There’s a lot to like about Saudi Arabia’s proposed sustainable city. But it’s also 105 miles long, and that’s just the beginning of our puzzlement.
At first glance, Saudi Arabia’s “The Line” sounds like a noble effort aimed at turning one of the world’s most fossil-fuel rich nations into a haven of renewable energy and sustainability. On second glance … what?! Presenting the idea for The Line as part of the Saudi government’s NEOM project, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman touted the environmental-friendliness of the proposed 170-kilometer (105-mile) city “with zero cars, zero streets, and zero emissions.”
The crux of the idea is that urban sprawl is bad and building in a straight line is the solution. It wouldn’t exactly be one continuous city so much as a series of neighborhoods or suburbs connected by green public transit. Stretching from the Red Sea near Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the Jordanian border, The Line would pass through coastal, coastal desert, mountain, and valley terrain and be home to about a million people from all over the world.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have built wealth off their considerable natural resources have adeptly recognized that oil is not forever and branched out into creating other sources of income. The United Arab Emirates in particular have embraced tourism, with Dubai becoming an international hot destination over the last two decades. Starting with national airlines (the UAE’s Emirates and Qatar’s eponymous airways in particular), they really roll out the red carpet for well-heeled visitors and have built the cultural infrastructure to make their countries big draws. The Saudi kingdom has seen its neighbors’ success and aims to emulate it, with the 35-year-old crown prince leading the way.
The pedestrian-focused communities would allow residents to “fulfill all of (their) daily requirements within a 5-minute walk,” bin Salman said. With a proposed pedestrian layer on the surface, a service layer below where autonomous robots deliver packages and haul away refuse, and finally a lower spine layer where AI-powered ultra-high-speed transit whisks people from one community to the next, The Line sounds an awful lot like those 15-minute cities that are coming into vogue in Europe and Leonardo da Vinci dreamed of more than 500 years ago.
The prince is right, gas-powered cars do pollute and we spend (or at least did prior to the pandemic) too much time commuting. We have taken an unsustainable and destructive attitude toward nature to our own detriment. A city powered by 100% renewable energy supported by agriculture supplying locally grown and sustainable food is definitely something worth striving for.
The Saudi royal family has shown itself to be ethically challenged, to put it mildly. They’re hardly alone among their neighbors in that regard, either. Ushering in a new age of sustainable utopia would be a departure from past behavior. It could be an attempt to take the kingdom in a new direction. Or it could be a way to make people think good things about Saudi Arabia and ignore all that other messy business.
Turning our attention back to The Line, bin Salman promised that it would take only 20 minutes to go from end to end. For those doing the math, that would require a hyperloop traveling at more than 300 miles per hour without stops. Assuming people would want to stop along the way, you’d need something going even faster with a bunch of stopping, loading/unloading, and starting along the way to make the 105-mile journey in 20 minutes.
The Line’s “communities will be cognitive, powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), continuously learning predictive ways to make life easier, creating time for both residents and businesses. An estimated 90% of available data will be harnessed to enhance infrastructure capabilities far beyond the 1% typically utilized in existing smart cities,” bin Salman’s press release states. As with the entire proposal, that sounds pretty cool at first blush. But when you think about what else an autocratic regime might be doing with all that data, it sounds a bit Big Brother-y.
The geography of The Line might be well chosen to avoid the worst desert heat, which the fact sheet touts, but it’s hardly a cohesive community if it’s crossing a mountain range. (Yes, we realize other, more traditionally built cities are also pretty spread out.)
“There will be plenty of details that will be unfolded at later stages,” bin Salman said in his announcement speech. Original ideas for NEOM included a theme park with robot dinosaurs, among other interesting proposals, so we’ll see if those are still a part of the plans. All the things promised in The Line announcement are impressive and important.
The crown prince has demonstrated an affinity for da Vinci’s work before—paying $450 million for the Renaissance man’s “Salvator Mundi” painting in 2017—so maybe The Line really will come to fruition in some form close to what the announcement promised.
If it does, our bet is it will be a high-tech Potemkin village built to impress and distract the rest of the world. As the fact sheet states, 40% of the world’s population will be able to reach NEOM in less than 4 hours. Meanwhile, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s already existing capital city and home to more than 7 million people, is only getting its first public transit network system this quarter. At BOSS, sustainability and renewable energy are two of our favorite topics, but we still have a lot of questions about The Line. There are a lot of details that need to unfold to clear them up.