Saudi Arabia is taking the already buzzy concept of a vertical city and literally turning it on its side, with plans for a residential community that will stretch 170 kilometers (106 miles) across an environment devoid of roads, cars and carbon emissions. Boldy ambitious? Without a doubt—prompting many skeptics to question whether the project, a so-called groundscraper dubbed The Line, would actually come to fruition when it was unveiled in 2021. But recent drone footage revealed construction kicking off in September as teams began creating the foundation for a space that will eventually support 9 million residents and become part of the larger Neom smart city gigaproject.
Located near the coast of the Red Sea, Neom aims to be a tourist destination that also transforms urban living with three distinct developments, including The Line, which will feature twin buildings that run parallel to each other and connect by walkways. The entire structure will have a width of only 200 meters (656 feet) and will be built on a footprint of just 34 square kilometers (13 square miles).
These dimensions have resulted from a wholesale rethink of city planning, with the team dubbing it “zero gravity urbanism.” City functions will be layered vertically, giving people the option of moving in three dimensions: up, down or across.
“When we think of tall buildings, they often have to deal with gravity loads and wind loads on their own,” says Tarek Qaddumi, Neom’s director of urban planning. “Here the advantage is that the buildings support each other, reducing the pressure on each one individually.”
By reimagining the physical and environmental footprint of urban development, project leaders have the potential to radically reshape expectations of how people live, work and play. Case in point: Essential services like schools and medical clinics will be accessible to all residents within a five-minute walk, and a high-speed rail system will offer an end-to-end journey that takes just 20 minutes. Trees, gardens and other plant life will be nestled among work and recreational structures.
As part of its sustainability goals, The Line is slated to run on 100 percent renewable energy. As envisioned by Enowa (Neom’s energy, water and hydrogen subsidiary), the zero-carbon city will combine solar and wind energy with a desalinated water plant, which will also be powered by renewable energy. Ultimately, The Line could produce 650 metric tons of green hydrogen per day, making it home to the world’s largest green hydrogen plant. That’s not the only power move: Smart energy grids will distribute resources across the city to maximize energy conservation.
The team also plans to embed AI throughout the development—tech that’s designed to make life easier for people, with features like smart medical services and autonomous drone taxis.
Yet the project is not without controversy, with much of the debate centered around the idea of building an entirely new city in the middle of a desert as the world battles the repercussions of climate change. And while the team has committed to renewable energy, the development will no doubt require massive cooling operations, especially given the region’s steadily rising heat.
“This solution is a little bit like wanting to live on Mars because things on Earth are very messy,” New Urban Mobility Alliance senior advisor Carlos Felipe Pardo told NPR. He also questioned the ability for people to enjoy nature or to experience something that isn’t “artificial” in such a high-tech-focused environment.
And then there are the questions swirling about the project’s ambitious timeline and whether it can possibly be completed in such a short period of time. Project leaders say they expect to have the first 1 million people living on The Line by 2030.
To secure buy-in and showcase the complex design concepts, project leaders launched a nationwide exhibition tour of The Line in August—offering nearly 50 guided tours per day. The tour’s first stop in Jeddah attracted more than 14,000 visitors.
Stakes are high: Neom is part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiative to build “a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.” Saudi leaders say The Line project stands to potentially create 380,000 “jobs of the future” and contribute SAR180 billion to the kingdom’s GDP by 2030.