Dreamscapes: how the cities of the future are taking shape around the world

Somewhere in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, plans for an ambitious new city are taking shape. Neom, built at a cost of $500 billion, hopes to be “the most sustainable urban complex in the world”, according to government publicity material. There are no skyscrapers, no commuter helicopters, no vertical farms or elevated subway systems. Instead, Neom sits near the ground and below, extending along a straight line.

Think of it as a utopia 43 times the size of Mumbai, intended for just 1 million people, written using a very long ruler. The city of 26,000 km2 is organized, district by district, on a strip of 170 km. Pedestrian areas are on the car-free ground floor, service areas are in the basements and connect all of them, one level lower, to high-speed trains.

The city aims to be largely dependent on solar and wind power. The largest green hydrogen and green ammonia plants are being built to produce fuel. Gigantic mirrored domes will use the heat of the sun to distill fresh water from the sea. Its 48 km² economic and industrial zone will be the largest floating structure in the world. And the dream is to be realized by 2030.

A projection of what Telosa, a city in the making in the United States, could look like.

Last year, American billionaire Marc Lore announced the construction of another futuristic utopia, Telosa, at a still undecided location in the deserts of the western United States. The proposed city aims to be home to 5 million people by 2050. Only electric cars and clean fuels will be allowed. A network of walkways, electric scooters and public transport promises to put everything – school, work, the mall, the park – within 15 minutes of everything else.

But look closely and you will find that these are not futures to look forward to. Cutting-edge technology is mostly experimental, living green costs more, control is centralized, management is driven by algorithms. Cameras, drones and facial recognition AI will abound. Even in the projected images, the neighborhoods appear generic, characterless, dislocated from their surroundings.

“It’s the most arrogant way of saying that you know what’s best for people just because you have the money to build,” says architect Dikshu Kukreja, of this style of town planning. “It’s not a progress marker.”

A group of houses in Arcosanti, a largely abandoned American town. (Wikimedia Commons)

Kukreja designed the award-winning India Pavilion at the recent Dubai Expo. He is also the author of the 2021 book, CPKA: Five Decades of India’s Built Environment, chronicling the work of his 53-year-old family business, CP Kukreja Architects.

“Historically, cities have developed organically, through interactions between their inhabitants, and between humans and the built and natural environments,” he says. “Any good town planning must provide space for each inhabitant, down to the sparrow. Most high-tech plans for new cities tend to view anything that isn’t an economically productive human as a pest to be kept at bay.

Even with the best of intentions, building a new city from scratch is a risk. Poland tried it in 1949 with Nowa Huta, a socialist-realist planned settlement near the capital Krakow. Designed on the Paris and London lines, it gave its 2,000,000 residents, mostly steel workers, access to parks and social spaces. The dream did not last. As communism weakened in the 1990s, the region became a hub of drugs, crime and poverty. It is now a tourist attraction, offering people the opportunity to visit a failed utopia.

In Arizona, Arcosanti has been a utopia in the making since 1970. Spaces and structures are designed as a blend of architecture and ecology. Buildings use concrete panels with built-in artwork, many face south for maximum sunlight. Residences are arranged in clusters, providing privacy amid shared social spaces. But the city offers no economic opportunity – there is simply nothing to do. Thus, the area supposed to house 5,000 people rarely has more than 150 inhabitants at a time, mostly architecture students.

Suburban cable cars in Medellin, Colombia. (Wikimedia Commons)

Closer to home, the commune of Auroville, built in 1968, is a center for experimenting with urban life. Homes and neighborhoods are built with an economical and climate-sensitive design that blends into the landscape. Of its 3,300 residents who also run small businesses there, alumni admit that Auroville’s experiments are difficult to run on a larger scale.

Could we find a balance between the two? Cities around the world are making creative adjustments. “The 20th century fascination with the car is over, we realize that we lived without a car before and we can start again,” says Kukreja.

Berlin plans to turn nearly all of downtown, an area the size of Manhattan, into a car-free zone, with better public transport and pedestrian lanes. In Medellin, Colombia, public transportation includes cable cars that float above dense neighborhoods, to avoid traffic.

“The Indore Metro was designed to connect its older areas; New Town, just outside Kolkata, has planned healthcare, waste management and traffic management alongside its residential projects,” says Kukreja. They are proof that a future city is born from the cities of today.

City planners around the world are keeping a close eye on Neom and Telosa as urban experiences to emulate, adapt, or avoid. Ultimately, says Kukreja, the test of any city will be: “Can it remain relevant to its residents?”