The Line is a proposed smart city in Saudi Arabia. I’ll get into the specifics shortly but, yes, this proposed planned city is structured as a long line, about 100 miles long, stretching from the coast of the Red Sea into the upper valley of the far east of the country.
The city — at least the plan for it — is quite remarkable: no roads, no cars, only walkable boulevards, and green spaces. And underneath all that, a high-speed transportation and logistics network. All energy will be 100% renewable and each mixed-used community will be self-sufficient, purposely designed to provide everything residents would need within a five-minute walk.
“The Line” at Neom, Saudi Arabia
It’s a whole new approach to the increasingly popular concept of a “15-minute city”, an urban design of decentralized areas where all residents can live their damn lives within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their homes: work, groceries, civic engagement, entertainment, etc. Needless to say, cutting out daily automobile commutes and structuring daily life around tight-knit communities boosts happiness and reduces carbon emissions. In many ways, it’s our destiny: we likely won’t survive otherwise. (Damn, sorry.)
In Paris, they’re all for this approach, with particular consideration to our post-pandemic world. And in Sweden? They scoff at a 15-minute city, y’all. Leadership in the land of Volvo and IKEA are working on “1-minute” cities with a program called Street Moves, where local communities have influence over the layouts of their own streets and urban design decisions are made through workshops built upon hyper-local participation and responsibility: for example, how much space is used for parking versus parks. Spoiler alert: death to parking lots!
And this is all really awesome in my opinion. But I’m spoiled. For the last 20 years, I’ve been living in New York City, one of the world’s few truly “walkable cities.” And while walkable cities, as a study of sociologists and designers, is nothing new, the very concept does actually butt up against the $9 trillion US automotive industry (estimated by 2030) and one could argue the very bedrock of capitalism and proletariat subjugation. When your needs are met more easily, when residents can reclaim the rights to their city, when you collaborate directly with your neighbors, well, that ain’t nothing. And it sure ain’t whatever the hell we doing now.
But back to The Line, back to NEOM. That’s the name of this smart city/city-state in Saudi Arabia as well as the company founded to make all of this a reality. The name comes from a combination of the Greek word for “new” and the Arabic term for “future.” And they got a pretty cool TV commercial if you’re into that sort of thing — check it out:
Smart Cities and the Climate Crisis
It’s not difficult to imagine the difference between retrofitting a city the size of Paris and building a new series of decentralized urban areas from scratch out in the desert. One of those is more sustainable than the other. But building something new and cool is, well, so much cooler than trying to fix what we got. And our friends in Saudi Arabia have been building cities and literally terraforming for years.
As we sloooooowly come to realize the extent of our climate crisis, terraforming has grown in popularity. And not just in the Middle East. The Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow recently launched a postgraduate course (called The Terraforming) to research how the Earth could be terraformed to reverse the impacts of climate change. I mean, yeah, sure, if we’re past the point of fixing things, let’s try and figure out how to live in the mess we’ve made.
And while we’re at it, let’s get weird! Why not? Build cities on the ocean, grow jungles in the desert, erect fully indoor biosphere towers we never have to leave!
Neom detailed some rather ambitious, if not outlandish technologies they’re planning to build on this “virgin” land in the desert, including a huge artificial moon (ok, cool), glow-in-the-dark beaches (cool, I think?), flying drone-powered taxis (really, we need this?), robotic butlers to clean the homes of residents (bigger Roombas, fine.), and a Jurassic Park-style attraction featuring animatronic lizards. (Yes, hell yes!)
As you may know, Jurassic Park is literally my favorite movie of all time, so this is very exciting to me. But also I’m familiar enough with the damn movie to remember the line from chaos theorist Ian Malcolm so brilliantly delivered by Jeff Goldblum: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Is our future dependant on projects like The Line? Will these master-planned, smart cities actually save us? Is the solution to design the cities of our dreams out in the desert instead of rehabilitating the cities we’re currently fleeing? And, well, this begs another question, which, like, I mean, can we even pull this off? A project of NEOM’s scale — one million residents in a $500 billion mega-city lolz — comes with a wide spectrum of controversies, beyond the implications of artificial moons and Glo-sand beaches (ok, yeah, I’m into it.).
The Dark Side of “The Line” at Neom: Displacing the Indigenous Huwaitat Tribe
But not even an iridescent seaside cannot cover up the very real and dark aspect to all this development: Saudi leadership and developers are displacing some 20,000 people, members of the indigenous Huwaitat tribe. One of the tribal leaders, Abdul Rahim, a public critic of the project, posted a number of videos in April, saying very plainly in one: “Neom is being built on our blood, on our bones.” He was killed shortly thereafter. Saudi authorities issued a statement that claimed he’d been killed in a shootout with regional security forces.
Let’s be clear here: there is no such thing as “virgin” land. And sadly, Abdul Rahim joins a vast number of individuals murdered for defending their homes and way of life against invaders and displacers, aka “developers.”
Obviously, there’s a lot to consider here when thinking about NEOM, smart cities, terraforming, and the future of how we live in a post-pandemic global climate crisis. This article only scratches the surface. And quite frankly that damn TV commercial scares the shit out of me — the matter-of-fact approach, the confidence, the entitlement of Mohammed bin Salman (Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and Chairman of the NEOM Company Board of Directors) effuses when announcing this project, which is really just terraforming, the very definition of which is to “transform so as to resemble the earth, especially so that it can support human life.”
I’m sorry, this is something we’re supposed to be excited about? Making earth more earth-like? It’s wild: how far we’ve come, only to return to our most basic needs.
Smart Cities, Surveillance, and Artificial Intelligence
I’ll conclude with one more thought, one more term to keep an eye out for: “cognitive communities.” Our future cities, places like The Line, are being built upon a supportive layer of artificial intelligence and the so-called Internet of Things, a cute way to say that everything is connected: all your devices, your doorways, your face, your vaccination status, everything about you and your environment will be collected and cross-referenced in databases so vast and so interconnected I struggle to imagine the true scale of all of it, but, yeah… It’s happening, dude.
At NEOM, they’re damn proud of this aspect, bragging that 90% of data gathered will be used and analyzed to completely eliminate the “digital divide.” And we’re not talking about giant Roombas. AI-powered communities go beyond goddamn robot butlers. These systems will learn and they will make adjustments labeled as “efficiencies” that will surely integrate every aspect of your personal, professional, and commercial life. What happens when the system knows best? We all may as well just change our name to Dave.
If we’re shaping nature and the environment, if we’re building new cities and new communities within them, we’re also creating new paradigms within which we live. Mass surveillance is already widely accepted as a means of convenience. We allow our location to be shared because it makes it easier to navigate. We share our purchase history because it’s nice to Buy Now with one click. The safety we feel with cameras in our doorbells is a shiny prize twice the cost.
With advancements in technology that provide comfort and benefit, we must remember there’s always a trade-off. There is no virgin land. There is no camera without facial recognition. There is no smart city without the data of its residents.
With NEOM, and every master-planned metropolis, there is a line that will be toed… and once that line is crossed, there’s no going back.
But the real bummer is — sorry! — it’s already too late.
The Future of NEOM
Sure, critics of The Line scoff at the scale of the project and its “build it and they will come” approach to a master-planned city in the desert. A recent article in the NYT by Robert F. Worth, asks the question, why would people want to live in The Line: “Would she even consider moving to a remote desert city, to be subject to 24/7 surveillance and the whims of a murderous prince?”
But as soon as 2050, it’s projected that many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and India will be so hot as to be completely unlivable. Stepping outside in the summer in Kolkata or Delhi will be a lethal risk. On the conservative side, scientists estimate we’ll have 100 million climate refugees by 2050.
So, when choosing either life in a smart city like NEOM built on the blood and bones of the Huwaitat by high-tech conquistadors, their boots snug in the stirrups of surveillance capitalism, or, on the other hand, certain death in the vast, uninhabitable deserts of our now rotten earth… I mean, that’s no kind of choice at all.
You don’t have to be a wealthy Prince of Saudi Arabia to understand that. But if you are? Well then, I guess building a smart city out in the middle of the desert ain’t such a bad idea after all.