Caption: a computer rendition of The Line produced by Neom. Courtesy of Architectural Digest.
Can you 3D print a city? Can you look at modern cities and say “that’s enough - we have to start anew” as if throwing away a used soda can? Saudi Arabia’s shiny new megaproject certainly seems to think so. Announced in 2021 as part of Neom, The Line is part of Saudi’s ongoing exploration of sustainability solutions. The 170-kilometer-long horizontal skyscraper will sit at the base of the Red Sea in the Tabuk Province, expected for inauguration in 2030. The Line has faced both criticism and praise as an innovative urbanization strategy and an ecological nightmare. Centering “zero-gravity urbanism,” or three-dimensional urban development, the project aims to build a net zero “smart city” that addresses sprawl and waste. However you slice it, The Line is wildly ambitious and, according to some, ahead of its time. A number of questions come to mind, however, that seriously challenge its long-term feasibility. Despite its overproduced computer animations and alluring elevator pitch, The Line is a risky and needless undertaking, and will likely be a waste of resources instead of a weapon for the future.
In the first place, The Line is conceptually inflexible and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s pitched as a 160-kilometer elevator with a 20-minute-long commute between its two ends. One of its main tenets is preventing excessive urban growth, an issue in modern day cities. Sprawling results in low-density, car-reliant neighborhoods that disrupt ecosystems and cause pollution. Suburbs are shown to affect mental health, increasing loneliness and isolation. They also increase a city’s footprint substantially. For example, Baltimore’s population grew 20% from 1970 to 1990, whereas its urban area grew 90%. This growth is unsustainable and detrimental. The Line attempts to remedy this by running in the opposite direction: it’s modeled on 5 minute pockets, walking-distance communities. By eliminating all infrastructure and roads, The Line will encourage citizens to interact with their local environment. However, would this hyper-efficiency not also lead citizens to feel isolated? When people are pushed beyond their comfort zones, they are challenged to build stronger links with one another. This behavior is restricted in a bubble. The convenience and comfort of such an environment will create closed-off social pockets, not to mention the psychological impact of living three-dimensionally.
The plan becomes even more ridiculous in terms of culture and lifestyle. How will protests be carried out? How will cultural events, festivals and gatherings be held? The advantage of a traditional downtown is its rich heritage and abundance of public places that bring people together. In a linear city, such togetherness will be impaired. In such an environment, it’s interesting to consider how the culture would branch off and evolve. Since all other resources - food, water, healthcare - will have to be imported from elsewhere, could the culture itself not change as well? And in this vein, could The Line really be considered sustainable, if it doesn’t directly produce the resources it needs? All these challenges would make The Line an administrational nightmare - traffic jam? Population growth? Long commutes? Health emergencies? Maintenance? In short, the natural obstacles of modern cities would be magnified under a line.
The reason humans live in cities is because they adapt to our behaviors. As populations grow and stagnate, they morph along with us. The organic nature of modern cities allows us to operate efficiently, if imperfectly. While The Line is an important test run for the success of sustainable technology, bets are still in the air as to whether it’s worth the tremendous construction cost and human labor required. Whatever the outcome, the project will shine light on how to improve and appreciate the cities we already have. At the very least, it’ll confirm that innovation isn’t always a straight line.
Mishchenko, Taras. “The Wall City: The Line Project of the City of the Future Was Presented in Saudi Arabia • Mezha.Media.” Mezha.media, 26 July 2022, mezha.media/en/2022/07/26/the-wall-city-the-line-project-of-the-city-of-the-future-was-presented-in-saudi-arabia/.
Rafferty, John. “The Problem of Urban Sprawl.” Saving Earth | Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/urban-sprawl.
Thomas, Merlyn, and Vibeke Venema. “Neom: What’s the Green Truth behind a Planned Eco-City in the Saudi Desert?” BBC News, 22 Feb. 2022, www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-59601335.