walk 1 km can reach 106,000 people. Requiring the same number to be reachable in a circular city requires a density of only 33,740 people per km2 , i.e., a density only 25% higher than Manhattan […] we should construct The Circle and not The Line.”
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With regard to environmental sustainability, Neom’s website promises that “95% of [Neom’s] land [will be] preserved for nature.” This would “improve human welfare by protecting” nature — a hallmark for environmentally sustainable practices.
Economically, the Line City offers the chance for Saudi Arabia to move away from its dependence on the oil industry, which “led to the country now being the 18th largest economy in the world by GDP.”
This dependence poses a large risk to the future of Saudi Arabia’s economy. Given that sustainable economic policy “should err on the side of caution in the face of uncertainty and risk”, as Goodland wrote, implementing alternative sources of income is highly important for Saudi Arabia.
This is where the Line City comes in. “Designers [of the city] hope to attract 100 million annual visitors, boosting the local economy by billions of dollars,” says the Renewable Energy Institute. This would entirely “reshape the kingdom’s economy” for the better, providing roughly 380,000 job opportunities and adding 180 billion riyals ($48 billion) to Saudi Arabia’s GDP by 2030, says al-Arabiya news.
However, it isn’t necessarily the aims of the city that we should analyze. Rather, their potential implementation and maintenance.
As Philip Oldfield explains:
“Some of the internal spaces at The Line look incredibly alluring – lush atria, vast cavernous interior spaces Grand Canyon-esque in scale, with residents perched on the edge enjoying picnics […] Even if these were built, the satisfaction of residents would mostly be informed by how such spaces are operated and managed, not how dramatic they look.”
To summarise, it is the maintenance of the Line that will dictate its overall sustainability. The maintenance in question relies on new technologies — the city will be governed by Artificial Intelligence (AI).
A fifth green category: digital sustainability
These four categories of sustainability do of course blend into one another, with investments into healthcare spanning both economic and human sustainability, for instance. What is especially interesting about the Line City, though, is how it plans to use AI to hit all four categories.
A unique selling point of the Line is Neom developers’ claim that “Tonomus,” the digital “operating system of Neom,” will “co-invent the future of living with ground-breaking cognitive technologies.” The Line will be run through the power of AI, affording it the nickname of “the world’s first cognitive city.”
This begs the question: do we need to redefine sustainability in the digital age?
- Social connection and sustainable mobility
- 15-Minute Cities
- Energy and digitalization for cities and local communities
These three changes are highly compatible with the Line’s model, which aims to use “5G technology as base of [a] digital transformation” to greener urban living.
According to a video published by Neom, “wireless technology” will allow Neom to “accelerate the future of robotics, drones, smart homes, autonomous vehicles, and remote interactions through VR, AR and holograms”, creating “the world’s first truly digitally sustainable cities.”
In other words, “Neom will have its own digital air.”
What does the future of the Line actually look like?
Green Matters writes that the Line may “represent a true “City of Tomorrow” and an entirely new way of living,” and press releases confirm that “the Line will have the most food autonomy in the world.”
However, Professor at UNSW Philip Oldfield and Director of Urban Planning and Design at C40 Hélène Chartier express concerns that the “length and nature of The Line’s walls could cause biodiversity issues – including for migrating birds, for whom large mirrored structures are highly dangerous.”
Additionally, Director of the Princeton Urban Imagination Center Marshall Brown notes that the “images [of the Line] project a degree of control which is very difficult to retain, especially over a period of time, even in a very autocratic society”.
As Glimpse from the Globe writes:
“Any unprecedented innovations come with uncertainties. The construction of the Line brings concerns of adverse environmental impacts, questions of the viability of the architecture […] However, this revolutionized civilization may also usher in a new wave of innovative approaches to tackling pressing contemporary issues in climate justice, renewable energy, and sustainability.”
In short, no matter what Neom’s website might promise, it’s hard to predict what will happen until the Line is built and put to the test.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Gray concrete building covered by trees, January 5, 2016. Featured Photo Credit: Danist Soh.