Why Are Countries Building Their Cities From Scratch?

Imagine having a blank canvas on which to master-plan a brand new city; drawing its roads, homes, commerces, and public spaces on a fresh slate and crafting its unique urban identity. Every urban planner has fantasized about designing a city from scratch and luckily for some, this dream is morphing into concrete opportunities. 

Over the last two decades, new, master-planned cities have emerged from the ground up at an unprecedented scale, the majority of which have been created in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, with currently over 150 new cities in the making. This new type of urban development has shown to be particularly seductive in emerging markets, where they are sold as key parts of the strategy to leapfrog from agriculture and resource-based systems to knowledge economies by attracting foreign capital and boosting economic growth.

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According to Forbes, “The new city building movement that we are currently in the middle of is one of the most under the radar and most misinterpreted social and economic developments happening in the world today”.

Dr. Sarah Moser, Professor at McGill University, Director of the New Cities Lab and leading expert on the topic, describes new city projects as an “attempt to create a new, relatively self-sufficient urban area that is geographically separate from existing cities, has its own name, and is governed separately from existing cities''. In contrast to suburbs or offshoots of existing cities, they are purpose-built organisms that hold their own identities, presenting a clean slate with a number of opportunities that make them attractive to the private sector.

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Aerial view of Northeast Asia Trade Tower and Central Park at Songdo International City. Image © Stock for you | Shutterstock

A distinct characteristic that unites this wave of new cities is their tendency to market themselves with their own brand, identity, and vision - not so differently than a start-up would pitch itself to investors. With its country clubs, gated communities and premium shopping malls, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) markets itself as the region’s key manufacturing and logistics hub and as the city of choice for the young elite who seek to invest in the new economy. Its website boasts “connected communities with access to the pristine waters of the Red Sea”, a residential district with “an 18-hole golf course”, and a “luxurious Esmeralda health and leisure club“. Along with 4 other economic cities, the $100bn privately-run megaproject forms part of the Saudi Vision 2030, an economic diversification strategy to shift away from the country’s dependence on petroleum. NEOM, the most audacious of the 4 projects, is a $500bn Silicon Valley-inspired megalopolis (33 times the size of New York City) designed as a center for renewable energy, biotechnology, manufacturing, media, and entertainment. Self-described as “an accelerator of human progress”, it aims to be a living laboratory for technologies such as autonomous mobility solutions (including flying drone-powered taxis) and port logistics handled by artificial intelligence - all the while being fully powered by locally generated renewables.

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NEOM political map. Image © Peter Hermes Furian | Shutterstock

To facilitate the creation and development of these ambitious new ventures, NEOM and KAEC operate within Special Economic Zones (SEZs), where they enjoy business and trade laws that differ from the rest of the country. This is a strategy that has been replicated in many new cities around the world, as the combination of favorable legislation and tax incentives (in addition to the creation of real estate land inherent to the development of new cities) make them more conducive to foreign direct investment.

So, how did we get here in the first place? While there has been a marked increase in new city development over the last 20 years, building cities from scratch is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been building cities from the ground-up since the great cities of antiquity, and more recently, during the 1960s wave of modernist, purpose-built government seats like Brasilia and Chandigarh. But what is it about the last two decades that has led to the latest wave of new city building? Moser explains this as a symptom of unique global conditions, including the emergence of real estate as an asset class, neoliberalism, and the deregulation of economies, as well as the growing role of tech companies in ‘smart’ urban development. This has made the creation of new cities alluring to multinational tech corporations such as Cisco, Google, Microsoft and IBM, all of which have shown a keen interest in their development. South Korea’s $40-bn master-planned ‘smart city’ of Songdo, one of the pioneers of the new city movement, provides an illustrative example. Built on a 600-hectare stretch of reclaimed land, the city serves as a testing ground for Cisco technologies, which has wired all corners of the city with synapses and aims to gather real-time data to optimize city living for Songdo’s citizens.

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Masdar City Phase 2. Image Courtesy of CBT

The official rationale for new city-building is compelling as the projects are typically sold as opportunities for developing economies to spark growth, gain a place on the world stage and even reinvent their national identities. From Norman Foster-designed Masdar City in the UAE to Eko Atlantic, Nigeria’s “new Dubai”, computer-generated visualizations depict utopian visions of smart, ‘eco-cities’ that hold promises of a more modern and prosperous future. However, the darker side of the entrepreneurial approach to city-making is that there appears to be a stark gap between stakeholders’ official rationale and the reality of these developments - more often than not, they’re conceived as investment magnets for the private sector and economic elite. Government officials and developers reap large gains by buying tracts of land which they can sell for steep prices (upon announcing the creation of the new city), opening the door for construction companies to receive their own slice of profit during the building phase. In other words, there’s a lot of money to be made before anyone even moves in, and with many units being sold as investment properties, meeting occupancy goals is far from given. Putrajaya, Malaysia’s “Intelligent Garden City”, has managed to receive just over 90,000 of the 350,000 people they were planning on attracting.

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Masterplan Design of Sustainable City in the Desert (Masdar, UAE) by westonjd. Image via Shutterstock

This also raises questions about who these new master-planned cities are actually designed for. With their luxury condos, country clubs, and premium shopping malls, it becomes clear when looking at new city propaganda that they are synonymous with exclusionary plans aimed at the economic elite. We are yet to see a new city featuring mixed-income neighborhoods and public schools. More alarming still are the forced evictions that have taken place to make way for master-planned developments like NEOM, which will be displacing at least 20,000 members of the Huwaitat Tribe, who have inhabited the region since before the founding of the Saudi state.

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Oceanix City. Image Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Considering this, does new cities’ potential role as living laboratories that enable experimentation with new forms of designing, governing and running cities justify their creation? While it may be too soon to fully assess the impact of entrepreneurial urbanization, there is something to be said about the opportunities that building from a tabula rasa presents. As Moser and Cutts explain in their piece for NewCities, building cities from the ground-up enables us to learn from past mistakes, address the global urban housing shortage, and ‘hardwire’ them with features that promote aspects such as walkability and social inclusion, all the while implementing practices that keep their environmental impact minimal.

It is also worth highlighting the unique potential for new cities to serve as national rebranding tools and as the means through which previously colonized countries can reclaim and define their own identity. By creating Yachay-City of Knowledge, Ecuador hopes to rebrand itself and ignite a national transformation from a commodity-based economy to one that exports knowledge and innovative technology on a global scale. Launched in 2012, the 4500-hectare diversification project combines a planned ‘green’ city, a science park, and YachayTech, a research-oriented public university. In the words of the city’s General Manager, Héctor Rodríguez, “we hope that this city will have a big impact on national development and culture” - only time will tell, but new city building could be the key to Ecuador rebranding its image as the ‘Silicon Valley of the Andes’.

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Aerial panorama cityscape of Cyberjaya (West), Malaysia. Image © Jackson Siow | Shutterstock

Looking ahead, what might the post-COVID landscape look like for new cities? Considering the pressure that the pandemic has placed on governments’ budgets, Moser anticipates that “countries and different levels of government will be enthusiastic about outsourcing many aspects of city-building to the private sector. This means that we could potentially see an unprecedented boom in new city projects, possibly even larger than the wave of new cities that followed the 2008 global financial crisis”. Moreover, she predicts a growing demand from high-income classes for gated and securitized environments - located at a distance from the urban poor and unrest caused by a recession - which could lead to more opportunities for tech companies and developers to get involved in the creation of new cities. This raises a number of concerns such as cybersecurity issues, with governments in emerging markets likely to be more welcoming to tech companies looking to test out their digital infrastructure in contexts where privacy laws are less developed. 

With 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, new master-planned cities present compelling possibilities for experimentation in urban design and governance. While existing new cities highlight the importance of the private sector’s role in mobilizing the necessary funding for tech and infrastructure investment, they raise concerns about the consequences of governments’ willingness to give corporations a leading role in their development, as well as cast doubts on their real motives for building them in the first place. In the age of neoliberalism and tech giants, designing brand new cities as places that serve citizens of all socioeconomic levels - rather than as purely profit-making mechanisms - may be the biggest challenge yet.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: The Future of Cities. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Marianne Sibaud. "Why Are Countries Building Their Cities From Scratch?" 25 Jan 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/955203/why-are-countries-building-their-cities-from-scratch> ISSN 0719-8884

Aerial view of cityscape. Image © Success Media | Shutterstock


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