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Artist’s conception of a general Arcology

All of this talk about Mirabilis, the fictional future city of marvels which is dying from within (the setting of Daniel Claymore’s new science fiction/mystery novel) has gotten Ferrebeekeeper thinking about arcologies.  At present, an arcology is only a concept for the future–a super dense human city engineered to contain a self-sustaining ecology.  However, for a long time, architects, futurists, and urban planners have been working on buildings and communities which partake of the grand ideas behind arcologies.  Maybe that idea—building a mutualistic gestalt between lots of people, all their stuff, and humankind’s favorite living things—is really at the heart of urbanism.

We will talk about the implications of arcologies a lot more in the future.  To my eyes, the synthesis of ecology, evolution, and engineering has only happened in rudimentary ways thus far, but humankind will need a much greater grasp of this technology (and whatever sciences lie beneath the catchall field of ecology) to proceed any farther down the road we wish to be on.  For today’s post, however, we are only going to talk about contemporary news—since one of the world’s richest states has broken ground to build what is pretty definitively an arcology.  The planned city will consist of two 500 meter (1640 foot) tall glass skyscrapers standing 200 meters apart (from the outer wall of one to the outer wall of the other).  Between the two buildings will be an internal courtyard filled with delights.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this–the buildings’ length will be 170 kilometers (110 miles).

Artist’s conception of “The Line” (ending point at the Red Sea)

This complex is part of “Neom” a strange futuristic city which will be built in the desert beside the Red Sea. The particular linear arcology/double skyscraper is named ذا لاين (which, appropriately means “The Line” in Arabic). The whole community is being planned and financed by that great utopian visionary entity–the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!??? Sorry about those extra quotation marks, but if you were around in the late twentieth century/early twenty first century, you might be more likely to think of Saudi Arabia as an ossified petrostate more famous for a Faustian bargain between kleptocrats and Wahabi religious extremists than for futurist thinking (although, come to think of it, the Sauds arguably did have a major hand in engineering our current dystopia of global warming, religious extremism, and vast inequality).

The Saudi Prince may be noble, but he is said to consort with insurrectionists and other low characters

Anyway, setting aside all political and ethical concerns, the plans for the Line were announced on January 10, 2021 by that notorious cut-up, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a fiend–er–friend to a cross-section of journalists). When it is finished, “The Line” is expected to have nine million residents (a million more people than New York City). The Line will be powered entirely by renewable energy, and inhabitants will be able to walk anywhere they want within 5 minutes. If their, uh…in-Line, destination is not 5 minutes away, they will be able to take a subterranean bullet train to any place within the arcology. Deadly motor vehicles (which killed 43,000 people in the United States alone last year) will be banned!

This actually doesn’t sound half bad and I might sign up–at least if I weren’t now on record making fun of the wife-beating, murderous, & conniving (yet reform-minded) Prince Salman. Estimated costs for building The Line run between $200 billion and one trillion American dollars (which is probably less than the Second Avenue subway line ended up costing). The Saudi government estimates it will create 380,000 skilled jobs.

Futurists, political theorists, and real estate mavens debate the merits of The Line. Humorously, the last group object that it falls down somewhat when it comes to their core mantra of “location, location, location” (located, as it is, in a barren sweltering desert with no attractions or neighbors of any sort). The real estate people also assert that it is otherwise a laundry list of development cliches and problems waiting to happen. For my part though, I am uncertain but intrigued. Even with slave labor and all of the wealth of the world’s foremost petrostate, I wonder if Saudi Arabia can build this thing according to the schematics. But imagine if they did! I admire this kind of crazy out-of-the-box thinking–and I kind of like the concepts behind both Neom and The Line. Since the United States has given up entirely on thinking about the future (and since the Germans are completely practical and the Chinese think only about subjugating Asia and Africa) somebody has to think big and attempt enormous impossible projects. I have mixed feelings about the vicious autocrats who rule Saudi Arabia, but I wish them good fortune in building their audacious science-fiction city. If it doesn’t work we will know a lot more about potential problems with insane mega engineering (on someone else’s dime). And it is does work, well we can build something like it within a canyon on the moon, or the shadow line of Mercury.

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One of the splashy headlines from today’s newspapers concerned an American mogul’s plans to build a second planned city in Uganda….even though he hasn’t finished his first. I did not know that American moguls were building any cities in Uganda, but strange, futuristic planned cities interest me, so I was quick to click on the headline! Apparently the mogul in question is the rap/R&B singer Akon, whose family emigrated to Missouri from Senegal. Akon’s first planned city, “Akon City” is set to be built in Senegal, not Uganda (I guess I misunderstood the Post’s somewhat misleading headline). All financial transactions which take place in Akon City will be made with “Akoins” a cryptocurrency also devised by Akon.

3D illustration of a futuristic city in sunset, with an organic architectural design and high-rise buildings, for fantasy and science fiction backgrounds.

Although urban planners and economic development experts are…skeptical…about both cities, Akon and his collaborators aver that they have raised $4 billion dollars of the required $6 billion dollars to get stage one of the city (in Senegal) started. I am going to gloss over the pointed questions which auditors and activists have raised concerning how so much real estate was pledged to these projects by cash-strapped governments and just show you some pictures (in fact, all of these pictures are designs/conceptions for how Akon City could look).

I am not going to speculate about whether Akon can build Akon City and finance it with Akoins, however I would like to propose that if he does manage to do so, he should immediately extend a sister city deal (and most-favored-trade status) to Akron, Ohio. I feel like that post-industrial rustbelt city has been desperately looking for someone with Akon’s interests. In fact, I wonder if they couldn’t raise some quick cash from the rap mogul by getting rid of their “R” (which they could make some extra money off of by selling to Pune, India or Vigo, Spain, or some similar metropolis).

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Last week we checked out the planned city of Palmanova which was built by battle-hardened Venetian egalitarians who were planning for an Ottoman invasion (which never materialized).  Palmanova is shaped like a nine-pointed star and while regular polygons are stylish and exceedingly geometric, if you are like me, you might find them a bit too geometric.   Why couldn’t they build cities in the shape of some magnificent animal like a quoll or a rhinoceros?

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Juba, South Sudan

Well you are in luck! They could very well build a city in the shape of a rhinoceros!  The nation of South Sudan came into existence in 2011 as a direct result of the Second Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2005 (that war followed the First Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1955 to 1972…but I am going to elide over some of the history of Sudan so that we don’t become overwhelmed by despair).  South Sudan is a young nation which faces a lot of problems…one of which is that the capital Juba was built for the convenience of the British army (and the Greek merchants who supplied the army) and it hasn’t really proven very suitable as the capital city of a modern nation state.   The most likely outcome is that the capital will be moved to Ramciel, which is closer to the center of the country and not quite so arid, but urban planners came up with a fascinating alternate proposal to build a whole new Juba in the shape of a mighty rhinoceros.  Here is the plan:

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Now obviously, it isn’t right to build perissodactyl-shaped cities just because you can (although cities certainly used to be designed around horses).  The citizens of South Sudan also have needs which are more urgent than the need for a vanity project in the middle of a site which has already proven problematic.  Yet the sheer nuttiness of the proposed rhinoceros Juba, makes me a bit sad that we are unlikely to see it.

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Of course the fact that it is unlikely doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Like the new Indonesian Capital City, the capital of South Sudan is currently in administrative flux. I will keep you updated on the what happens with the move to Ramciel (nothing worth speaking of has happened so far) or of the rhinoceros, if anybody shows up with backhoes and starts scraping it out of the arid plain.  In the meantime, let us wish the very best to the founding fathers of South Sudan as they try to make their troubled new nation prosperous in a time when deserts are becoming hotter and drier.  And speaking of desert cities, tune in tomorrow when we see what other directions city planners have taken to deal with this challenging environment.

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I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

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Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

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But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

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Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

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