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What 5 New Cities Tell Us About the Future of Urban Planning

Since the days of antiquity, nations have endeavored to build civilization where there is none. The history of civilization is the story of urban planning, its roots tracing back tens of thousands of years. That history lives on today, as booming populations and rapidly expanding enterprises are creating new cities by the dozens all across the globe, ushering in a colossal wave of development and rewriting maps.

Some of the earliest examples of urban planning are from India’s Indus Valley Civilization, where streets were first laid out in a grid pattern and homes were laid out around privacy and noise mitigation. In China, urban planning began in the Yellow River valley as early as 10,000 BC. Urban planning soon evolved into building planned communities, creating a city from scratch. Greeks built new cities with specific plans across the Mediterranean. Rome took the construction, scale, and scope of city planning to another level. The age of exploration and colonization exploded the number of cities. Over time, urban development has filled our maps with dot after dot. Capitols like New Delhi, Canberra, and Washington D.C. once started as an idea, were forged into reality over decades, and are now home to millions. How planned cities have evolved tells us a great deal about where urban planning and development is headed on a macro scale. 

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Tianfu New Area, Chengdu, China 

Many historians argue urban planning originated in China, contemporaneous history pre-10,000 B.C. is a hazard to verify, but it’s safe to say they were among the very first. Today, no nation is endeavoring to construct more cities from scratch than China. Since the communist party came to power in 1949, more than 600 new cities have been developed. Urban China as it exists today did not exist 40 years ago. 

China’s latest effort is the staggering Tianfu Ecological City, a 1.3 square kilometer green city outside Chengdu, China. Developed by Beijing Vantone Real Estate Co., Tianfu is China’s vision of an environmentally sensitive future. Considering China’s importance in fighting for our climate, the types of innovations at Tianfu will be critical. Tianfu Ecological City will use 48 percent less energy and 58 percent less water than a conventional development of a similar population, producing an estimated 89 percent less landfill waste while generating 60 percent less carbon dioxide. The small community is part of a larger effort to turn Chengdu, the fifth most populous city in the world, with a population of 16 million, into a ‘Park City.’ Work has been ongoing for years since approved in 2014, now nearing completion. Designed to remove the need for cars by having daily life within a 15-minute walk, Tianfu New Area is unlike any area China has developed before. Lush green spaces and blue skies in Chengdu’s Tianfu New Area offer a new image of urban China that the Chinese government sees as the future of urban development. The success of Chengdu Tianfu New Area’s green spaces, environmentally friendly infrastructure, and walkable nature could be a much-needed change in urban planning for the world’s fastest-growing economy. 

The Line, Tabuk Province, Saudi Arabia

Planned for Saudi Arabia, The Line will be a city of one million residents with a length of 170 km with zero cars, streets and carbon emissions. (Credit: Neom)

Deep in the desert, Saudi Arabia aims to found a city among unending sand and rock. It’s not so crazy, Saudi Arabia has done it before. What’s crazy is the city’s proposed design. Dubbed ‘The Line,’ the city will be laid out as a 100 mile long ‘linear city.’ Saudi Arabia is hoping to attract 1 million residents from around the globe, powering the city with 100 percent clean energy. The city will be a cluster of developments along the line, connected by ultrahigh-speed transit that doesn’t have to turn so it doesn’t have to slow down. The announcements claimed no journey in the 100-mile long city will be longer than 20 minutes. AI will be implemented throughout the city, where 90 percent of the available will be harnessed to optimize infrastructure. 

‘The Line’ is part of Saudi Arabia’s plan to create a 10,000 square mile city-state dubbed Neom. At an estimated cost of $500 billion, the area in Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk province plans to feature flying taxis, amusement parks, Michelin-starred restaurants, and alcohol consumption, typically forbidden. Neom is being billed as the ‘largest carbon-free system in the world,’ using solar, wind, and emerging technology that converts water into oxygen and hydrogen. What Saudi Arabia’s efforts tell us is the future of urban development is smart, connected, and carbon-free. Saudi Arabia’s plans to radically reimagine urban planning are all about leveraging the latest in technology to build better cities. The Kingdom has been able to achieve the impossible before, but achieving financial success beyond its petroleum reserves will be as radical as its experimental urban design. 

Hoima, Uganda

Populations across Africa are booming, few are booming more than Uganda, which went from 1.7 million citizens in 1991 to about 7.4 million in 2016. Most of that growth has been in Uganda’s rapidly evolving urban areas. Uganda’s urban population is projected to rise to about 21 million by 2040, according to the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment in Uganda. The problem is Uganda doesn’t have a clear administrative mechanism to create legal municipalities, leaving it largely up to parliament, which recently approved the creation of 15 new cities. Without municipal infrastructure, growth in Uganda’s urban areas has suffered a severe lack of policy coordination, resulting in lower economic productivity, a lack of housing, few public services, and even fewer public schools, effectively making many of Uganda’s most populous urban areas ‘slums.’ Lawmakers in Uganda hope establishing municipal operations and administration can begin to meet the ever-expanding socio-economic needs of residents. Hoima is at the forefront of Uganda’s urbanization after massive oil deposits were discovered in the region in the 2000s. Investments in road networks and an airport for the region has been a boon, but an overall lack of municipal administration has Hoima missing out on the full scale of tourism and business opportunities. Being upgraded to a city later this year will hopefully change that. Each new city in Uganda will be granted three seats in parliament. With the new municipal and political infrastructure in place, residents will look to solve the lingering problems of urbanization unsupported by deficient socio-economic infrastructure. As populations rise across Asia and African boom, fueling the growth of new cities, it’s important to remember infrastructure isn’t always physical. Making a city work requires staff, administration, and offices, a hefty price we often take for granted. 

Songdo International Business District, Korea

Songdo International Business District is a smart city or “ubiquitous city” built from scratch on 600 hectares of reclaimed land along Incheon’s waterfront, 30 kilometres southwest of Seoul, South Korea.

On 1,500 acres of reclaimed land on Incheon’s waterfront roughly 20 miles south of Seoul, South Korea is building what may be the world’s smartest city. Ten years in the making at a cost exceeding $40 billion, Songdo has 106 buildings with more than 22 million square feet of LEED-certified space and still growing. Computers are built into nearly every structure, connecting the city through a wide area network. The city is so advanced it doesn’t need garbage cans or garbage trucks, using a pneumatic waste disposal system that sucks garbage through pipes underground. Sleek architecture and world-class infrastructure have seemingly created a modern utopia. If only they could convince people to live there. While Songdo remains a work in progress, originally conceived in 2001, the area is still only home to roughly 100,000 residents, a third of the developers’ goal for the pricey project. Making matters worse, hyper-efficient infrastructure and urban planning make the city seem emptier than it really is, there’s hardly traffic of any kind. What Songdo is missing is vibrancy, which can’t be bought. Songdo’s issue is a common one among planned cities. Fostering a community is more difficult than building amenities. There may be plenty of reasons to love living in Songdo, but few reasons to actually move there. Growing cities naturally attract residents through industry and geography. Songdo is still a work in progress, getting even smarter. The future of urban planning must be smarter about attracting residents, only then can the benefits of these cities be realized. It doesn’t matter how green a city is if only a small fraction of the population lives there. 

Starbase, Texas 

Elon Musk wants more people to move to Starbase, his SpaceX community near South Padre Island. (Credit: SpaceX)

Residents of Boca Chica Village, Texas, an unincorporated town just a few miles from the Mexican border, were surprised to learn the second richest man on planet Earth was renaming their town Starbase via tweet. Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla, has found a new home in Texas, where rocket engines, cyber trucks, and orbital launches are being developed. In addition to a launch center in Boca Chica, Musk operates a test facility in McGregor, Texas, and is constructing manufacturing facilities near Austin, Texas. Clearly, Musk likes his reception in the Lone Star State, making Texas key in his mission to Mars. Local residents aren’t so keen. Initial promises of minimal disruption to the daily life of residents have been broken. Musk has admitted that over time, living in Boca Chica is ‘going to be quite disruptive,’ saying that over time it would be ‘better to buy out the villagers.’ Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño confirmed Musk’s effort to incorporate Boca Chica Village into Starbase, Texas, stating that Musk must comply with all state statutes regarding incorporation. What’re a few legal hoops to jump through when you‘re planning a mission to Mars? 

Musk or a subsidiary already owns dozens of parcels, paying out three times the appraised value in most cases. It looks likely that Elon Musk will soon own an entire town in South Texas. A sleepy village known for its beachfront and wildlife sanctuaries will soon cease to exist. Texans will be able to enjoy the beach less and less, restricted during launch days, which are becoming more frequent, flying in face of the state’s Open Beach act. State wildlife officials shudder to think of the repercussions of a major rocket disaster. Boca Chica Village is an important reminder that development comes at a cost to the people and the environment. Musk will bring new tax revenue and plenty of high-paying jobs to the area, but not without irrevocably altering the community and surrounding environment. Urban planning giving way to enterprise always comes with stipulations.

How we organize our cities is a reflection of our values. How we organize future cities will be a reflection of our ambitions. Learning lessons from the long history of urban planning is key to solving the socio-economic and environmental issues that plague us. Building new cities may be a ground-up exercise, but implementing best practices in urban development is not. 

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