Image: European Space Agency / Wikimedia Commons

Sustainable development has never been so linear: Saudi Arabia’s ‘The Line’ mega city project

The “ultimate sidescraper”, 500 metres tall, 200 metres wide and 170 km long is set to stretch across the coast, desert, and mountains of Northern Saudi Arabia. Announced on 10 January 2021 by Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, “The Line” is a part of the new and ambitious Neom megaproject, aimed at developing a new special economic zone for the petrostate. 

Amongst other plans within Saudi Vision 2030 (a long-term development vision for Saudi Arabia’s diversification from the oil sector, which currently makes up 46% of GDP), Neom has been advanced as a special economic zone under central Saudi governance.   

As of August 2023, four different initiatives have fallen under the Neom umbrella. This includes Sindalah, an “incomparable” luxury island destination, Oxagon, a “state-of-the-art” research and manufacturing port location, and Trojena, a “world-class” man-made ski resort. 

The new city claims that its 9 million residents will be within a five-minute walk of their daily needs

Backed by $500 billion from the Saudi government, Saudi sovereign wealth funds, and international investors, Neom regional leadership claims that it will source 100% of its energy from renewable sources and preserve 95% of its natural environment.  

Having set the scene, we will get back to The Line. Featuring on flashy websites and promotional videos as a “revolution in civilisation”, the new city claims that its 9 million residents will be within a five-minute walk of their daily needs, be able to travel the 170km length of the city in 20 minutes with high-speed public transport, and live without roads or cars. 

Giles Pendelton, The Line’s Executive Director, states: “[The Line will] address… long commutes, urban sprawl and carbon emissions. Especially given that THE LINE will be car-free and run exclusively on renewable energy. Our lofty ambitions are to solve a lot of the world’s societal, economic and environment ills in one go. That includes urban congestion, pollution, and inequality.” 

Sourcing energy wholly sustainably, emphasising walkability, and providing pacy public transport matches the priorities and dreams of many sustainable urban planners across the globe. Furthermore, with the urban sprawl of The Line being a dramatic cut from the broadness of existing megacities, there is no need for an extensive web-like transport system, further cutting emissions and material requirements. 

You cannot build a 500-metre-tall building out of low-carbon materials

A shocking claim emphasising the potential in The Line’s efficient use of space is embedded within one of Neom’s tweets, asserting that The Line can host 9 million residents within a 34km2 area compared to Seoul, which can only host 9.97 million in 605.2km² – an area nearly 18 times larger. 

However, it is crucial to understand that, whilst The Line could very well function sustainably once fleshed out, the construction of the 34-square-kilometre structure will require a significant investment of raw materials, labour, and time. As Philip Oldfield, Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, said to Dezeen magazine, “You cannot build a 500-metre-tall building out of low-carbon materials”. Oldfield goes on to predict that the “phenomenal quantity of steel, glass, and concrete” required will produce over 1.8 billion tonnes of embodied carbon dioxide, totalling to more than four years of the UK’s entire emissions output. 

On top of that, whilst The Line provides a visionary insight into the future of city building, the fantastic size of the investment begs the question as to whether resources put into Neom may have been better off spent on “revolutionising” Saudi Arabia’s existing cities, their transport and public services. 

A whole new city in a whole new region does not answer the needs of those living in the old cities

Carlos Felipe Pardo, Senior Advisor at the New Urban Mobility Alliance, contacted NPR stating that “This solution is a little bit like wanting to live on Mars because things on Earth are very messy” and that “I’m sure several characteristics of this design could be integrated into existing cities, and it would be great to have a way of doing so”. 

Therefore, I would argue that the innovative views of those constructing Neom and The Line could be perceived as somewhat admirable in their ambition. Yet ultimately, the visible focus on publicity, lack of information as to planning, and pursuit of grandeur over simplicity lend me to viewing the project as more of an inspiring stunt than a deliverable attempt at sustainable city building. 

Prioritising renewables, public transport centrality, and walkable city planning are goals key to climate success – only unfortunately Neom’s efforts may be misguided. A whole new city in a whole new region does not answer the needs of those living in the old cities.


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