So what’s with all these new planned cities?

Overcrowding, emissions and poverty are just some of the issues that purpose-built cities claim to solve, but do these large-scale projects truly help uplift communities?

By Liam Murphy

The objective of any urban area, planned city or otherwise, should be the fulfilment of each person that comprises it. Poverty is a problem for cities, as is a lack of access to healthcare, education and employment. As well as these, issues such as pollution and destruction wrought by natural disasters are more damaging for cities than rural areas.

Songdo planned city
A view from G-TOWER in Songdo, Incheon. Songdo is a newly developed business and residential town in Incheon, south west of Seoul. (Photo by Joonyoung Kim/iStock)

However, where there are problems, great thinkers can find solutions. Planned cities are created to solve these issues and more. And with good reason, as city residents continue to struggle, whether it be those suffering in Khost in Afghanistan following the magnitude 6.1 earthquake or the traffic officer in Bhiwadi, India, (the world’s most polluted city) having to work with a cardiac defibrillator device in his chest to protect from smog-aided heart palpitations. 

What is a planned city?

In no way a new idea – with Constantinople replacing Byzantium in 300AD, to name one early example – a planned city is any large community specifically designed and engineered to provide most – if not all – of the benefits that cities previously built around naturally supporting geography, such as a river for trade routes, do. They are also designed to evade the issues that have befallen older cities. São Paulo without the overcrowding, Chennai without the water shortage or London without the wealth inequality. 

But with all these problems to solve, it still seems unlikely that we can count on the planned city to come to our aid. Though they are lofty in their aspirations, many projects from around the world have issues that, if left unchecked, will seriously hinder their ability to help their potential populace.

Neom, Saudi Arabia

Neom in Saudi Arabia is perhaps one of the most well-known planned city projects currently under way. Engineered for the purpose of boosting Saudi Arabia’s non-oil economy, Neom is a 10,000-square-mile smart city north of the Red Sea. With an initial investment of $500bn and a hard push to attract global investors, the development is moving along with London-based Keller being awarded a development contract.

More than just a new location for people to live, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF) has said that Neom will operate independently from the “existing governmental framework”, allowing for an unbridled ecosystem of business and technology. Neom will be a smart city, car-free, powered fully by renewable energy and will use vast data collection in order to automate various processes, including facial recognition. 

There was even a point where ‘robot maids’, ‘flying cars’ and a ‘fake moon’ were floated as potential ideas in planning documents. These ambitious aspirations are common in large planned city projects. Neom’s chief executive, Nadhmi Al–Nasr, told the Independent it would be more akin to a “country than a city”. The message is always ‘think bigger, think more incredible’. 

Neom planned city
The project site of Neom, a planned city being built in the Tabuk province of north-western Saudi Arabia. (Image by Peter Hermes Furian/iStock)

However, like many megaprojects, Neom has issues. One of the main ones is that the city’s development has uprooted the Huwaitat tribe, a Sunni group inhabiting Jordan and north-western Saudi Arabia. According to a spokesperson for the tribe, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (who is credited as chairman of the Neom board of directors) promised that the group would be part of the Neom project. Since that time, Saudi authorities have been accused of harassing and even killing members of the Huwaitat people. Though Neom officials deny any claims of violence or bullying, the tribe are staunch in their belief that they are being removed from their homeland with little care for their well-being or history.

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As if these accusations weren’t enough, it is reported that in 2020 – following two gaming companies refusing to renew their partnership – Neom’s CEO threatened to ‘shoot’ the executives that did not inform him of the news sooner. Hard enough to chalk up to heated boardroom talk, many executives have left high-paying positions, citing ‘inappropriately dismissive and demeaning outbursts’ as standard behaviour from the top tier of management. 

These issues notwithstanding, Neom has the funds to drive onward, and – despite high employee turnover – none of these issues look like they will derail the project.

New Administrative Capital, Egypt

Some 250 miles north-west of Neom, a new Egyptian capital stirs in the shadow of Cairo with hopes of becoming the largest planned city ever built. The project, announced in 2015 by then Housing Minister Mostafa Madbouly, told of a brand new pristine area for Egypt’s government buildings, as well as over five million residents, for the purpose of easing congestion and general overcrowding in the bustling, pollution-heavy city of Cairo. The project typified President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ‘Egypt Vision 2030’. 

At the time of writing, the city is under the working name of New Administrative Capital (NAC). Plans include a green space that is double the size of New York’s Central Park and a hefty cultural entertainment district including a concert stadium and theme park. With large investments from local developers such as EGICS and Maqam Misr, as well as help from foreign investors – like the huge $3bn loan from China State Construction Engineering Corp (CSCEC) – the project is running fairly smoothly though a little delayed, with the New Administrative Capital Company announcing on 27 June that more than 70% of NAC’s first stage had been completed.

[Read more: So why is Egypt building a new capital city right next to Cairo?]

The NAC is also not without its problems, one of which comes in the form of inclusivity. The average price of residential property will be just under $60,000 (1.1m EGP), meaning that the average Egyptian household would have to save for 16 years to afford one. This detachment from the many Egyptian residents is represented by the decadent style of the buildings. The planned Oblisco Capitale is aiming to be the world’s tallest structure at a height of 1km, resembling a Pharaonic obelisk. But, on the volume or design of NAC’s social housing, developers have not been as forthcoming with details. 

Add to this the fact that the New Administrative Capital has now officially become part of Cairo, and the hopes of easing congestion seem a little more unlikely. What exactly is it that differentiates this city from Obour, El-Shorouk or the other sparsely populated and largely forgotten cities scrambling at the gates of central Cairo? If a planned city is not wholly transformative and evolutionary, then what is it?

Songdo, South Korea

Songdo is often labelled as one of the very first planned smart city projects. Springing out of Incheon in order to take advantage of the city’s large international airport, Songdo was helped into existence by the process of land reclamation (a popular tactic employed in the search for new land for cities), 6km2 rising out of what once was marshland. The hope was to create a 21st-century planned city that could better prepare for and prevent pollution and overcrowded spaces, and excel in ways that Seoul could not.

Being a successful planned city in Asia is a difficult task. One only has to look at the example of Ordos in China – a failure dubbed the largest ghost city ever wrought from a perfect storm of overestimated supply, unreliable developers and general Chinese housing market chaos. In fact, China’s many failed cities should act as a warning sign to developers in Asia. But, with its proximity to the Incheon Free Economic Zone as well as nearby business locations, hopes were high for Songdo.

[Read more: Is aerotropolis Songdo really the city of the future?]

Led by New York architect James von Klemperer, the team sought to take parts of other cities to make a whole. Innovative designs from existing cities were fit together ‘like an artist making a collage with different pre-set elements’. One achievement of note is the city’s waste disposal programme, using a system of smart identity cards and underground chutes, Songdo manages to recycle 76% of its waste into energy. Songdo also uses sensors on its roads to improve safety and respond to traffic accidents swiftly.

This all sounds fantastic until we factor in the scale of Songdo compared with the examples above. As of 2020, the city’s population was just 167,346 – a surefire way of avoiding overcrowding. What good are innovations in waste disposal and sustainability when you do not have the populace to use them? And even though it is smaller, similar to Neom’s impact on its surroundings, Songdo’s construction did damage to local shorebirds and gulls and – like the detachment exemplified in the NAC – it is reported that many could-be residents have stayed in Incheon due to cheaper housing.

Rethinking planned cities

One of the central issues with the modernised concept of planned cities is summed up perfectly by Sarah Moser, associate professor in the department of geography at McGill University. She describes developers and benefactors as taking an “entrepreneurial stance”, taking big risks, moving fast and breaking things. This mindset is all well and good in the business world, but when it comes to building a place where a community can live safely and happily, the framework isn’t effective. We can see this entrepreneurial energy most prominently in the supposed callous operations of Neom, but the other projects mentioned also illustrate a disconnect from the true purpose of a large community. 

Further issues are highlighted by Ed Parham, director at Space Syntax. Branching off of research being carried out at University College London, Space Syntax was formed through the analysis of post-war urban development, with a desire to use space mapping – moving onto data and algorithmic programming in more modern times – to extract speculation from the planning process, improve connectivity and allow developers to access a “consistent description of space”. 

Parham uses the example of work the organisation carried out in the Middle East during 2005–2013, where local authorities sought help with a collection of unplanned settlements that had evolved. Using an advanced spatial diagnostic methodology, Parham and the team found that a social schism had occurred due to recent development that had opted for an “American-style, car-dominated, big highway” city model. This resulted in a lack of cohesion between the different parts of the city and a general avoidance of the unplanned settlements as they were considered dangerous and undesirable (a phenomenon known as ‘urban severance’). In fact, the settlements were mixed-use, high-density, walkable and – from what Space Syntax could see – fairly liveable. The organisation was able to convince local authorities not to do away with these spaces and to use Space Syntax’s analysis to connect the settlements with the growing infrastructure of the city. 

“Cities have to be about people, the purpose of them should be about bringing people together,” Parham explains. “If we can see that a city has been designed for the purpose of driving across it in a car at 80 miles an hour, that’s not good for people. A lot of modern projects do not offer interaction and areas end up completely segregated.”

Who is the NAC really going to help? Will it do anything to stem the tide of Egypt’s increasing poverty rate, or will it just give government officials a nicer view while they work? Songdo evidently employed technological advancement and design in aid of people, but is it truly transformative? And will Neom change the world, or fall foul of its own untrammelled aspirations?

Representatives for Neom and Egypt’s New Administrative Capital were contacted for comment but did not respond before the time of press.

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