What will the cities of tomorrow look like? A trip to Saudi Arabia might offer answers

October 9, 2023

The idea of building a new city from scratch – and leaving the problems of our old cities in the past – isn’t new. Stroll through Brasília, Brazil’s orderly capital, or visit the geometric gardens of Chandigarh in northern India, and you’ll see a modernist dream of the perfect city realised in carefully planned plazas and streets. But impressive as they may be, Brasília and Chandigarh are not getting the last word on urban living. 

With the latest technology opening more possibilities and a new generation of planners conjuring their own visions of urban bliss, the race to create the perfect metropolis is still on. And Saudi Arabia has recently emerged as a new contender for building the city of tomorrow, with audacious projects like NEOM and King Salman Park. On our recent trip to Riyadh for the Cityscape Global Conference, we got a glimpse of what the future might look like. 

Rewriting the urban planning playbook

Urban planning principles have evolved over millennia, from orderly grids of Ancient Greek cities to boulevards and public squares of 19th-century European capitals. Still, most of today’s cities share a set of familiar characteristics. With massive budgets and land access, projects in Saudi Arabia can afford to reject those legacy rules and start fresh. But does this mean they’re doing things better? 

Perhaps the most extreme departure from traditional city planning is NEOM’s The Line. Historically, settlements formed on favourable terrains and close to water access. Then, they organically grew outwards, creating a roughly spherical city. The Line defiantly rejects all these rules. It will stretch 170 kilometres at a mere 200 meters wide, forming a long, narrow corridor between two mirrored walls. One end will dip in the Red Sea, but the vast majority of the proposed city cuts across the desert and arid wilderness away from water and food sources. 

This radical adaptation of shape is designed so that a single high-speed train line can serve the needs of the projected nine million population. A tempting vision: no cars, no traffic jams, no inconvenient train line changes. Or at least, that’s the idea. In practice, as one mathematician has calculated, the high-speed train would need to have 86 stops for every resident to live within walking distance of a station, yet only four stops are planned. The logistics of transportation for those living far from a station remain unclear, but it seems that air taxis will likely be involved

Because of its linear design, you won’t find a city centre in The Line. Without a natural focal point, urban living becomes decentralised… possibly democratising real estate? The project’s website promises that "residents will have access to all daily essentials within a five-minute walk," perhaps diminishing the importance of location in determining home prices. In a world where high-income neighbourhoods often benefit from better infrastructure and schools, a city with equitable access to resources feels as revolutionary as it is needed. 

Unlocking a new dimension of public space

Sky-soaring cities aren’t new. But Saudi Arabia’s approach to vertical living might be. Today’s skyscrapers often limit public activity to the ground levels, with the higher floors reserved for private offices and apartments. In contrast, The Line sets out to pepper public spaces and recreational areas all the way up its 500-metre height. Computer-generated imagery paints a picture of levitating rivers, sky gardens, and elevated walkways that are open to all. 

Whether the architects can fully realise this ambitious vision in practice remains uncertain. But the principle – rethinking high-rise living as interconnected, vibrant layers – could help The Line avoid the emptiness that haunts many modern downtowns and financial centres on the weekends.

Gardens in the desert

Saudi Arabia boldly takes on the age-old problem of cities: access to nature. For example, The Line's long and narrow shape will place all residents close to the city’s edge (a 2-minute walk, to be precise). Beyond its borders, untouched desert, mountain, and valley landscapes await for recreation. Meanwhile, back in the country’s capital, Riyadh, construction is underway for King Salman Park – set to be the world’s biggest urban park. Far from simply being a green space, the one-million-tree garden will also be a centre for culture and arts, integrating various types of leisure. 

Compared to most modern cities, this proximity to natural beauty is truly impressive. But there are serious sustainability concerns around such plans. In the case of The Line, the 500-metre-tall structure might cut off animal migration routes, while the mirrored surface of the buildings could be dangerous to birds. We also don’t know how people will interact with the landscape. A harsh, arid environment hardly seems an optimal setting for a family day out. Will walking trails crisscross the desert? Or will the natural habitats be artificially altered for our pleasure? 

King Salman Park raises questions too. The viability of maintaining vast green spaces in the hot desert climate, where temperatures might reach 60 degrees Celsius in the coming decades, is dubious. Greening the cities is one thing, actual green design is another. There’s no doubt that bringing more nature into our lives is a problem that future cities will need to solve – but Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem to have fully cracked the answer yet. 

Is this the age of uniformity? 

Overall, NEOM's designs reveal a tendency towards uniformity. The Line will consist of Lego-like modules ‘to maximise compatibility and drive down construction costs,’ as the website explains. Another NEOM project, the industrial city of Oxagon, features identical floating platforms shaped like a perfect octagon. It’s worth mentioning that NEOM claims to rely heavily on AI in its designs, which could further result in a homogenised aesthetic.

While this modular approach may control costs, it risks creating sterile environments devoid of character. After all, it’s often the idiosyncrasies of place that make our favourite cities vibrant and unique. And if we take that idea further, will the sameness of space also attract only one type of resident? Are those projects at risk of losing out on the diversity of demographics that we find in other global cities? Time will tell if urban richness can thrive within these regimented designs. Right now, it certainly seems that NEOM's meticulous plans allow little wiggle room for future residents to shape their own city. 

The city planner’s dilemma 

Masterminding the ideal city in every detail is a tempting prospect for any urban planner. After all, unchecked development bred many of the problems our cities struggle with today, and projects like The Line and King Salman Park offer more-or-less convincing solutions. But is computer-rendered perfection the answer? As placemaking experts, we can safely say the answer is no. Good urbanism requires relinquishing at least some of the control. The future of our cities should be shaped through collaboration between placemakers and residents, a careful balance of structure and organic growth.

Naturally, it’s too early to tell if Saudi Arabia’s emerging cities will fully realise their futuristic visions. But once the glitz and glitter settle, it might become all too clear that building thriving communities takes as much skill and care as growing gardens in the desert. To succeed, the cities of tomorrow must make space for communities amidst bold blueprints. At the end of the day, people make cities. 

Contact our Chief Growth Officer, Crispin Reed, to learn more about our insights: crispin.reed@hunter-design.co.uk

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