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Why are so many new megacities being built?

Skyscrapers are rising almost out of nowhere as countries compete to show off their green credentials

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Sophie Dickinson

Smack bang in the Saudi Arabian desert, it looks like a mirage at first. A hulking, futuristic metropolis, rising out of the sand like something from a Frank Herbert novel. But the reality is a whole lot weirder. This 100-mile-long ‘linear city’ will actually be built: the Saudi state’s most outlandish attempt yet to project an image of itself as progressive and cutting-edge.

Named Neom (neo is new in Greek; the M’s from mustaqbal, Arabic for ‘future’), the settlement would have a greater land mass than Israel, be totally car-free and powered by wind and solar energy. One part would even float on the Red Sea to help conserve coral reefs. The first section is due to be completed by 2025.

And it seems it won’t be the only city springing up almost out of nowhere. Across the Atlantic, in the middle of desert land, another brand-new megacity is on the way. Danish architecture firm BIG and billionaire Marc Lore are working on an American settlement called Telosa. They reckon that the development – whose exact location is still to be confirmed – will house up to five million people by 2060.

A render of Telosa in the US. Photograph: BIG and Bucharest Studio

So, what’s with all these slightly ridiculous new city plans? Why bother when you could just keep expanding the places you already have? Well, to start with, there’s branding. Building a whole new city is pretty damn impressive, and more than that, it’s an opportunity to show off your supposed values as a developer. In the case of both Neom and Telosa, everything revolves around sustainability; the designs show tree-covered buildings, train networks and nature-filled parks. Technology is also at the heart of the plans, with Telosa boasting ‘slow-moving autonomous vehicles’ and robotic household helpers featuring in Neom.

Songdo in South Korea. Photograph: Sungjin Kim/Getty Images

One purpose-built ‘smart city’ that already exists is Songdo in South Korea. It was completed last year and has all sorts of practical features, like pneumatic tubes that suck household waste underground, app-controlled lighting and thermostats, and real-time sensors monitoring traffic congestion. But where that development is a largely pragmatic – if slightly soulless – undertaking, critics say the Saudi and US ‘cities’ seem to be vanity projects first and foremost. Neom is just another move in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to repair his country’s image, while Telosa has widely been referred to as a ‘greenwashed Vegas’. In any case, it makes the complaints over the development of new towns like Milton Keynes – and that dodgy building over the road – seem very innocent indeed. 

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