The Sunday Magazine

The global explosion of cities built from scratch sparks hope and concern

It's an urbanization trend that's taking off around the world. Take swaths of undeveloped land, add steel, concrete, technology, political capital and heaps of money and voila: Instant cities — ones that promise low environmental impacts and high quality of life. Sarah Moser of McGill University talks about this global phenomenon and how well it delivers on its promise.
This picture shows a model plan for Forest City, a new private city being built from scratch in Malaysia. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

We are in the midst of a worldwide explosion of new cities — massive urban centres, built entirely from scratch. 

"We continue to learn about new cities pretty much every week now," said Sarah Moser, a professor of geography at McGill University and the director of the New Cities Lab.

"For example, Morocco is building 20 new cities. Tanzania's building nine new cities."

Builders describe these creations as the smarter, greener cities of the future. They promise a fresh start, free from congestion, crowding and pollution. Every aspect of daily life has been enhanced — from sidewalks that melt snow and ice on their own, to pneumatic tubes that whisk garbage away from homes. 

I think it's defeatist to think that we can't fix our existing cities.- Sarah Moser

Some of the features are straight out of science fiction. NEOM, a proposed new city in Saudi Arabia, includes plans for robot maids, cloud-seeding technology, and an artificial moon. The project has been championed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The urge to build cities from scratch is not new. Moser said people have been building new cities for millennia, and there was a surge during the 1960s, when the Brazilian capital Brasilia was built in just 41 months. 

New cities throughout history have made utopian promises. But Moser said while the projects she studies still use utopian rhetoric, they're driven by very different forces. 

"[In the 1960s], these were state projects for the greater good," she said. 

"In contrast, I would say the majority of the cities today are fuelled by corporations, and these corporations see unprecedented opportunities to make money …. IBM, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, they're all in the new cities game now."

Private cities with CEOs, not mayors

CEO of NEOM Nadhmi al-Nasr speaks at a conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 25, 2018. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)

Some new city projects are state-run, like the new Malaysian capital Putrajaya — but others are privately owned and operated. 

"They don't have mayors. They don't have elected city councils. They have CEOs. So it's a completely corporatized model," Moser said. 

A lot of these new cities are being targeted at the elites — people who globally own five to 10 properties already.- Sarah Moser

One of the projects she studies is Forest City in Malaysia.

"It's China's largest property developer creating a private gated city from scratch in the ocean. They've had to engage in one of the largest land reclamation projects in the world to create a new city for 700,000 residents," she said. "I think what's particularly intriguing about this new city is that it's geared toward Chinese nationals, not toward Malaysians .... There are no Malaysian police or military allowed into the project. So who's policing the place? It's private security guards."

Another example is King Abdullah Economic City, a megaproject in Saudia Arabia announced in 2005. 

"[It's] completely private, and it's run by a company that's actually listed on the Saudi Stock Exchange. So technically, I could buy stock in King Abdullah Economic City and have some say over the city that residents would not have," Moser said. 

Who will live in new cities? 

The United Nations estimates that 68 per cent of the world population will live in cities by 2050. But while new city developers argue their projects can help solve the challenges created by massive urbanization, Moser said they often have different aims. 

"They're claiming that … the housing shortages can be addressed through the construction of new cities, and this is preferable to the endless squatter settlements and slums that we're seeing popping up everywhere," she said. 

"But in reality, a lot of these new cities are being targeted at the elites — people who globally own five to 10 properties already."

"For example, in Kenya the middle class earns about $20 U.S. a day, and units in these new cities that are being created in Kenya often cost $150,000 U.S. … It would take five lifetimes to actually pay off that condo." 

Sarah Moser is a professor of geography at McGill University and the director of the New Cities Lab. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

While housing units in new cities are being sold at a massive profit, the units sometimes stay empty. 

"We're at this moment in the global economy where real estate is being used as an asset class. This is a huge component of these new cities. They're creating condos and housing that oftentimes is being sold, but no one's occupying it," said Moser.

"These new cities, we often think of them as being far away … and the forces creating them [as] somehow unrelated to the lives of Canadians. But I would say that the flows of capital and a lot of the dynamics that are fostering this new cities trend are actually apparent in our cities as well."

'Like the Sidewalk Labs project on steroids'

An aerial photo from 2018 shows high-rise apartment buildings during heavy pollution in Songdo, a new city in South Korea. (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

Many new cities are also "smart" cities — like Songdo in South Korea, which was developed in part by technology giant Cisco and involves a "living lab" for Cisco technologies.

"Everything in Songdo is wired. There are sensors on everything, and CCTV cameras everywhere. This is a way of increasing efficiency in the city [and] reducing crime … There are a lot of critics saying that this is too high a cost to pay, and we should be concerned about privacy," she said. 

Moser said new smart cities around the globe are "kind of like the Sidewalk Labs project on steroids."

Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., wants to create a "smart city" called Quayside on Toronto's waterfront. The project has faced significant pushback over data collection and privacy.

"People are suspicious, rightfully so, of a technology company's role and what they're standing to gain and what we stand to lose. And also wondering, well, is Toronto so broken that we can't use existing mechanisms for urban development?" Moser said. 

'Our cities are never beyond hope'

A picture taken in September 2018 shows a driverless vehicle in a street at the site of Masdar City, a new city in UAE. Although Masdar was supposed to be the first carbon neutral city, Moser said developers have had to moderate their goals. (MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images)

Sometimes, new city projects are proposed because the problems facing existing cities have reached a crisis point. 

Indonesia and Egypt are both considering building new capital cities, in part because of concerns about overcrowding and pollution in Jakarta and Cairo. 

But Moser said she believes the explosion of new cities is driven not just by desperation, but cynicism.

"I think it's defeatist to think that we can't fix our existing cities. I find it very troubling that the best and brightest and the richest and most powerful in a lot of these countries have given up on their existing cities, and they are convincing investors and the population that we should just start over," she said. 

"If this was happening in my own country, I would fight for Montreal. I would fight to fix the problems in Montreal before we gave up and poured billions of dollars into a shiny new project."

"I think cities are never beyond hope. I think people who say that they are, stand to profit ... So I think we always have to follow the money and see who benefits and who loses out from these projects."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.