The Line megaproject in Neom, Saudi Arabia, will be the greatest real estate challenge undertaken by mankind, says one of the men turning the vision of a 170-kilometre long, 500-metre tall city into reality.
Once completed, it will be the largest megastructure in the world — a futuristic, mirrored residential and business block that rises over an expanse of desert, pristine, emerald waters, rocky inlets and white beaches of the rugged Tabuk province.
Designed to house up to 9 million people, the Neom project is the centrepiece of the most ambitious urban planning project in history.
"We are building 120 Burj Khalifas' worth of real estate in the first phase," Giles Pendleton, executive director of development at The Line in Neom, who joined the team in February, tells The National.
The structure will be the largest building in the world by a wide margin. The Pentagon, home to the US Department of Defence and the world's largest office building with nearly 30 kilometres of corridors, is tiny by comparison.
Even after 24 years of leading developments in Australia, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, Mr Pendleton has never taken on something on the scale of The Line.
He says the visionaries behind the plan, including Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, see it as nothing less than a reinvention of urban planning.
What is The Line project in Neom?
The Line will be integral to the futuristic new city of Neom, a project Prince Mohammed has identified as one of the most important aspects of the Saudi Vision 2030, which aims to diversify the country's oil-dependent economy.
"Our commitment to delivering The Line on behalf of the nation remains resolute," Prince Mohammed has said.
But since the announcement of the project, many have had questions about the feasibility, the timetable and exactly what life inside The Line will be like.
The National put these to Mr Pendleton.
"The Line should become a test bed and something the world looks at and says 'well, that is a forward-looking way at looking at our problems," he explains.
"We have immense support from our leadership and an incredible vision that we are attempting to achieve."
The Line will have a mirror facade, created by a team of world-renowned architects and engineers, which will allow even its footprint to "blend with nature".
But this doesn't come without significant challenges.
Mr Pendleton says building higher than 300 metres starts to become complicated because of the scale and this will be the case with The Line.
"From a technical perspective, this is the greatest real estate challenge that has ever been faced by mankind," he says.
This is, he says, in part because The Line does not feature stand-alone skyscrapers built close together but rather it will be one continuous building.
"We are not building a series of skyscrapers where you go down a skyscraper to go across the street to go up another skyscraper. We are essentially a continuous skyscraper so we are attempting to reprogramme humans as to how we live in large or megastructures."
The Line as a Green megaproject
The project’s green and energy-efficient credentials are front and centre of the entire plan and are especially challenging in a desert where temperatures well above 40°C are not uncommon.
"The city of London and the future city Neom will have the same population of 9 million," Mr Pendleton says. But building in a single long line will make a difference, he explains.
"London has 1,600 sq km of city, so it's extremely large and spread out, he says. "We are the exact same population size [but] we'll have dedicated 99 per cent of the same land London has as pristine nature.
"The land is being returned to its original intent ― things like power lines will be removed to give an unencumbered natural landscape as part of the Crown Prince's vision. We are going to touch the land as lightly as we can and the rest we must rehabilitate and make as natural and organic as possible, which includes rewilding the environment with animals that once lived here in an indigenous state and planting more trees."
Mr Pendleton says building the metropolis from a blank slate could help eradicate many of the problems that historic cities have amassed over decades and centuries.
These include "desocialisation, where people from different races, religions, who different linguistically, are living in the same city with the same citizenship, but completely separate from each other". He says: "We talk about pollution, urban sprawl where cities are just consuming vast amounts of pristine farm landscapes."
That will not be the case in Neom, he assures.
Neom's 'zero gravity' thinking
The Line attempts to solve this problem by "vertically stacking and packing the entire city above itself — and the efficiency has significantly improved, the pollution levels are significantly removed — to a point of having 100 per cent renewable energy".
"The Line will be the first city in the world to be powered by renewable energy including wind, solar and hydrogen," Mr Pendleton says.
Prince Mohammed has also explained the concept of zero-gravity urban living that is being applied in The Line.
“The idea of layering city functions vertically, giving people the possibility of moving seamlessly in three dimensions to access them, is a concept referred to as Zero Gravity Urbanism,” Prince Mohammed said last week, adding that he is committed to delivering a city of the future.
Mr Pendleton explains what this means in practice.
"So, where something traditional would be on the ground, like a sports stadium, why can't you put it up in a building or in the middle so every person can be equidistant from that activity?" he says. "We have this constant commute to work, theatre, beach or school, so how do we break them down and put them back together to solve these questions?"
While most cities are blanketed in industrial pollution or smog from traffic, this won't be the case in The Line, he says.
"The easiest way to deal with air pollution is not to create any," says Mr Pendleton. "We don't have cars, trucks or coal-fired power stations ― nothing that's generating pollution. What we do have is an abundance of wind and solar radiation, which is our primary energy supply supplemented by green hydrogen, we will be investing heavily in that."
That sunlight will bathe rooms, hallways and courtyards in bright light throughout the day, with the building designed to let in as much natural light as possible.
Inspired by "Middle Eastern and Arabic architecture over generations, over hundreds of years", the designs allow for fresh air to flow through large buildings for natural cooling.
So, how will residents get around without cars or roads?
There will be a superfast rail line running the length of the city to shuttle people over larger distances but even for shorter journeys everything from elevators to pods — mini transport vehicles on rails ― will be powered through a renewable-powered electric system.
One major challenge will be water supply, which will in large part comprise desalinated ocean water. Traditionally, this has been an energy-intensive process.
"Desalination is part of our thinking," Mr Pendleton says. "We are going to heavily invest in the treatment of water."
But the new, smart city will allow for any leaks in the water-pipe network ― traditionally the largest waste of water in a municipal system ― to be identified quickly.
"These are problems we can solve as it's in a vertical building," Mr Pendleton says. "The moment we have a leak we can see it, as opposed to it leaking in the ground when you don't really see it.
"That's what The Line is being designed to do. Do we produce more energy because we are building more buildings? Or do we make construction more efficient and do this in a way to help people live better?"
So, is it plain sailing from here, now that the team behind The Line has an understanding of the challenges? Not quite, says Mr Pendleton.
"Have we solved every problem? No. No city has solved all of its problems technically. But working with the world's greatest minds and companies involved in Neom, in a collaborative way, we are able to tap the best of what the world has to offer logistically, technically and looking towards solving challenges using an integrated approach."
Despite these numerous challenges, Mr Pendleton pushes back against those who claim the vast project is too ambitious to complete, and says it is already well under way.
"We are very much under construction ― come down to the exhibition happening in Jeddah and see the construction video," he says.
"The public is aware of the tunnelling contracts that we have awarded ― those are for the large infrastructure that runs parallel to The Line, called The Spine, which is the utility corridor which also links the airport.
"The early works are under way and as you can imagine you can't build it all at once but in stages, almost like rolling the city out module by module. The machines keep moving down as they build more of it over time."