How these 4 countries are designing futuristic cities, from floating neighborhoods to mega-metropolises
For almost as long as there have been cities, efforts have been made to create ideal cities. The Italian Renaissance saw the birth of places like Pienza and Palmanova, beautifully planned centers that were monuments to humanist thought. In the 20th century, Brasilia in Brazil and Chandigarh in India merged political goals with avant-garde architecture. The dream always seems constant: to shape this new beginning, to build a living prototype that will inspire the world.
The desire persists. Currently, many projects are underway to create model metropolises. One of the most ambitious is Neom, an almost state-like entity that will occupy a strip of land the size of Belgium in northwestern Saudi Arabia, bisected by a streetless “linear city”, with access 250 miles from Red Sea shore. For now, Neom, which seems to merge Elon Musk’s technological brilliance with Buckminster Fuller’s global utopianism, is mostly a rendering series. But the implication is that it can overcome, through smart planning and technological advances, some of the traditional contradictions that plague cities: it will be dense, but with access to nature; passable without traffic jams. And the city is making high-stakes bets, like large-scale desalination of water using only renewable energy, which could, if successful, pay off globally.
Neom – the name is a portmanteau of the Greek neos (“new”) and Arabic mustaqbal (“future”) – is perhaps the grandest of all the “gigaprojects” of the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund Saudi. Another, the “entertainment city” called Qiddiya, with a Six Flags park, was designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG. The cities are meant, as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has described it, to diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. The $500 billion Neom plan is made up of three regions: The Line, a 105-mile linear city, which will be built along a high-speed rail line framed by homes and businesses, with no more travel 20 minutes and most at five; Trojena, a tourist complex with an artificial lake and year-round skiing; and Oxagon, a floating industrial complex – also the work of BIG – boasting 100% clean energy and an automated port.
Neom is not the first project to propose promising urban planning in response to climate change scenarios. South Korea, in collaboration with Oceanix, has planned what it calls “the world’s first prototype of a resilient and sustainable floating community”, off the coast of Busan, a port city of more than three million people. The design (BIG again, with Samsung’s Samoo) envisions a honeycomb network of low-slung, interconnected modular islands, each built on concrete platforms, with the weight of the buildings above counteracted by air in the hollow volumes below. In the Maldives, meanwhile, Dutch Docklands, in conjunction with the Maldivian government, is creating Maldives Floating City, designed to be an enclave of 20,000 people. Given current sea level rise projections, it makes sense that floating cities have entered the city-building consciousness.