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The False Mirage of Eco-Cities

Resilient cities must be real places, not techno-utopian experiments.

The famous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This explains a lot about urban planning, where every attempt at newness and innovation results in a rehash of the same failed ideas from the 1930s.

Late last year, three supposed innovations in urban planning appeared in the American press: Songdo International Business District in Incheon, South Korea; the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince’s Gulf of Aqaba venture, Neom; and a Bill Gates-backed “smart city” in Arizona called Belmont.

Similar to the Chinese Tianjin Eco City, Songdo is a greenfield development with a focus on building with environmentally friendly technologies and techniques. Unlike Tianjin Eco City, which was built on a re-mediated landfill, Songdo was built on marshy land that was filled in, as well as land reclaimed from the sea, destroying a migratory bird habitat. It also began planning in the 1980s and its emphasis has always been on becoming an international business hub, with the environmental benefits a perk. In fairness to Songdo, much of the silliness has crept into media articles about the place, rather than from anything the planners have done or said—and although the Songdo plan is dreadful, it’s not a case of officials saying one thing and doing another.

Yet Songdo has features that would be cheered on by the Modernist architect and icon Le Corbusier, an approach that has signified dullness and failure in the West for decades. The streets are wide and each building is surrounded by “green open space.” This does not function as a place, since it can’t be used for anything, and has no attraction. It offers no environmental benefit, because it makes people drive more, and all that grass is a monoculture that must be mowed and treated with pesticides. It offers no refuge from wind, rain, snow, or heat. Every building in Songdo also seems to have a parking garage attached to it. All these things encourage car use while making pedestrians unsafe, thus discouraging walking. Songdo partially makes up for these drawbacks with streets that are paralleled by walking and biking paths and the district is also connected to the Incheon subway system. But according to Gyeongju-based writer Ian James, who visited Songdo for Korea Expose, the transit station is in the middle of nowhere, not near the parts that have been built up.

Viewed in Google Maps, Songdo presents an eerie, mirage-like aspect. The Corbusian towers in parks are located in superblocks set back from the street, except where there’s an entrance to a parking garage or an occasional group of one-story retail blocks. The result is that no matter how close one gets to the buildings, they always remain distant.

James also described a city that was empty of human life. He went into the Northeast Asia Trade Tower, where “I discovered an empty spotless cafeteria, with a spectacular view of the empty spotless city.”

“There is an oppressive, Chernobyl-like emptiness here,” James wrote. “Where else could I be reminded, every time I walk out of my apartment building, that I was really just an insect, a minor annoyance in an architect’s designs, as bulldozable as the homes of endangered birds.”

Neom, Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s $500 billion new city in northwest Saudi Arabia, is even more ambitious. The new Saudi crown prince has set aside 10,000 square miles on the Gulf of Aqaba for the project, reports Bloomberg.

Neom is part of the prince’s efforts both to reform Saudi law and government and his efforts to diversify the economy. According to Bloomberg, the city will function like the “free zones” in Dubai—that is, with its own laws and with autonomy from the Saudi state. Women, for example, are expected to have greater civic, political, and economic freedoms than elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

However, Saudi Arabia has tried similar projects before, without success. One such attempt, King Abdullah Economic City, is only home to 5,000 people instead of a projected two million.

Like Songdo, Neom is supposed to be green and its boosters are talking about it leading the world in artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles.

No concrete plans have been made yet, so it’s difficult to critique on urban design grounds. Conceptually, it’s not unheard of, either. Hong Kong and Singapore used a similar model of building a semi-independent outpost—and a man called Paul Romer was pushing a similar idea a few years ago.

But even if Neom is a little Switzerland (or Singapore) in the desert in terms of governance, there’s no guarantee of success. Back in the day, the Shah believed he could diversify Iran’s economy away from oil by buying factories. It didn’t work too well.

Meanwhile, in a very different sort of desert, Bill Gates is getting into city building. He invested $80 million into an Arizona company called Belmont Partners, which intends to build a city called Belmont in the desert west of Phoenix. Projected to have a population of around 80,000, Belmont will sit on 25,000 acres, with 470 devoted to public schools, 3800 for residences, and 3400 left as open space, according to The Verge.

Belmont Partners issued a press release and it is telling:

Belmont will create a forward-thinking community with a communications and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution modes, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs.

Children will enjoy playing in the data center and one day old folks will tell younger people about their romantic first date holding hands while they watched the autonomous logistics hub.

It is difficult to imagine how “forward thinking” a town can be in the Arizona desert, since climate change is supposed to make the place uninhabitable by 2050, according to Vice. It also demonstrates very vividly that electric and autonomous vehicles will not save the planet. Sprawl is bad for the environment. All the houses, all the vehicles, and all the buildings—especially the computer temples—will have to be heavily air conditioned. They will further deplete scarce water resources and build a whole lot of new infrastructure. Belmont Partners could have gone someplace like Buffalo, where there’s plenty of water, existing buildings, and infrastructure—and they would only need air conditioning for less than half the year. The people building Belmont are also anticipating a new interstate will connect to the city to spur development—so a “smart city” will involve yet more environmentally and financially unsustainable investments in infrastructure.

None of the three cities discussed here are being built for people. They’re being built to attract investment, to make statements, and to test technology. But those things are not what cities are for, they are things that happen in cities. Resilient cities are for people, and they are generally built where it’s convenient to stop overnight, cross a river, meet for trade and gossip, or at a religious shrine. They should not spring up because a prince, or a developer, or a tycoon pointed to a spot on a map.

Yes, investment and experimentation happen in cities, but because they are things that people want and need to do. New cities and even new neighborhoods the world over have become costly, empty quarters because planners think of cities primarily as collections of buildings, or traffic circulation and parking problems, or bird’s eye views of computer renderings. But a city is first and foremost a place—a location where life happens—and building one always takes time, even if it’s designed well.

Buildings can be built anywhere. But it’s the drama of human life unfolding through time, in all of its wonder and tragedy, that makes a city.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.