Environmental impacts of urban design

21st September 2022

Tom Pashby discusses the potential environmental costs of radical urban designs

Saudi Arabia has been reliant on oil and gas for its economic success since the middle of the 20th century.

However, with easy-to-access oil and gas reserves depleting, renewables becoming competitive and climate policies starting to bite, the country is trying to diversify its income into alternative sources. Its megacity project in Neom, ‘The Line’, is one such attempt to move away from fossil fuel dependence.

The Line is literally that: a line stretching 170km across desert and mountains in an area the Saudi government has called Neom – a portmanteau of the ancient Greek ‘neo’ for new, and the first letter of mustaqbal, the Arabic word for ‘future’.

It will consist of mirrored skyscrapers stretching nearly 200km across desert and mountains, high-speed rail underground going faster than any high-speed rail in operation today, and untouched environment all around.

It sits within six hours’ air travel of 40% of the world’s population and has been designed so that all of life’s essential services may be walked to within five minutes. The project’s promotional material highlights its environmental credentials, including the fact that it will be powered by 100% renewable energy.

Its projected cost, ranging from US$500bn–US$1trn, is not just financial. The Line, which is being funded by Saudi government wealth funds, has faced criticism for its actual and potential impacts on people, the non-human biosphere and local geology. The BBC has reported that during the Saudi government’s attempts to remove native Huwaitat people from their homeland to make way for the project, security forces killed at least one person involved in resisting the nomadic tribe’s displacement.

The scale of the structure and its radical design have led to several questions about its environmental impact. One critic, talking to Dezeen, said: “Building The Line would produce upwards of 1.8bn tonnes of embodied carbon dioxide, equivalent to more than four years of the UK’s entire emissions,” and that it would need this volume of materials for its sheer sides (two 170km-long, 500m-tall mirrored skyscrapers) to withstand the force of winds.

“The environment and sustainability profession should ask questions about the impacts of these megaprojects”

Other questions about The Line’s environmental impact include: what happens to migratory animals or other animals that call Neom home? How will the mirrors on either side of the skyscrapers affect temperatures and winds around the city? How will the size and shape of the structure affect cloud formation and rainfall on either side (a question also asked of other

Saudi megaprojects)? How will resources such as water, sewage treatment and waste disposal be handled? Could its marketing, based on being within six hours’ flight of 40% of the global population, lead to an overall increase in commercial aviation – itself a key driver of global heating?

One of the issues with assessing the environmental impact of The Line is the lack of transparency around the project, and the fact that it takes place within an autocratic country headed by a royal family (the House of Saud). The government’s control over most, if not all, aspects of Saudi life means that it is difficult for environmental activists to operate, and those environmental professionals working in Saudi Arabia – including on the project itself – are unable to comment.

There is a significant level of uncertainty over whether the project will ever be completed, given cost overruns and volatility in the oil and gas market, which Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth funds derive their value from. Some critics have raised questions about whether the city seen in the marketing material is even a physical possibility. The Line may never come to fruition, but nevertheless, the environment and sustainability profession should ask major questions about the environmental impacts of these megaprojects – and about what amounts to an acceptable level of transparency.

Image credit | Paddy Mills

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