Desert cities are more than a mirage

The world cannot seem to resist the urge to build cities from scratch, writes Monte Reel. While many such plans are overly ambitious, expensive and unrealistic, they can still succeed by bringing new life in ways unimagined by the original urban designers.

Humankind has long been obsessed with the idea of building cities from scratch: from the “father or urban planning” Hippodamus in ancient Greece to the “garden city movement” across Europe and North America in the early 20th century. Writing for Bloomberg, Monte Reel argues that the world seems to be in the midst of yet another such outbreak, though this one is located in the developing world, where population growth and rapid urbanization have overwhelmed existing infrastructure.

Reel recites a long list of such projects: Eko Atlantic, an artificial island off Lagos that will serve as a Manhattan-style financial hub for the entire continent; Hope Forest City in Ghana, which will be home to the tallest building in Africa; Vision City in Rwanda, with its free Wi-Fi and solar-powered streetlights; and Malaysia’s Forest City, a $100 billion luxury development.

Infamous for its “ghost cities”, China is building Xiongan. Just two hours south of Beijing, the “high-tech hub teeming with leading-edge companies, research institutes and world-class transportation” is closely identified with President Xi Jinping, and thus more likely to succeed where others have failed.

But according to Reel, the boldest of these projects is the new capital of Egypt, which is slated to be built just 45 kilometres east of the current capital Cairo. Expectations are high — and the price tag even higher, leading some to argue that it doesn’t address what residents actually need.

As a case in point, Reel mentions Masdar City outside of Abu Dhabi. Slated 10 years ago to be the world’s first zero-impact city, today just 5 per cent of the city is built. Yet according to Reel, Masdar City isn’t a failure just because it hasn’t lived up to aspirations: “It serves as an important function as a laboratory where the government and private-sector partners can test green technologies.”

The same can be said about many of these places. “They shouldn’t be judged according to their original intentions, which too often get oversold to bait investors. Cities are organisms that undergo constant evolutions, inevitably responding to stresses in ways planners can’t predict,” Reel argues. For him, true success is found in the vibrant urban life that fills the spaces left blank by the city planners.

Image credit: sophia valkova via Unsplash

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