From Paris to Rome, Alexandria to Benghazi, and Tokyo to Beijing, cities tend to be perceived as old creations, with hundreds if not thousands of years of age, that grew naturally throughout the course of history. Usually built with military purposes in mind, or taking advantage of natural geographical conditions, a significant number of today’s major metropolises have followed this pattern, showing their evolution through their centuries-old buildings, monuments, and traditions.
Nevertheless, a not so insignificant number of recent populational centers have been built following detailed masterplans with years of planning and significant financial commitment. While some have arguably successfully transitioned into well-established cities, others may have been left abandoned as a reminder that a successful urban center is much more than just a cluster of buildings. These initiatives can broadly be categorized depending on the issue they intended to address – Politics, Environment and Economic development – and the motive for their success or failure most often results from how relevant this issue was and how well it was tackled.
One of the most common reasonings for planning a new city has to do with the need for the creation of a neutral capital city that has a more central position to the country’s population distribution.
Washington DC, established in 1790 by the Residence Act, had its location defined as a compromise between the opposing forces of the expanding United States at the time. In what came to be known as the Compromise of 1790, Alexander Hamilton, aligned with the northerner states, agreed to move the capital to the states of Maryland and Virginia in an exchange with Thomas Jefferson, aligned with the southerner states. The deal paved the way for the establishment of the 100 square mile (256 square kilometers) new capital. While having its size diminished (following the decision of the area formerly belonging to Virginia to rejoin the state), with a population greater than 700 thousand, a strong economy, and continuing to serve its original purpose of capital of the United States, Washington DC is certainly a success story.
Washington’s original design
Other planned capital cities that stood the test of times include Canberra – created in the middle of the two largest and rivaling Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne – and Brasilia – in a push to develop Brazil’s interior region.
However, Egypt’s successive failed attempts to move its capital away from Cairo – to Nasr city, New Cairo, and even the 10th of Ramadan, a city shaped and sized similarly to the original DC – show that there is room to fail. The country is now planning yet another capital move, to the still-in-construction “New Administrative Capital”. Situated roughly 45km east of Cairo, this new multi-billion-dollar project has officially been initiated to alleviate congestion in the current capital, currently boasting a population of 22 million people. Nevertheless, some have pointed out that the significant potential financial gains by the military and construction industries may be the true motive behind the move. By planning to increase the distance between government buildings and the masses at Cairo, the move has also given rise to allegations that, in truth, this is an attempt by President Al-Sisi to hold on to power, attempting to prevent a repetition of the events of the Arab Spring.
A protection from environmental issues in an existing important city, or simply a need to experiment with innovative sustainable ideas, have also fueled the creation of new urban areas across the globe.
Jakarta, Southeast Asia´s most populous city, is currently facing severe flooding problems, with the coastal city sinking as much as 25cm per year in some districts. This is far from a recent issue, however, going way back and beginning with the arrival of the Dutch in the XVII century. As an attempt to emulate the urban planning found in the Netherlands at the time, the existing settlements were torn down and a new one was built with a heavy use of canals. These canals, however, due to lack of upkeep, eventually clogged up and turned out to be a channel of disease-spreading, forcing the Europeans to relocate further south, where a system of pipes to distribute clean water was introduced. These pipes, nevertheless, took decades to reach the canal region, and even today don’t reach more than half of the city’s population. This particular circumstance left many with no option but to pump water directly from subterranean aquifers, ultimately sinking the city in the process.
Furthermore, the city has consistently ranked among the worst polluted areas worldwide. Heavy traffic due to high population density and low public transport use, as well as the existence of several coal fired plants in the city outskirts, have all contributed for the city to register “unhealthy air” days for more than half of the 2019 calendar year. A move to the brand-new Nusantara, more than 1000km away from Jakarta, powered by renewable energies, plans to fix most of these issues.
Map of Batavia (current Jakarta)
Across the continent, in the Middle East, the EAU have been building the city of Masdar, aimed to be the first zero emissions city, in an effort to test the limits of urban sustainability. The green efforts started right in the construction phase, through the reuse and recycling of waste material. The city is also striving to be completely powered by renewable energy. The urban space was designed with buildings close together, providing protection from the desert heath. Additionally, The Masdar City wind tower, a modern spin on the traditional Arabic “barjeet”, is expected to reduce electricity needs throughout the whole city.
While effectively an experiment in urban sustainability, having Siemens and the International Renewable Energy Agency relocating their Middle East headquarters to the city are certainly important anchors for Masdar to achieve its goals of housing 50 thousand people and succeed as not just a test-trial, but as an overall functioning city.
Oftentimes, the urban landscape is shaped purely by economic efforts to develop a region and guarantee better living standards.
One such case is Malaysia’s Cyberjaya, aiming to emulate Silicon Valley’s success. Launched in 1997, the city was envisioned as “a space for startups to create and innovate; for students to pursue dreams of changing lives with technology; for tech giants to make new discoveries; for small businesses to conquer the world one market at a time”. Flexible repayment schemes and competitive rental rates were among the vast number of incentives offered to attract talent. More than 20 years onwards, having attracted the likes of Shell, DHL, Dell and HP, and with a population of 85 thousand people, some have called the initiative a success. Critics, however, point out the dominance of low-level employment, with the city’s residents mostly employed in call centers for global firms as opposed to the promised innovative and highly specialized tech outlook.
On another spectrum, pure financial motives can lead to vanity projects, as exemplified by Azerbaijan’s Khazar Islands. As the brainchild of billionaire Ibrahim Ibrahimov, it was projected to include luxury apartments and villas, a yacht club, a Formula One track, and even what was to be the tallest building in the world – the Azerbaijan Tower. In a country where GDP per capita is barely above the 5000 US$ mark, with a project such as this one accounting for a price tag of 100 billion US$, many have criticized the endeavor due to its lack of meaningful contribution for the development of the country. The lavish undertaking ultimately failed due to lack of funding, with construction coming to a stop in 2015 just four years after work had begun, a striking reminder that an ambitious plan and piles of cash may not be enough to support the creation of a brand-new metropolis.
Moving away from the historical trends of organic development, there has been a growing trend of planning cities from scratch, with politics, the environment and economics coming up as the top motivators for such blueprints. These fresh creations, with varying degrees of success, come to show that planned projects of huge scale are in fact possible. Nevertheless, in many occasions, pure financial availability or political power are not sufficient to sustain them. Besides needing to address a real issue, these projects, like any urban area, need to create the right set of conditions to attract people and businesses, in order to successfully make the transition from just an idealized setting into an actual living space.
Sources: Washington DC, Britannica, Ellis, Joseph J. (2000). “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation”, Statista, Davison, G. (2001). “Canberra” From “The Oxford Companion to Australian History”. In Oxford University Press., Cairo Observer, Aljazeera, Channel News Asia, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, Arab News, Masdar, Diário de Notícias, World Bank, IDEAS (Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs), Wired, Plaza London, Harris-Brandts, Suzanne; Gogishvili, David. (2018). “Architectural rumors: unrealized megaprojects in Baku, Azerbaijan and their politico-economic uses. In Eurasian Geography and Economics, Armenian Weekly, Azer News.