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The Line’s revolution in civilisation: a future utopia or urban dystopia?

26 January 2023

By Emma Goodwin

Unparalleled access to nature. Zero carbon emissions. Car free. A year-round perfect climate. A city powered entirely by clean energy. The future of urban living. A revolution in civilisation.

Sounds like an idyllic utopia, right? Or something straight out of a dystopian novel?

This is how Saudi Arabia’s The Line is pitching itself - a futuristic vertical city offering a more sustainable, healthier alternative to life than in more conventional cities. At 170 kilometres long and 200 metres wide, it sits 500 metres above sea level on a footprint of just 34 square kilometres, set to ultimately house some 9 million residents.

On paper, it sounds spot on for the future of living, if not a little bizarre. The human-first approach and sustainability credentials are commendable, as is the infrastructure and access to nature and amenities.

But one question that keeps coming to my rather sceptical mind, is whether the vision for how people will (or should?) engage with the place will line up with how people actually engage with the place.

Humans can be unpredictable and inconsistent. Our brains don’t always work in the way the experts expect, or sometimes, even consider – meaning there can be a disconnect between the vision and the user experience. There might be constructed paths in a park (the ‘official route’), yet we still see those little lines of worn-out grass between them, where we’ve voted with our feet and chosen to take a more direct, convenient shortcut.

It's a simple but effective example. And when translated to the creation of vast, visionary new neighbourhoods or cities, it does highlight a potential issue: with such monumental plans and revolutionary shifts in ways of living,are we at risk of losing sight of the user experience? And in turn, creating somewhere that’s in fact more dystopian than utopian?

We can look to a couple of existing examples here. Let’s take Naples’ Vele di Scampia, a 60s urban housing project. With optimistic visions for creating a ‘subsistence dwelling’ neighbourhood, it focused on life in shared, exterior spaces whilst minimising the reliance on the interior.

However, whilst the aim was to improve public housing conditions, what materialised was something rather different: green space was neglected, maintenance overlooked, and communal space omitted.

To cut a long and rather sad story short, over the following decades Vele di Scampia became a breeding ground for crime. The many walkways originally designed to connect people quickly became a labyrinth that made it almost impossible for the authorities to catch criminals. Despite all its good intentions, a series of failures - some the fault of the design itself and others that of the government – saw demolition start in 2020.

Albeit a rather extreme example, it highlights the potential detachment between the vision of urban planners and how we as human beings, being the unpredictable creatures we are, engage with the end product.

In the spirit of balance, and fully aware that there are sceptics for every project, I went hunting for some visionary neighbourhood success stories – though options were few and far between. Even Copenhagen’s five-finger approach, although broadly celebrated as one of the world’s favourite and most ‘liveable’ cities, isn’t without some level of criticism.

Only time will tell (by 2030,if the marketing materials are to be believed) which way The Line will go. Utopia or dystopia? Personally, it’s all a bit too H. G. Wells for me to really buy into the idea, but I’ll be holding out for 2030 before I make a final judgement.