Saudi Arabia’s “Line”: wonder city or nightmare?

In October, excavation work began on The Line, an ambitious construction project. This groundbreaking effort aims to create an eco-friendly urban neighborhood stretching across the desert. Some are calling it the city of the future, but scientists are shedding light on why The Line may not be the ideal model for cities of the future.

Rafael Prieto-Curiel, a researcher at Complexity Science Hub, describes The Line as the fulfillment of a dream to start a city from scratch and completely reimagine it. The planned 170-kilometer-long city will consist of two continuous rows of skyscrapers with living spaces in between. It will be 500 meters tall, surpassing the height of any building in Europe, Africa and Latin America. The line will stretch straight from the Red Sea to the east, striking the imagination of many.

Unprecedented population density and size

The Line is expected to have a population of nine million people, more than any other city in Saudi Arabia. This means a population density of 265,000 people per square kilometer – ten times that of Manhattan and four times that of Manila’s hinterland, currently considered the densest urban neighborhoods on Earth. Prieto-Curiel raises valid concerns about attracting such a huge population to a medium-sized country like Saudi Arabia.

Inefficiencies of linear design

One of the significant inefficiencies of The Line project is its linear form. Prieto-Curiel emphasizes that there is a reason why all 50,000 cities in the world have a circular layout. The Line is the least efficient form of a city, hindering connectivity and mobility. If we randomly pick two people in a Line, they will be an average of 57 kilometers apart. In comparison, in Johannesburg, which is 50 times larger in area, two random people are separated by only 33 km. Such a huge distance between people prevents active travel and forces them to use public transportation.

Mobility challenges

To solve the mobility problem, The Line is planning a high-speed rail system that will form the backbone of the public transportation network. However, this comes with its own challenges. According to CSH researcher Daniel Condor, there would need to be at least 86 stations for everyone to be within walking distance of a station. This means that trains will spend a significant amount of time in stations, which limits their ability to achieve high travel speeds between two stations. This would result in an average commute time of 60 minutes, and at least 47% of the population would have an even longer commute. Even with additional high-speed lines, the need for interchanges will still result in longer travel times than other major cities, such as Seoul, where 25 million people commute to work in less than 50 minutes.

Promising concept or flawed model?

While the Line may strike a chord with its grandiose concept and commitment to environmental friendliness, scientists at the Complexity Science Center have raised serious concerns about its feasibility and efficiency. Unprecedented population density, long distances between cities, and reliance on public transportation pose serious challenges that must be addressed. As the project progresses, it will be critical to address these concerns and ensure that the Line truly becomes a model for sustainable and livable cities of the future.

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