From time immemorial, rulers have built new cities to satisfy everything from security to vanity. Some of those cities crumbled into obsolescence; others blossomed into capitals of legend. The recipe for success remains elusive, but that hasn’t stopped successive generations from trying. And if recent moves are any gauge, the 21st century will see a surge of new and often grandiose plans.
The most recent and among the highest profile comes from the deserts of the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman recently unveiled plans to spend upwards of $500 billion to construct his city of the future, Neom. Like rulers before him, bin Salman’s motives are a mix of vanity and pragmatism. Since the middle of the last century, Saudi Arabia has floated on a sea of oil, and the royal family has accumulated massive wealth. That formula worked for decades, but with a burgeoning population and the price of oil plateauing, the country is facing an uncertain future. Neighboring Dubai and other emirates have surged ahead with their own imagined metropolises, spending hundreds of billions for new towers, museums, reclaimed land, and planned communities. Many of those have drawn people, attention and business, although Masdar, a planned satellite of Abu Dhabi that was supposed to be an exemplar of a carbon-neutral future, has burned through billions with little to show.
The plan for Neom is to be bigger, newer, and more technologically advanced than anything that has come before. Early promises include a pledge to use renewable energy and integrate robotics into the DNA of the city. Promising a “civilizational leap for humanity,” bin Salman has suggested that the final city could have more robots than humans and be a model for how humanity lives in the next century when population begins to decline globally.
Given that Neom is now little more than barren acreage and the fertile imagination of the crown price backed by oil billions, it’s hard to say how much of this vision will be realized. New cities are always unveiled with an excess of hyperbole and a dearth of practicality. In that sense, they are much like startups, brimming with hope and an optimism, intent on changing the world and solving problems ranging from overpopulation to transportation to air quality and affordability.
The legacy of planned cities in recent years is mixed at best. Some were built as new capitals for governments that wanted to reduce corruption and improve bureaucratic efficiency or wanted to break the hold of traditional elites by detaching them from carefully cultivated power bases. That is hardly a new concept. Louis XIV moved his court to the palace of Versailles for many of those reasons.
In light of the mixed legacy of planned cities, taking the rhetoric down a notch might be wise; in fact, a dose of humility might make these ventures more realistic and more likely to succeed. But pragmatism and modesty rarely galvanize, excite, or motivate. Invented cities are like urban startups, full of utopian optimism, ego, and often arrogance. That is often what makes it possible to build something grand from nothing, and it is often why these cities are so unrealistic and prone to less-than-optimal results.
Take the moves by the military junta in Myanmar to move the capital from Rangoon (Yangon) 180 miles north to Naypyidaw in 2005. As urban planning, its success is questionable. To avoid public demonstrations that might imperil the regime, the city was designed with no public squares of any size. The new capital is vast—six times the size of New York City. It is in the middle of nowhere, and visitors describe a nearly empty feeling, with few signs of life on its many-laned highways and streets, not to mention its plethora of golf courses. If the goal was to get an easy tee time, the city is a success; if it was to preserve the power of the military regime, that clearly failed. The military retains substantial power, but it was forced to cede some control to the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015
Or take Astana, the invented-out-of-whole-cloth capital of Kazakhstan, which was constructed starting in 1997. Funded entirely by the former Soviet republic’s oil money and the vision—or ego—of its ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev, Astana rises in the middle of the Asian steppe, with massive glass-clad towers, arenas and parks. After a decade of near emptiness, Astana is filling out and now has a population approaching a million. It has been a boon for architectural creativity, but its effects of the Kazakh economy are less clear, aside from the expected boost to GDP from the constant construction.
Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, was constructed in the late 1950s. It was meant to showcase Brazil’s emergence as a modern country, leading the way for the southern hemisphere. Meticulously planned by the architect Oscar Niemeyer, it won accolades from designers and urban planners with its sweeping boulevards and layout designed to accommodate a car culture and the needs of a modern bureaucratic state. Much like Washington, DC (another invented city), Brasilia was a geographic compromise that for many years pleased no one. But the population has grown, perhaps too much, and the city has settled into itself, not loved but no longer loathed. Brazil, however, has struggled with decades of corruption and erratic economic progress. Brasilia was meant to end those struggles; it did not.
Some invented metropolises are more clearly products of vanity and megalomania. The late-not-so-great Felix Houphouet-Boigny may have been the first leader of the newly independent Ivory Coast in 1959, but he clung to power and in his waning years, moved the capital from Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, the village where he was born. He then spent $200 million in the late 1980s to begin construction of a basilica that copied the design of Bernini’s Vatican, only bigger, in a country with a Muslim majority and an annual per-capita income of less than $1,000. Needless to say, Ivory Coast over the past two decades since his death has seen neither grandeur, peace, nor much in the way of prosperity.
Others start with grand dreams and end with more proletarian realities. South Korea’s Songdo, begun in 2000, has cost $35 billion and counting and was conceived as a model for future cities, with wide lanes, a mix of commercial and residential development, and a robust transportation network. Filled with parks, bike lanes, and business hubs, Songdo has been attractive mostly to middle-class Koreans who either can’t afford or dislike Seoul. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is has yet to embody its status of “city of the future,” which was its initial purpose.
More modest in scale but equally grand in vision is the partnership between Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and the city of Toronto to redevelop 12 acres as an incubus of a new modernism. If anyone might succeed in reinventing an urban space, it’s Alphabet and the Canadians, who have quietly morphed into the apostles of good government and innovation as the US recedes into its Washington soap opera. It bears watching, but the rocky history of previous ventures bears remembering.
For every St. Petersburg (also an invented city, in the early 18th century when Peter the Great built his own city far removed from Moscow), and Washington, DC (which was underpopulated and widely disliked well into the late 19th century), there is a Yamoussoukro or a Naypyidaw.
Traipsing through these thumbnails of cities past, what can we say about whether the half-a-trillion Neom will fulfill its grandiose promise and dreams? If the past is prologue, probably not. But perhaps that shouldn’t matter so much. It may live up to only a portion of its promise, but if it galvanizes creativity and innovation, if it provides a more hopeful model for the future of the Middle East, away from oil and religious conflict and towards urban solutions infused with the best of technology, then it won’t matter if it fulfills all of its dreams. It will matter if it nudges society in the direction of real progress rather than toward the nihilism of revolution and the sclerosis of a royal family draining resources rather than creating them. Some humbleness is certainly in order, as well as a sober eye to how past projects have gone, but it will be better for all of us if Neom only partly succeeds than if it never happens at all.