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Saudi Arabia is trying to build the largest linear city ever. It's a visionary but flawed concept, urban planners say.

Polly Thompson   

Saudi Arabia is trying to build the largest linear city ever. It's a visionary but flawed concept, urban planners say.
  • Saudi Arabia has embarked on its ambitious project to build a city in the shape of a line.
  • While the concept of linear urban design has existed since the 19th century, few have attempted it.

Saudi Arabia is constructing a huge mirrored city in the desert.

The Line, as it has been named, is actually a megacity consisting of two skyscrapers that was originally intended to stretch out for 170km, with the aim to eventually house nine million people.

Officials have called it an "architectural masterpiece" and a "revolution in urban living."

Although recent reports suggest the plans have been scaled back, the 2.4km still due to be built will be the largest linear city in existence if it is completed.

As a concept, linear living is nothing new.

"It is ambitious but hardly revolutionary," Anirban Adhya, a Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Lawrence Technological University, told Business Insider.

Following the Industrial Revolution, many urban planners looked to alternative city layouts to tackle booming populations.

The Spanish architect Arturo Soria is widely credited with designing the first linear city, "La Ciudad Lineal," in 1882 on the outskirts of Madrid. Around forty years later, in 1924, renowned Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier offered another radical alternative with his "Ville Radieuse," a linear, ordered metropolis full of green space.

The Soviet urbanist Mikhail Okhitovich was sent to a gulag in 1930 for his "economically crippling" proposal to transform the city of Magnitogorsk into eight ribbon-like strips converging on a factory.

"It has been common for urban planners to argue for a new future as a reaction to what they claim to be an 'unsustainable;' existing situation of their time. The Line in Neom is no different," said Adhya.

But revolutionary or not, is the idea of building a dense metropolis in the shape of a line a good one?

Compared to traditional layouts, the benefits of linear cities include efficient public transport, ready access to nature, and a more egalitarian lifestyle. Theoretically endless, they can easily extend as populations expand.

Proposals for The Line echo many of these promises.

The project's website presents the city as a solution to mass urbanization and the climate crisis, depicting it as a sustainable carless utopia that will preserve 95% of the region's land.

Neom's designers claim that all essential services will be accessible within five minutes, and nature will be just a two-minute walk away. AI-powered technology throughout the city will enhance sustainability and maximize residents' life expectancy, they say.

"There is no right shape for a city — they typically evolve over time, based on natural, cultural, transportation, political, and economic factors," Mona Lovgreen, a partner at Canadian architecture firm DIALOG, told BI.

She believes that if designed correctly, The Line's linear form would make it accessible and facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources along its entire length.

Though she said its goals may be exaggerated, Lovgreen believes the vision of The Line is admirable.

"It challenges us to rethink urban design and discover new ways to make cities efficient, livable, and sustainable."

It could set a trailblazing example for how to use AI to improve sustainability and energy efficiency, something US urban planners should replicate, Lovgreen added.

The focus on convenience and services being within reach also shows promise, Adhya said, pointing to successful examples already underway in cities like Paris and Portland.

In "smaller chunks and pieces," the linear structure of The Line could work, Adhya said.

'Bland and monotonous'

While some practical sides of the structure have potential, all experts BI spoke to saw fundamental issues with the lived experience inside linear cities.

"The Line could be a fascinating place to visit and experience, but I'm still unsure of whether humans are designed to live in such a rigid and prescriptive structure," Lovgreen said.

The Line is formed of modules that can each house 80,000 people, able to move about through a horizontal and vertical transport system.

"Compared to other urban designs like grid layout, radial layout, ring layout, or some combination of these, human experience in a strictly linear urban development can lack interest and variation," explained Adhya.

"Certain parts of the city could become too far and segregated."

The repetition of infrastructure and kit-of parts would be "bland and monotonous," lacking the unique character that other cities offer, said Lovgreen.

"Ultimately, the psychological impact of living in such a regimented environment may affect residents' well-being," she told BI.

This type of structure is not only monotonous, but can limit social cohesion, according to John Gold, a professor of Urban Historical Geography at Oxford Brookes University.

"Linear cities are an extreme form of urban dispersal — community development and social cohesion still need centrality," Gold told BI.

Another challenge in Neom's design is its over-reliance on technology and the public transport system, experts said. If something went wrong, the entire system would crumble, they warned.

"Most cities have network redundancy, where multiple options are available if a specific connection or intersection is blocked. A linear city may not have this capability," explained Lovgreen.

Lastly, in spite of The Line's proclamations of sustainability, its huge mirrored walls could be harmful ecologically both in terms of unnecessary heat gain within the structure as well as being detrimental for the migratory flight paths of billions of birds.

But the big issue, according to Gold, is "who would actually want to live in such a 'city'?"

"These schemes, and the Saudi one is a classic example, map out a hi-tech utopian future but never engage with people as they really are. In my opinion, linear city schemes are best left as design exercises for third-year architectural students," Gold said.


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