Saudi Arabia's audacious development project The Line will be a futuristic, real-world laboratory for the "15-minute city" urban planners are dreaming of in a post-Covid world.
The proposed urban landscape, which will have no cars and no streets, with public transport, freight and municipal services all placed underground, will realise several unmet goals for sustainable development. It will offer zero-carbon, high-speed autonomous transport and the capability for 1 million people to live together in a green environment with every daily need at their front door.
"This is really ambitious and really, really futuristic. Once done, it will be a living laboratory for all kinds of unsolved urban challenges and this idea of the 15-minute city," Shailendra Kaushik, a sustainable urban development expert based in Dubai, and co-founder of the Cities Forum, told The National.
The “15-minute city” concept is not new, but is gaining prominence during the pandemic.
Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris, the idea is that daily needs for city dwellers – work, home, fitness, healthcare, shopping and entertainment – should all be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Not only is this how most people prefer to live, out of sheer convenience and a rapidly diminishing tolerance for commuting, reorganising a city dweller's time could radically improve overall well-being and the environment.
Solving these issues is urgent as cities in the developing world are set to boom, while more advanced nations are paying more attention to restarting pandemic-burdened economies than meeting carbon reduction targets.
The UN forecasts that 2.5 billion people will pour into megacities in Asia and Africa between now and 2050, and transportation is the biggest single C02 emitter on the planet.
Still, some cities around the world have targets to emulate Prof Moreno's idea.
Paris is aiming to be a 15-minute city by 2030. Melbourne is planning for 20-minute neighbourhoods by 2050. And New York has committed to having every resident within a 10-minute walk of open space by 2050.
The Line intends to do this, but one better – putting amenities within five minutes of each other and being completely carbon-free.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is chairman of the board of the Neom Company, said at the unveiling earlier this week that the entire city can be travelled end-to-end in 20 minutes via a high-speed transport underground network.
Construction will begin before the end of March, but experts say this is a long-term vision. Mr Kaushik said he expects the project will take 20 to 30 years to be fully realised.
"This has potential to change the entire landscape of how cities are completed," Mr Kaushik said.
Prof Moreno told the Financial Times in July that the intention of the 15-minute city is not to recreate a village where no one ever leaves. "We don't want to oblige people to stay in the 15-minute district," Prof Moreno said. "We want to create a better urban organisation."
While many important specifics are still unknown – such as the cost of the project or what companies will build it – Mr Kaushik predicted clusters of high rises filled with knowledge workers.
He sees this as an opportunity to learn from a project "that is completely greenfield, from the beginning, being built in an integrated manner" – the scale and ambitions of which are unprecedented.
Mr Kaushik said he would be paying attention to the freight and transport developments, which would have major implications for other cities. If Saudi Arabia can take high speed, autonomous transport out of the testing lab and into a real world city, this would be a major case study in how to replicate it for other places. Or if it can create meaningful, high-wage jobs to keep its 1 million residents engaged in a globalised economy – this would be another aspect to watch.
"If The Line can make a business case, then it would be an example for other countries to follow."