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‘The Line’ turned into ‘The Dash’

‘The Line’ turned into ‘The Dash’

Markus Appenzeller

What that could mean to urbanism in Saudi Arabia

Last week, news outlets reported about the cutting back of ‘the Line’, Saudi Arabia’s most iconic and controversial mega project. Of its intended 170 kilometres, for now, only a first phase of a few thousand meters will be realized. The Line has become a mere dash, with future development phases uncertain. This change of plan does not come completely unexpected, if one knows a bit about the history of Urbanism.

In the profession of urban planning, there has always been the desire of some planners to design big gestures. In most cases, they turned out less ideal than intended. The urban axis had to change somewhere because a building was in the way or topography asked for it, as with Buenos Aires’ Avenida de 9 Julio.  The forum remained unfinished because objectives changed, like in Berlin’s ‘Band des Bundes’ government ensemble. And the ideal city did not get further than a few streets or buildings in its core, like in the UK’s Letchworth garden city. In the 1960s and 70s, movements called the Metabolists, the Structuralists or Super-architecture all proposed buildings the size of cities as systems that were intended to grow like the Line. The few ones that got built usually did not get much further than the initial pilot phase. The reasons for this can be found in changing social, economic, or operational conditions these structures were not suitable for any more.

Model of the Line at Cityscape 2024

It is easy to utter the “told you so” schadenfreude, but that seems inappropriate to me, since I believe that from an intellectual point of view, the Line has raised several questions we ought to deal with when thinking about cities in the increasingly extreme climate of the Arab Peninsula in the 21st century. The Line is the formulation of a possible answer that can and should be taken seriously.

The discussion about that one mega project covers the view on other, almost equally ambitious plans that seem promising but less “one-liner” eye catching. I am talking about the city extensions taking place at the western and northern edge of Riyadh, in northern Jeddah, in Makkah and around Daman. They embrace a more traditional understanding of the city and an approach that allows for incremental development and gradual adaptation. In that sense, these plans are a lot less vulnerable to changes in society, economy and can accommodate new types of uses.

Riyadh North Pole – image: addadruh

They all use the only truly successful big gesture: the grid. I believe the reason for its global success is, that it is an anti-gesture. Where all others try to create unique conditions, the grid does the exact opposite. That makes it extremely adaptable and open to interpretation in many ways. That is good news for Saudi cities, since it opens opportunities for ‘building the city further’ rather than completely abandoning the old and embracing the new. Having legacy systems in place might limit the radicality of what can be proposed, but is also keeps investment lower, with more funds available to be spread over larger areas that can include upgrades of the existing cities. In that continuous grid holding everything together, one can still do the highest tower or the biggest cube or the largest urban park, but one can also do small scale community driven neighbourhood regeneration, slow mobility networks or high streets.

The transition from “The Line” to more flexible and inclusive urban models represent not a setback, but an opportunity to forge a more sustainable and equitable future for Saudi cities. By embracing adaptability, innovation, and community-driven solutions, we can build cities that thrive amidst uncertainty and embody the rich diversity and resilience of their inhabitants. The ‘none-liners’ – those not living in the Line – certainly would not mind.

by Markus Appenzeller
cover image courtesy: wikipedia

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