The Line: A problematic city of the future?

Sept. 19, 2023, 9:01 a.m. | By Giorgia Toti | 8 months, 1 week ago

The Saudi Arabian Line City might not be as groundbreaking and beneficial as NEOM claims

Image of what NEOM plans The Line to look like. Image obtained from NEOM website.

Cities powered by one hundred percent renewable energy, with flying cars and tall mirrored walls all seem like things of the future, right? According to Saudi Arabia, maybe not. The country is ambitiously partnering with the company NEOM to create a city that is quite literally, a line. Despite the project's sustainability goals, there are many humanitarian and ecological issues that make it extremely problematic. 

This city – The Line – will stretch for approximately 106 miles across the northwest of the gulf country in the desert near the Red Sea. With a width of merely 200 meters and a height of 500 meters, the Line will cost a total of around 500 billion dollars. The main form of transportation in the city will be a high-speed train that functions with the aid of artificial intelligence. The Line will be 100 percent carbon neutral by eliminating all car transportation, running on renewable energy, and preserving most of the land for nature. Construction started in mid 2021 with a goal to finish by 2025, but the end date got pushed back to 2030 due to production delays. Besides that, not much else is known about the project, Saudi Arabia is being relatively tight lipped. 

The Line is ultimately doing more harm than good. There are many beneficial things about the city, like its goals to prioritize citizen well-being and to be 100 percent carbon neutral. But the project is unlikely to meet these goals. Paul Mortesen, a senior urban designer with Montgomery County Planning, finds this project to be very idealistic and extremely unlikely to be finished. “If you take the specifications of what they are trying to achieve, and that is essentially a very vertical and linear city…it seems like something… that will be a nightmare and a disaster,” Mortesen says. He believes that the city will be too impersonal for people to enjoy living in, as it will lack the historic buildings that give the great cities, Paris, London, New York, and Washington D.C, their character. 

Shannon Rafferty, landscape designer with the interdisciplinary design firm Sasaki, finds the project concerning. “It seems like the governing structure for it is complicated…it feels like they have just bought off investors and bankers to be government leads,” Rafferty says. 

Human Rights Problems

Rafferty’s not the only one who finds it odd that the investors of the Line will be its governing body. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have flagged the project and their practices. “It seems like they already have done some pretty murderous things in regards to people who have spoken out with criticisms of the company and the project,” Rafferty says. 

The Line is displacing the people who already live on the land where it is being built. 47 members of the Howeitat tribe, who have lived there for centuries, were arrested in February for speaking out against the project’s displacement of their people. Three of the men were sentenced to death and others were sentenced to between 15 and 50 years in prison. 

Ecological Issues

The project poses ecological problems as well. NEOM claims that the city is going to be 100 percent carbon neutral, but the carbon footprint of building the city is enormous by itself. Philip Oldfield of University of New South Wales claims that the process of building the city would release 1.8 billion tons of embodied carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective, that is more than four times of the UKs yearly emissions. The city cannot be built out of low-carbon materials due to its need to withstand wind, so they need to use carbon intensive materials like glass, steel, etc. Already, just in the early phases of building, their claim of zero-carbon emissions is false. 

There also exist migratory bird species that fly through the northwest of Saudi Arabia, and the mirrored walls are a concern for their safety. Scientists estimate that around 1 billion birds die from building collisions annually. The Line is a direct barrier in the middle of migration patterns for hundreds of native species in Saudi Arabia and birds cannot see glass, so a 106-mile-long reflective city with walls of glass is bound to be a catastrophe. “Birds aren’t going to be able to perceive it so they are going to run right into this glass facade and just bake at the bottom,” Rafferty says. 

Birds are not the only animals that will suffer from the construction of The Line. Rafferty is also concerned about how The Line will impact surrounding wildlife. “When you are designing with an ecological perspective you first look at topography, how is the landscape changing… where are the depressions, where might there be these seasonal ephemeral cons, where are animal corridors and where are rare protected species of vegetation…When you have something that is so geometric that completely disregards all of those things, you create this disconnect,” Rafferty says. The Earth needs plants and animals to survive, and humans have already been the main cause of plant and animal loss. This city will majorly contribute to loss of biodiversity and if humans continue down this path it can lead to a collapse in the ecosystem. It’s clear that the company isn’t taking into account the native people, animals, and plants who live on that land. 

If this project is built it will have devastating consequences on the environment. Another example of this are the city’s desalination plants. Because the city is in the middle of the desert, the only form of water they have is through desalination plants which are terrible for the environment. Desalination plants need two gallons of seawater to create one gallon of fresh water. The gallon leftover has an excess amount of salt and if not disposed of correctly, by diffusing it over a large area, it can have serious detrimental effects on marine life. They also cause serious pollution due to the chemicals meant to keep systems from fouling. The excess water gets mixed up with these chemicals and is released into the ocean. The intake machinery is also dangerous for marine life. As the plants suck up water, marine animals get caught up in them and receive serious injuries or die. Desalination plants, while useful for drier countries like Saudi Arabia, are extremely bad for the environment and should not be the only form of water access. 

The process of growing vegetation also seems to be a little worrying. A desert climate is a harsh place to grow vegetation and the current plan for the city is to grow trees on the top of the two long structures, like a canopy, over the crevice of the city. Rafferty worries that the mirrored facades of the two structures will create so much heat that it will be very difficult to grow any vegetation in the city. 

Another negative point has to do with desalination plants and their sustainability. Cities need water to support their citizens and grow vegetation. Rafferty and Mortesen both highlight the Line's water source as the main problem with its sustainability. Since the desert is devoid of fresh water, drinkable water will have to be sourced through desalination plants. However, Mortesen claims that there is high risk in trusting desalination plants to provide potable water. “It’s such a harsh environment of the desert, I can just imagine if something starts to break down, there could be this cascading effect of things breaking down. If all of a sudden you can’t provide water, then this beautiful utopian green park in the middle begins to die because it doesn’t have the natural rain,” he says. 

Like that beautiful utopian park in the middle of the city, the project seems great at first glance. But, unfortunately, there are many flaws in The Line. In terms of infrastructure, it’s not sustainable to solely have one high-speed train and no cars in the city. Ecologically, the project fails to take into account all of the native plants and animals that live on the land, which will be killed or displaced if the project continues. Most importantly, it is a huge humanitarian crisis as the government is forcefully evicting the native Howeitat tribe as well as imprisoning and killing those who speak out against the project. The building of the city should not move forward if it continues hurting and killing the people and environment around it.

Last updated: Sept. 19, 2023, 9:03 a.m.

Tags: Saudi Arabia

Giorgia Toti. Hello! I am Giorgia Toti, a junior at MBHS, and this is my first year as a writer on Silver Chips Online. Along with a love of writing I am a part of Girl Scouts and am finishing my final Gold Award project, a coxswain … More »

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