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Visualizing Peace(ful Cities): THE LINE in NEOM

    ‘Why anyone would want to move there, and why a city should be shaped like a strand of capellini, is anyone’s guess.’

    Robert F. Worth, ‘The Dark Reality Behind Saudi Arabia’s Utopian Dreams’, The New York Times Magazine

    This mammoth strand of capellini is The LINE, a futuristic, linear city that is under construction in the Tabuk Province of Saudi Arabia, beginning on the country’s northwest shore and spanning inland through the desert for 170 kilometers (106 miles). The city is envisioned as a paradigm of sustainable, urban living due to its vertically stacked design, called ‘Zero Gravity Urbanism’, which reduces the footprint of infrastructure, removes the need for cars and streets, and prevents sprawl. Inspired by the 15-Minute City, all services and amenities will be available within a five minute walk, and a high speed train will travel the distance of The LINE in only 20 minutes. This form of high-density urbanism will enable nine million people to live on only 34 square kilometers (13 square miles). For reference, New York City (with a similar population size) has a footprint twenty-three times that of The LINE. The entire city will be contained between two parallel structures, each of which have mirrored exteriors, reflecting the panoramic desert mountains, and limiting the city’s disruption of the natural landscape. In the promotional video below, the camera flies through a digital rendering of The LINE’s vast atrium, showing gardens suspended in the air, digital facades, a young boy playing with a robot in an ultra-modern, glass apartment. With the omnipresence of unrecognizable urban forms, you could be watching a trailer for the film adaptation of a YA dystopian novel. 

    Promotional video by NEOM via YouTube

    The LINE is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s overhaul of Saudi Arabia’s economy (by investing in new industries to replace oil) and conservative society (by relaxing the stringent enforcement of Islam), to become a leader in sustainable innovation, industry, tourism, and urban development. NEOM, of which The LINE is a part, is the nucleus of the monarchy’s strategy, as both the primary site of intervention, and a symbol of Saudi pre-eminence, which the Crown Prince has allegedly referred to as his pyramids. All located in the same desert region, NEOM is made up of Oxagon, a hub for innovation floating in the Red Sea, Trojena a luxury, tourism destination in the mountains, and The LINE, where the majority of the population will reside. A fourth region of NEOM, Sindalah, a luxury island destination in the Red Sea’, has recently been announced.

    NEOM has recruited a huge team of experts from around the world to design The LINE’s distinct typology and pioneer the various technological advancements necessary to achieve the Crown Prince’s vision. The LINE’s first phase of construction alone, set to be completed by 2030, will cost £265 billion. Although all three components of NEOM have unfamiliar typologies, The LINE has garnered the most attention online due to the circulation of trendy promotional videos and the particularly futuristic design.  With a cognitive capacity (urban forms that metamorphosize based on user needs), flying cars, and robot maids, it is entertaining to visualize this ‘postmodern ecotopia‘. But is it actually possible to build? Or do we have the next Fyre Festival on our hands? ‘The greatest party that never happened’. I mean city. 

    Utopia or dystopia?

    The biggest criticism leveled at The LINE is that it is a greenwashing tactic, impressively comprehensive, but deceitful all the same. In addition to NEOM, Saudi Arabia has produced Vision 2030, an overarching framework similar to the Sustainable Development Goals. Its robust website includes quantitative data, progress tracking, and overviews of all of its ‘Vision Realization Programs’, which clearly aims to legitimize Saudi Arabia’s commitment to sustainable development to some degree. However, on digging through NEOM’s website – besides beautiful digital renderings, grandeous blurbs about the ‘civilizational revolution’ The LINE will lead, and headshots of smiling executive directors – it is difficult to find any concrete information on how the technology being promised is possible (especially on such a large scale) or how far along the design/construction process even is. 

    Pictures have surfaced of excavators digging trenches in the desert, but it looks like any other construction site. NEOM has emphasized that The LINE will function on 100% renewable energy and ‘95% of land will be preserved for nature’. But what is the footprint of construction? What is the footprint of manufacturing all of the prefabricated modules and then transporting them through the desert? Why build a megacity to preserve 95% of nature, when you could preserve 100% by leaving the untouched desert alone and reusing and reimagining cities where people already live? Furthermore, if this ecotopia can be built, what about consumerist values? Won’t people still want their Amazon packages delivered to the door of their green, smart, homes?

    Besides violence against nature, violence against humans also lurks under the humanitarian claims of The LINE. The region has been inhabited by a tribal community of thousands for many centuries. Not only have they been displaced by the project, but tribesmen have been killed for protesting their eviction. NEOM’s focus on attracting people from outside Saudi Arabia to inhabit their utopia is perplexing when looking at the county’s human rights issues, monarchical and religious institutions, and existing cities in need of intervention. The LINE could become the ultimate gated community, while human rights violations and religious oppression go unaddressed elsewhere. Furthermore, with enough wealth and technology The LINE could become a monument of Saudi innovation and human progress, but not a living city, as it lacks a sense of place. Sense of place is inextricably linked with inner peace and community cohesion and emerges from urban environments that recognize, rather than erase, their historical memory, distinct culture, and intrinsic connection to nature. There can be no peaceful city when its inhabitants do not feel a sense of belonging. 

    There is a peculiar sense, while reading about The LINE, that the designers are living on another planet, where society’s systemic issues can be solved by going out to the desert and starting from scratch. Even though I have been highly critical of The LINE, I think it is a valuable case study, since the absurdity of its scale and promised technology highlights that ‘ecotopia’ is a problematic default for visualizing peace. If only we could divert the enormous amount of brain power and money going into The LINE and direct it towards real cities housing real people, to make these more peaceful and peace-promoting places. 

    What do you think? 

    • Do you think The LINE is a greenwashing campaign, or do you think that the project’s sustainability claims are genuine?
    • How ‘utopian’ or ‘dystopian’ does this project seem to you? What kind of future for human co-existence and sustainable living does it visualise in your view?
    • Do you think these funds should be funnelled into pre-existing cities, or do you think The LINE, envisioned as an urban laboratory, can benefit cities everywhere?
    • Do you think new, futuristic, urban architecture has the capacity to change discourse and normative behavior that can either promote or threaten peace, on all levels from inner peace to international diplomacy?
    • How ‘peaceful’ or not do you think you would feel, living in a futuristic city designed from scratch in the middle of nowhere? What role can an existing city’s history play in making it feel more or less peaceful? How connected do you think peace is to place?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy ‘Visualising Peaceful Cities‘, ‘The Invisible Urbicide Project‘ and ‘Green Mosul‘.

    Eleni Spiliotes, December 2022


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