A Closer Look at Green Cities
Updated: Jan 25
Written By: Maya Ardon
Edited By: Jackson Hejtmanek
In the past several decades, negative environmental consequences brought about by urban sprawl, associated infrastructure inefficiency, and degradation of natural areas have become increasingly difficult to ignore. As a recent response to these issues, the green city concept has emerged to attempt to protect green space, enhance urban liveability, and confront urban expansion (2018). The approach re-conceptualizes urban spaces to view all facets of nature as integral infrastructure (Brueste, 2020).
The green city has become a popular concept across the many fields of public policy, climate science, and urban planning; however, definitions of the green city vary, as each field “attaches different meaning and relevance to the concept” (Brueste, 2020). Still, most prioritize a clean energy transition, increased well-being and socioeconomic conditions, incorporation of green space as a fixture of urban areas, and limits to horizontal urban expansion. The main debates between fields pertain to whether society should adapt current cities to prioritize green infrastructure and climate resilience, or build new green cities as projects from scratch. Saudi Arabia’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar NEOM project exemplifies the latter school.
First unveiled in 2017 and planned to be completed in 2025, NEOM is Saudi Arabia’s future sustainable megacity and spearhead in its efforts to diversify its oil-dependent economy (Procter, 2022). Visions for the Line – the city’s 170 km-long, 200 meter-wide urban component – emphasize car-free living, with ample bike space as well as local and regional rapid transit access (Thomas & Venema, 2022). In addition to powering the city entirely with renewables, plans also include “the world’s largest coral reef restoration project” and the incorporation of vertical farming and greenhouses to make NEOM “the world’s most food self-sufficient city” (Thomas & Venema, 2022). Further, NEOM will incorporate surrounding rewilded nature as part of its infrastructure among its intent to preserve 95% of its land (NEOM). NEOM also represents Saudi Arabia’s shifting economic focus towards tourism, international finance and business, and entertainment industries (Procter, 2022).
In theory, NEOM’s re-imagination of what a city could be offers a unique insight to the future of cities worldwide. Its lofty goals to use 100% renewable energy, emphasize natural conservation and food self-sufficiency, and implement energy-efficient modes of transportation are exactly what green cities are meant to be. However, many critics of NEOM warn that it is a feature of Saudi Arabia’s greenwashing (read more about it here). For a country that is still a large oil producer and imports around 80% of its food, there is much doubt over whether NEOM can fulfill its goals (Thomas & Venema, 2022). For example, Saudi Arabia’s arid climate calls into question how realistic it is to support NEOM on renewable energy alone, as half of the country’s water is produced through energy-intensive desalination. While proponents argue that the desalination process can be made carbon-free, critics warn of “technological optimism” and unproven technology (Thomas & Venema, 2022). NEOM’s claims of sustainability are flawed in all aspects of its plan, from its ability to provide the necessities of life to its future citizens, to the politics surrounding its astronomical cost.
The critiques surrounding NEOM exemplify the doubt surrounding the creation of new green cities from scratch rather than simply retrofitting existing cities. The latter approach has the potential to enhance the climate resilience of cities, making them better-suited to absorb socioeconomic and environmental hazards, promote general well-being, and consume energy more efficiently. On the other hand, as demonstrated by NEOM’s price tag, creating new cities requires incredible amounts of capital to be diverted, not only for the initial construction, but also for the associated technologies, transportation costs, and energy costs. Urban visionaries need to ask themselves: do we truly need new cities, or do we simply need to swap our mindset of horizontal growth for a focus on reducing energy and material consumption?
Certainly, committing cities to decreasing their greenhouse gas emissions and prioritizing green infrastructure is a central pillar of fighting the climate crisis; however, many countries, including Saudi Arabia, still focus instead on growth and new construction. As NEOM is intent on strengthening the city’s economy with tourism, entertainment, and business opportunities, it will be extremely challenging to decouple the impacts of economic growth from the surrounding ecosystems. Oftentimes, a fixation on economic growth can unhealthily increase consumption and have unpredictable future negative environmental impacts, unless delicately managed (Khramer, 2020). Instead, committing cities – and society, and people, as a whole – to consuming less, will dramatically reduce the collective environmental impact of urban spaces. While sustainable development principles provide key considerations for building new cities, it is still better to apply these concepts to preexisting cities.
As urban areas will continue to grow and develop over the coming years, especially in climate-vulnerable regions experiencing population booms, it is important to continuously strengthen the relationship between society and environment. The indisputable need to lessen energy consumption and strengthen the climate resilience of cities must continue to drive future research in urban planning. In solving the pieces of the urban sustainability puzzle, however, we must remain critical of different approaches within the green city framework and intelligently separate greenwashed economic proposals from true environmental plans.
A New Model for Protection, Preservation, and Regeneration. NEOM. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2022, from https://www.neom.com/en-us/nature
Breuste, J. (2020). The green city: General concept. Cities and Nature, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-37716-8_1
Krähmer, K. (2020). Are Green Cities Sustainable? A degrowth critique of Sustainable Urban Development in Copenhagen. European Planning Studies, 29(7), 1272–1289. https://doi.org/10.1080/09654313.2020.1841119
Procter, E. (2022, October 25). Flying taxis, robotic avatars and holograms - Saudi Arabia pushes ahead with its sci-Fi City Vision. CNBC. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/25/neom-saudi-arabia-pushes-ahead-with-its-sci-fi-city-vision.html
The green city: Defining and measuring performance. Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies | Erasmus University Rotterdam. (2018, July 25). Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.ihs.nl/en/news/green-city-defining-and-measuring-performance
Thomas, M., & Venema, V. (2022, February 22). Neom: What's The Green Truth behind a planned eco-city in the Saudi Desert? BBC News. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-59601335