The downfall of cities that are inhuman

High-tech city-region conceptual nightmares get all the attention:

Gray had signed on to a city-building exercise so ambitious that it verges on the fantastical. An internal Neom “style catalog” viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek includes elevators that somehow fly through the sky, an urban spaceport, and buildings shaped like a double helix, a falcon’s outstretched wings, and a flower in bloom. The chosen site in Saudi Arabia’s far northwest, stretching from the sun-scorched Red Sea coast into craggy mountain badlands, has summer temperatures over 100F and almost no fresh water. Yet, according to MBS and his advisers, it will soon be home to millions of people who’ll live in harmony with the environment, relying on desalination plants and a fully renewable electric grid. They’ll benefit from cutting-edge infrastructure and a regulatory system designed expressly to foster new ideas—as long as those ideas don’t include challenging the authority of MBS. There may even be booze. Neom appears to be one of the crown prince’s highest priorities, and the Saudi state is devoting immense resources to making it a reality.

Yet five years into its development, bringing Neom out of the realm of science fiction is proving a formidable challenge, even for a near-absolute ruler with access to a $620 billion sovereign wealth fund. According to more than 25 current and former employees interviewed for this story, as well as 2,700 pages of internal documents, the project has been plagued by setbacks, many stemming from the difficulty of implementing MBS’s grandiose, ever-changing ideas—and of telling a prince who’s overseen the imprisonment of many of his own family members that his desires can’t be met.

The consultants love it, we can be sure. But it’s not just this or similar grandiose, wrecked visions. Every municipality – and they are multitude – that prioritizes roads and personal automobiles faces an acute reckoning. The sci-fi setting isn’t even necessary, the merely ubiquitous [ed. pedestrian? deja ] cities and towns that strand people just far enough away from school, food, work, and/or play represent an invisible disaster, one we don’t understand, one we will seek to blame on anyone but ourselves and in so doing, soften the ground for fascist inroads. It’s pretty straightforward and has everything to do with removing the humanity from daily interactions.

Examples like Neom could do a better job of serving to remind us of the chief failings of our own unworkable burgs, keep us off the hinterlands and more engaged in town life.

Image: A planned seaside hotel. Photographer: Iman Al-Dabbagh

Means as Message


The Times returns to a past series on driving distractions to look at LED billboards:

Some cities and states are debating whether to prohibit or regulate this new form of advertising for fear that it can distract drivers and raise the rate of accidents.

new study concludes that there are environmental reasons to avoid digital billboards as well. Digital billboards, which are made of LED lights, consume lots of energy and are made of components that will turn into e-waste once the billboard’s life has ended.

But wait, you ask, isn’t LED lighting quite energy-efficient? True, notes the report’s author, Gregory Young, a Philadelphia-based architectural designer and urban planner. But traditional billboards are lit by only two or three lamps, albeit inefficient ones, and only at night. By contrast, digital billboards have hundreds if not thousands of LEDs, which are illuminated day and night. And LEDs function poorly at high temperatures, so the signs need a cooling system.

This would seem to be the worst of both worlds so, of course: we all want one. Turn your interstate into a lame version of the Vegas strip. Really, it’s another brilliant move by the outdoor advertising industry, who you should assume has all your best interests at heart – they’re looking out for you, just like all the health care companies and financial planning institutions that pay their biggest fees. But even outside of the inherent dangers of looking up from your iPad burrito Four Loko steering wheel and general eco-lessness of these forms of advertising, I’m more concerned about the sort of dull feeling about our surroundings that actually emanate from them, much more strongly than any other intended message. Beaming lights in articulation of a come-in and/or otherwise recognizable logo design is our current version of anti-beauty. And as much as LED billboards seem like some sort of natural evolution of the kind of eye-poison to which we’ve all become so accustomed and accommodating, they’re not. They are their own form of dystopia. I.e., an actual sign of something.

Since some call this the season of beauty, everyone should just take some time and re-load on the most agreeable things you can find. It will help us not be so accepting of these kinds of invasions into our mental space, especially through the pollution of actual space, using actual pollution to do it. Three birds: meet my friend, stone.

Blocking out the Sun

Which we haven’t done yet. Though growing small crops inside dramatizes, among other things, just how much actual dirt land area is necessary, but it isn’t the future of farming.

At St. Philip’s Academy, leafy greens are planted in a cloth bed and irrigated with a nutrient-infused mist. Light is provided by LED lamps, which are more energy-efficient than conventional lighting and can be placed closer to the beds. The LED lamps also provide pest control, said AeroFarms’ chief executive, Ed Harwood, because they can be set to emit certain wavelengths that disrupt insects’ breeding.

AeroFarms is leasing the machine, which stands 7 feet tall by 10 feet long, to EcoVeggies for use in the pilot project at St. Philip’s. It can produce about 20 pounds of produce per harvest, Mr. Charles said.

Maybe they point that out as a kind of public service message. After all, this is a well-meaning, for-profit concern. The “former three Wall Street technology workers” [sic] is funny – how’s that for a pedigree? But it could just as easily be some good PR for actual farms – which it is, also. Plus the kids are probably picking up on it, too, as kids unintentionally do.

Farms still have to be dirty, stretch for miles and burn your arms in the sun.