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20 January 2021updated 03 Sep 2021 7:35am

The one-dimensional city

Saudi Arabia unveils its half-trillion-dollar plan for a new linear utopia. But is the idea anything new?     

By Allison Arieff

The 2013 sci-fi movie Snowpiercer reduces the Earth’s population to the passengers of a speeding train. The poor and hungry live in the rear cars, fighting for scraps, and have only gossip to suggest that anyone lives any differently.

But it is revealed to the viewer that things get progressively more upscale in the cars ahead. At the front, influencer types sip champagne in fur coats. Every class echelon is segregated by train carriage, until the poor are exposed to the rich and chaos breaks loose.

The trajectory of Snowpiercer is one possibility for “the Line”, a mega-project announced on 11 January by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

The Line is a city, 105 miles long and a short walk across – or, as the press release says, a “belt of hyper-connected future communities, without cars and roads”. It forms part of the Saudi government’s half-trillion-dollar plan for Neom, a still greater project to build a new economic zone on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.

Neom is also “an accelerator of human progress and a vision of what a new future might look like”. Neom has a lot on its mind, from the climate crisis to air pollution to traffic accidents to the time everyone spends commuting, and it sees the Line as the solution: “a car- and street-free community where all residents will have nature and all daily needs within a five-minute walk”.

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What we do not know is how everything can be five minutes away if the city is 105 miles long, or how a community can be fully walkable in areas where daily temperatures exceed 35°C for four months of the year. Seamless travel seems contingent on successful execution of Hyperloop – a 700mph train that travels in a vacuum tube – which is unlikely to happen.

This is not the first time that someone has proposed a linear city. In 1882, the Spanish engineer Arturo Soria y Mata planned a 35 mile-long “Ciudad Lineal” around Madrid. In 1910, Edgar Chambless proposed “Roadtown” in the US, which he claimed would free residents from the “noise, dirt, disease, suffocation, confusion and crime” of city life. The Soviet Union flirted with the concept.

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The Line shows us that what is presented as innovative has often been tried before. But in the past few decades this tendency has become even more prevalent, thanks to what consulting firms and Silicon Valley call “beginner’s mind”.

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This principle holds that the lack of experience is actually an advantage, since it helps generate new, creative ideas and catalyse conversation. Innovation consultancies such as Ideo take pride in the fact that they, as Ideo’s former chief executive has put it, “approach problems unencumbered by expertise”.

I don’t know anyone on the team that created the Line, but I suspect they sold the concept as an original one. The idea that consultants can solve a problem that has existed for decades, unburdened by knowledge of history or context, is puzzling. But it is rampant in today’s innovation industrial complex.

The impulse to view intractable urban issues as engineering problems to be solved is understandable. But cities are unpredictable, and full of people facing problems that are difficult to solve. As the anthropologist Shannon Mattern has written, this paradigm of “the city as computer, appeals because it frames the messiness of urban life as programmable and subject to rational order”.

Is anything less subject to rational order than urban life? And isn’t it that unpredictability of cities that makes them so intriguing to us? No one visits Rome or Rabat because they’re efficient; I’d argue people flock to places like this precisely because they cultivate chaos. Is there a place more in need of people who understand context and history than a city? 

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden