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The False Mirage of Eco-Cities

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 [1], 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 [2].


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 [3], 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 [4] 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 [5].

Belmont Partners issued a press release [6] 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 [7]. 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.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "The False Mirage of Eco-Cities"

#1 Comment By LouisM On February 8, 2018 @ 11:47 pm

Le Corbusier was considered avante garde at the time and rapidly spiraled down to failure when he wanted to demolished a large swath of Paris.

The Eisenhower highway system, Urban Renewal and 1960s Municipal Housing were considered the glory of the government then rapidly spiraled down to failure.

Its not just the organic nature of how cities grow and develop. Once cities were built around canals until they were replaced by railroads until they were replaced by the highway system until the highway gave way to air freight.

What is considered the height of a eco techno city
of today will become obsolete and antiquated in a few decades and could possibly be prohibitively expensive to rehab. How expensive it is to rehab 1 building or 1 train with asbestos? How expensive is it to replace the water mains, gas lines and sewar lines installed in the 1800s? That may dwarf what it takes to rehab an eco techno city 25 years from now…when entirely new technologies are available and technologies from 25 years ago are considered mentally, emotionally or physically toxic?

The reason old cities that are allowed to grow organically and have historic districts is not just because history can be beautiful and were once designed for the pedestrian (ie walkable and encouraged social interaction and community). Its also because organic cities could update their infrastructure in small manageable sections. A city built all at once will also likely require maintenance that same huge scale.

#2 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On February 9, 2018 @ 10:26 am

Poor silly bin Salman. It should have really taken someone with this guy’s degree of bestness and brightestness to rely on the artificial “intelligence” (also known as artificial idiocy among those who have to actually deal with the damn thing) in managing a city. As cost-ineffective as the renewable energy is, its use is at least technically possible. What certainly cannot be said about the AI, unless you want your city to be managed by a contraption that will be screwing everything up umpteen times as often as an always-drunk mayor would.

#3 Comment By Jon On February 11, 2018 @ 12:32 pm

Every time I drove by Co-op City on the Hutch, I cursed Le Corbusier. However, if I recall correctly, this miniature city which replace the amusement park called Freedom Land was about investors making profits but providing housing for the working class. Although intimidating in appearance, its residence have a sense of community. The area has a high voter turnout and there are communal activities including a community garden.

Still, I dread such complexes that lean at least in appearance to the inhuman. The article presents well this side of the tower-in-the-park concept. These are monstrous complexes that dwarf if not annihilate the human spirit.

#4 Comment By Youknowho On February 12, 2018 @ 6:22 pm

@Alex (the one that likes Ike)

A city run by an artificial intelligence is a disaster waiting to happen. They make sure that a small problem cascades into a catastrophe.

But as for sustainable energy being not cost effective, well, as long as it technologicall possible, the price will keep on going down. Do you remember how much you had to pay for a calculator when they first appeared in the market? I remember my first PC, which did not have Windows nor Internet, cost me $3,0000.00 The next one had Windows and Internet and cost me $2,000.00 The next one $800.00 I expect the same with sustainable energy.

#5 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On February 14, 2018 @ 7:14 am


Perhaps, though it’ll still be about smaller losses, not profits. And the economy – of a state, country or the entire world – has to deal with paying it day after day, not once in five years, like when you purchase a new computer. So, if you want to curb the air pollution (unless you’ve got a river that allows to build something like Hoover Dam around, of course), the best option will still be to either move coal TPPs away from sensitive areas like cities, crop fields and water supply sources while replacing them with much less polluting natural gas TPPs (though keep in mind that natural gas, while yet cost-effective, is more expensive than coal, especially if you extract it via fracking), or to rely on atom, which doesn’t pollute the air at all and, contrary to the irrational postmodernist fears, is perfectly safe – just don’t build NPPs in seismically dangerous areas, and everything’s gonna be okay. The drawback – only the most technologically developed countries know how to build them. So you either got to be one of those countries or to have enough money to order the construction from them.

Hydrogen power plants maybe, but it’s still more of a sci-fi than of a real prospect.

#6 Comment By Youknowho On February 14, 2018 @ 11:17 am

@Alex (the one on the left)

In your calculations on the cost, do you include the cost of fuel? There are two reasons in developing nations why they embrace sustainable energy: Free fuel – sunlight and wind are free – coal, oil, diese oil, have to be paid for. Localism – mMany local collecting stations instead of a big powerplant, thus obviating the need for a grid.

People who put solar panels on their roofs do not do so out of ideology, but BECAUSE IT LOWERS THEIR BILLS.

#7 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On February 14, 2018 @ 7:19 pm


Developing nations and personal dwellings – yes. But if such a nation wants to become developed, it will require heavy industry. And the sunlight/wind, as free as they may be, cannot generate enough energy to power it up. They can be good for a small town, but not for the NYC (or even Louisville). And even when it comes to a small town, they can be good for powering up the farm equipment on crop fields and ranges around it, but not if you want to start selling your agricultural products with some value added by building, say, a bread factory or a meat processing plant. In other words, you can use the renewable energy to run a small community, not a big (or even a midtier) city. And only until the moment that community starts growing economically. And it will start growing if it’s successful.

As to confusing my nickname (whether accidentally or intentionally), within the context of this discussion it’s not as ironic as it may seem. I’m a right-winger, obviously, but throughout the 20th century the overwhelming majority of left-wing socialist governments were even fonder of heavy industry than your average GOP senator. The main problem with evaluating today’s political spectrum is that the “right vs. left” paradigm is obsolete to the point of denying the reality. It is right- and left-wing pragmatists (right-wing nationalists and left-wing socialists & labourites) vs. right- and left-wing utopians (right-wing neocons and left-wing progressives & liberals) now. And when the former fathom that they’re actually on the same side, the latter will become extinct as political movements in no time. A dreamworld can never stand the collision with reality, unless the dreamer chooses to close his eyes for good.