Saudi Arabia’s plan to build a linear city stretching out into the middle of the desert has perhaps gotten even dumber.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that the kingdom’s The Line project—a proposed million-person, 170-kilometer-long city in the remote portion of the country’s Tabuk provinceing the Red Sea—is getting a redesign. Instead of the initial concept of building a long single-file line of buildings connected by a high-speed train, several anonymous sources working on the project told Bloomberg the plan is now to build two parallel 1,600-foot-tall skyscrapers that will stretch for dozens of miles.
The Line is just one of several components of the Neom project, the $500 billion endeavors spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to turn a sparsely inhabited part of the country into a world-class financial, tourism, and tech hub.
Salman has described The Line as a utopian attempt to liberate city dwellers from long car commutes and all the pollution and traffic deaths that come with them. Instead, it would be an ultra-walkable paradise where all essential services would be a five-minute jaunt away and the longest intracity trip wouldn’t exceed 20 minutes
“We need to transform the concept of a conventional city into that of a futuristic one,” he said in January 2021 when The Line was first unveiled, describing it as a city “with zero cars, zero streets and zero carbon emissions.”
It all sounds pretty great.
But if history and free market urban theory are any guide, the city will be a dismal, expensive failure. Utopian projects to design new cities on virgin land rarely succeed.
“The trouble is: Who wants to be first?” Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, told CityLab back in April.
“New city projects often start by highlighting their nice infrastructure,” he said, specifically referencing Neom as an example. “But nobody will move to a city with a good sewer system but no jobs. Historically, infrastructure follows the market, not the other way around.”
In short, people don’t really want to move to places where there’s nothing for them to do.
Rather, cities are labor markets that primarily exist to connect lots of workers with lots of places to work. The upshot of that intense intermingling of capital and labor is that new ideas can spread more quickly and production can become more specialized than if those urban workers and firms were distributed across smaller communities.
These “agglomeration” effects explain why cities, once they get started, tend to grow and attract more people—even though that growth brings with it congestion, pollution, and other problems of urban living The Line is supposed to cure.
The trouble is that agglomeration is hard to kickstart. Some marriage of geography, resources, and preexisting industry is usually needed to get things going.
Most of the wholly invented cities that have stuck around are new national capitals like Washington, DC, Canberra, or Brasilia, which bring their own initial job market of bureaucrats and politicos with them. Even then, they tend to survive in spite of the elaborate urban planning that went into trying to make them look a certain way.
This brings us to the second problem with Saudi Arabia’s The Line: It’s a big long line.
No other city in the world is shaped like that, and for good reason.
The agglomerative effects that cities thrive on can only happen when businesses and workers can cluster together or reach each other within reasonable travel times. This is why cities in capitalist countries all have a similar development pattern: an ultra-dense urban core surrounded by lower-and lower-density neighborhoods radiating outward.
The central city is in the most demand because it has the quickest access to the rest of the urban area. That demand pushes up land prices, which developers respond to by building taller buildings that use less land. As you move outward, access to the rest of the city gets harder, demand and land prices fall, and densities start to fall with them.
This “density gradient” is a constant observable fact in all but the most regulated urban areas in the world.
The Line, at best, would have an incredibly inefficient version of this density gradient.
One could imagine a dense center on the line where homes and businesses are in the most demand, with lower-density wings on either side. But if there is such demand for living or working in the center of the line to justify that densities are that high, that would imply there’s also demand for living or working immediately above or below the center of this linear city. But the whole design requires that land be left vacant.
The latest rumored design for The Line—two 1,600-foot-tall buildings stretching for miles—gets things even more mixed up by assuming demand for density would be nearly uniform across the line. But obviously, more people would rather live in the central parts of the building with quicker access to more locations, than on the edges where it will take a lot longer to reach a lot more stuff.
Lastly, The Line is an unworkable utopian idea because there will be no room for dynamism and change. It’s dubious that the designers of the city will perfectly predict the best place to put every possible business or home. Even if they could, unique people with their own interests, needs, and desires moving around will change what’s demanded where.
An influx of families into one part of the Line might generate a need for additional homes and schools and fewer pharmacies and nightclubs. If The Line sticks to its exquisite master plan, it will soon get overcrowded housing in one location and underutilized retail elsewhere.
Even comparatively far less planned American cities have suffered a version of this problem during and after the pandemic.
Low-density, residential-only zoning prevents apartments or commercial buildings from being added in suddenly high-demand suburbs, where prices are spiking. Meanwhile, dense downtowns have a glut of underutilized office space that zoning likewise prevents from being turned into retail or residential developments.
And American urban planning is practically anarchic compared to what is envisioned for The Line.
Of course, one doesn’t need technical urban theory to understand why The Line is a dumb idea. Every pizza restaurant that sells radial pies rather than a long line of single slices is grasping a fundamental truth of geometry that has eluded the Saudi monarchy.
Preliminary construction work on The Line started in October. The first residents are expected to move there in 2024.