Where do we draw The Line?
Somewhat out of the blue last week I was asked to do a short bit of media (1) on Saudi Arabia’s dramatic new release of some renderings for their proposed mega-city in the desert, The Line. In case you haven’t heard of this scheme, it is a plan, we are told, for an entirely new kind of city. As the name suggests, the shape of the city is a slender line that runs arrow-straight for 170 km. It is only 200 m wide and 500 m tall. For reference, the width of the line spans about the extent of two soccer fields placed end-to-end or about the same number of American football fields including end zones. For a height reference, think of the tallest buildings in Manhattan or any one of a number of tall towers in China – the Shanghai World Financial Centre, for instance. The proposal, if I understand the boilerplate correctly, is for that slender volume of space to house 9,000,000 people (yes, that is nine-million). Considering the ground plane only for a moment, the resultant people density comes out to about 720,000 people per square mile (2). Currently, the world city with the highest population density is Manila, which has about 107,000 people per square mile. So, The Line proposes a density almost seven times greater than this (3). Just to add to the overall wonder of the project, there is a plan for a high-speed transit line that promises to get people from one end of the city to the other in 20 minutes. This may not be impossible to do, as current maglev trains in Japan, Korea, and China are capable of roughly comparable speeds (4) but I do wonder about the practicality of fitting the transportation needs of 9 million people into the train. The designers clearly plan for most people to stay put and to inhabit their own small segment of The Line. Indeed, a ban on cars means that each small segment will need to contain amenities to suit everyone’s needs.
Until we see more detailed plans, it’s a little hard to know what to make of this. The renderings and videos swoop us through three-dimensional space, among lush hanging gardens, walkways at a wide range of different altitudes, relaxed young citizens sitting around café tables, and a lot of slightly mysterious partitions and enclosures. We are promised more details soon, but the flamboyant language around the proposal describes quick and easy access to nature, water, majestic vistas from rooftop gardens, all enclosed under what looks like one continuous mirrored surface. All of this is promised at zero impact and bristling with AI control systems to make our lives seem effortless and comfortable.
Thanks for reading The wandering brain! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I’m not enough of an engineer to comment intelligently on the feasibility of everything that has been proposed. The visuals remind me a little bit of Elysium. Cynics have mentioned Snowpiercer as a more dystopic cinematic reference point. I’m enough of a psychologist, though, to comment a little on the human angle and to spin off in a couple of other directions as well, so spin I shall. Whether or not this thing is built and whether or not the people will come if it does (5), the proposal sent my mind scurrying off in a few different directions.
Density and Crowding
First of all, and most obviously, there is the proposed density. Funnily enough, a viewer of my interview took the time to write to me, asking about density and referencing some old psychological literature describing the horrific effects of crowding in animals. It isn’t pretty. There’s also a rich literature on the impact of crowding in institutional settings like prisons. Again, there’s abundant evidence that we don’t treat one another kindly when we are feeling pressed for space. Certain things help. For example, we know that it is the feeling of crowdedness rather than pure density that influences how we feel. Architectural depth, which has to do with the degree to which sequences of walls can help to shade us from the gaze of others, is helpful. Some work from my own lab suggests that being surrounded by very tall buildings can generate negative, perhaps claustrophobic feelings. Light, temperature, noise, and other kinds of external motivating factors can also influence the feeling of crowding. The degree to which we feel we have control makes a difference. For example, we are much less likely to feel crowded at a rally or a rock concert where we are wedged in among thousands of others than we might be if we were crammed into a crowded bus with a hundred other people who, like us, don’t want to be there at all.
I have no inside information on this project, but I wonder whether the designers are relying on the solid height of The Line to buffer residents from crowding. If we can stack layer upon layer in a 500-meter chunk of space perhaps that will give some breathing space. I don’t really know whether or not piling up citizens in different layers like the ingredients of a Napoleon pastry will work, but I suspect it will be problematic, especially if the expectation is that we will be able to navigate easily from one layer to the next. Navigating in three dimensions is not something that we do very well at all. You probably have personal experiences with the difficulty, for example, of understanding exactly what lies above or below you if you live in a multi-level home or spend time in any kind of building that has more than one floor. Some old research in my lab suggests that people can be surprisingly clueless about where they are in such a complex, multilevel space. Though we can appreciate great vaulted ceilings and domes when they are above us, we are mostly adapted to living on a plane, it seems. In other kinds of settings that are more familiar, such as large offices, the evidence suggests that even social connections are strained when they are stretched between floors. Someone whose office is on a different floor to you will seem much more psychological distant than someone on the same floor, even if the actual linear separation between the two of you is the same in both cases. One study showed that separating employees even by just a couple of floors had the same effect as putting them in entirely different buildings. It might be just conceivable that in The Line, this wouldn’t matter. If the vision is to have people live in very small groupings without much need to interact with other groupings, these ideas are feasible. But people are unruly, ornery, more like tetchy toddlers than obedient automatons. If we are bunked into a space where the design intention is for us to stay in Area A, you can bet the farm that we’ll all soon be wandering off to Areas C, D, and E.
Planning, authority, freedom
Which brings me to a much bigger point about The Line. In a few of my previous posts, I’ve talked about friction, autonomy, personal freedom, and all of the things that are afforded by a “natural” organically designed city. There’s a reason why cities always evolve naturally to have a particular kind of shape, which is normally a kind of hub or, in the language of the space syntax boffins (6) a deformed wheel. That kind of shape tends to minimize the distances between things. It usually results in an intensively active central core and radiating spurs of activity with increasing distance to the centre. The Line flies completely in the face of this kind of organization and suggests something radically new. There’s nothing objectively wrong with trying to do something new, but the great question is whether citizens, forced to adopt a different set of habits will put up with it. Will they stay? If they do will they be perpetually miserable? Will we see whole sets of proto-developments just outside of The Line meant to co-opt the design so that it more closely resembles a hub? Will other kinds of hacks arise as people work to find ways to make the design liveable? If The Line is built, it will be a fascinating experiment in urban living, but possibly an extremely expensive and uncomfortable one for residents.
Returning to my middling interview of a few days ago, the journalist asked me a question relating to the Saudi Arabian track record on human rights. I admit I felt slightly baited and I left the question alone, but it has made me think in a more general way about the role of culture in the success or failure of a grandiose top-down design like this. Might it be possible that in an authoritarian society where residents are used to bowing to rules imposed by their leaders, such a settlement might have more success than it would in an unruly democracy (7)?
The question I posed to myself reminded me of a story I was told during one of my visits to Russia in happier times. We were looking at a building that, in its Stalinist heyday, had been used to house the families of federal security forces, known at the time as the NKGB, the forerunner of the KGB. In order to promote good Communist principles and practices, the building had been designed with a central kitchen and dining hall. The idea was that the women of the families would work shoulder-to-shoulder in communal fashion to make shared meals for all of the families, who would dine together in one hall. There was only one problem: wives of NKGB officers who were installed in the building revolted at the prospect of living without their own dedicated, private kitchens. They insisted that their husbands found inventive ways to retrofit kitchens into their apartments. And so they did (8). The point is that even in a society with a pretty strictly imposed central governing unit and a spatial design that strongly discourages unruly use, our thirst for freedom, novelty, and autonomy seems to rise to the surface somehow. To the extent that a city can be designed, I think it’s always better to accept this impulse as a premise rather than to fight against it. I hope that the people in charge of The Line think about this a bit.
(1) If you look at the clip and you’re wondering why I look a bit like a proto-unabomber in this clip, there’s a backstory. I was asked to comment on The Line on the Friday before a weekend. A weekend in August. A LONG weekend in August. I had big plans to spend the weekend sauntering around town with my lady looking for delicious things to eat, drinking beer in my hammock, and reading a trashy novel. Not knowing what I was getting into, I agreed to what I thought would be a quick phone interview that I’d be able to do in the field (aka the hammock). When I received the production notes and realized I’d have to be propped up in front of a camera, my mind rebelled a bit. Hence what my mother would have called, the “slummocky look” (a lovely 19th century British word that sounds exactly as it means). If you decide to invite me to give a talk, rest assured that I will look nice. I own several suits and a lot of ties.
(2) Apologies for the number-whanging switch from metric to imperial. I’m just lazily following the conventions of easily accessible online data.
(3) It’s true that compared to The Line, Manila is pretty flat and The Liners do propose that the populace spend a fair bit of time living up high. But still….the numbers are daunting.
(4) In the clip I said that I didn’t think the train speed was possible. On further research, I think that the bald velocity would work but if there were any but the smallest degree of demand and if people wanted to do anything other than just shoot like a cannonball from one end to the other, then no.
(5) And given the struggles of Songdo City in Korea and China’s ghost cities, there are reasons to think that getting buyers might be an issue.
(6) If you don’t know about space syntax, it’s worth a look. The idea is to try to predict the movements of people through a space based on the way things connect together (i.e. the syntax of a space). This is an interesting first read.
(7) I hate that I have to put in a caveat so I’m hiding it down here. Honestly, I’m not sure that there really are any unruly democracies any more. The world is sliding alarmingly in a different direction it seems.
(8) A caveat here is that I heard this story from a translator who was assigned to me during my visit. We got along so well that he told me that even if he hadn’t been getting paid for the job, he would have enjoyed chumming around with me. He also taught me how to enjoy Russian vodka. I was an avid student. The point here being is that I have no independent evidence that his version of NKGB history was correct. But even if the story isn’t true, it ought to be.
What I’m Reading
To advance my project to understand where science came from and where it’s going, I’ve been reading Michale Strevens’ book The Knowledge Machine. It’s a pretty fast read, quite a relief after the last tome on scientific method that I slogged through and honestly more likely to take me where I want to go. I’ve also gone back to my old habit of having a novel on the go at all times. I find my life just isn’t as happy if I’m not doing this. At the moment, its Jason Matthews’ The Kremlin’s Candidate. Matthews was a former CIA agent who turned his hand to writing fantastically detailed espionage novels. They also include recipes for every meal that is mentioned, so what’s not to love?
What I’m Eating
I’m sad to report that there’s not much to report here. The most inventive work I’ve done in the kitchen this week is continued work on my sourdough game. The boule below just came out of the oven an hour ago. It replaced a previous loaf, now discarded, in which I experimented with some fancy artisanal local stone ground flour, resulting in a product so dense that broken teeth were a possibility. I’m here alone in the house with this aromatic replacement loaf. Will I find the strength to leave it alone until someone comes home to share it with me? I’m passing the time by googling dodgy websites that tell me that sourdough bread is good for weight loss. It’s got an odd shape because I got into a small tussle with the dough when it refused to slide off the peel and onto a scalding hot stone in my oven. Who can blame it? I’m not sure about the destiny of this loaf. I’m considering something Italian for dinner, perhaps some sausage and peppers. You might see the inside slathered in butter next time I write.
Thanks for reading The wandering brain! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.