Under ordinary circumstances, it can take decades (and even centuries) for a cluster of villages to develop into a sprawling and dynamic metropolis. City-building is no easy task, and most cities grow and expand through a natural process of increasing urbanization and improving transportation networks. It is not a process that can be completed overnight.
Or can it?
Beginning in the 20th century, some countries have managed to devise and implement a radical alternative to the traditional model of urban development. They have built brand new, fully-functional cities from scratch. These planned cities did not begin life as small, rural settlements. Rather, they came into being as modern, bustling metropolises from the day they opened for business.
In this video, we will take a closer look at five of these incredible urban centers that were built from scratch.
The capital city of Kazakhstan, recently renamed Nur-Sultan, is a planned city built in the 1990s and designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. Home to numerous skyscrapers and a range of futuristic buildings, Astana has often been described by the international media as “a space station in the steppes”.
Former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, in whose honor Astana was renamed last year, decided in 1997 that he didn’t quite like where his country’s capital was sitting. The former capital, Almaty, home to more than 1.7 million inhabitants, apparently sat too close to the Chinese border for the president’s liking. So, Nazarbayev moved the seat of his government nearly 1,000 kilometers further north, towards the Russian border.
Billions of dollars were poured, over the next two decades, to build a new, state-of-the-art capital city for the people of Kazakhstan. Today, Astana is home to slightly over a million residents, making it the country’s second-largest city, after Almaty.
Amsterdam-based photographer, Ryan Koopmans, once described Astana as “a very remote little metropolis in the middle of nowhere”. Situated in the isolated Kazakh steppes – a vast region of open grassland that covers the northern part of the country (and some adjacent provinces of Russia) – Astana is Kazakhstan’s political and commercial hub, a glistening city of metal and glass rising implausibly out of the isolated grasslands that surround it in all directions. There are no neighboring metropolises within 1,000 kilometers of the city. It is home to the country’s Senate, Parliament House, Presidential Palace, Supreme Court, and numerous large, state-owned corporations.
The spectacular cityscape of ultramodern buildings that constitutes Astana gave rise to a total construction bill of more than $15 billion. Some of the best-known landmarks of the city include a 77 meter glass pyramid known as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation; the unique and awe-inspiring Baiterek Tower featuring a 22-meter golden egg sitting atop a metallic poplar tree; and the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, the world’s largest (and most expensive) tent, which houses a shopping center and an indoor beach, complete with imported sand and palm trees.
Apart from these, Astana is littered with many gorgeous and outlandish pieces of architecture, including a circus building that resembles a flying saucer; a velodrome (or track cycling arena) shaped like a cycling helmet; a concert hall designed to look like flower petals; and two conical, golden towers nicknamed the ‘Beer Can Buildings’. Architects from around the world came together to design the futuristic skyline of this international city, which was built to symbolize Kazakhstan’s ambition of establishing its own cultural identity, distinct from that of the former Soviet Union.
The capital of Nigeria was moved from Lagos to Abuja in 1976. Located at the center of the country – on land formerly occupied by various ethnic groups such as the Koro, Gbagyi, Bassa, Gade, and Gwandara – Abuja is one of the most expensive cities ever built in Africa. The military government of General Murtala R. Mohammed initiated the process of moving the capital to the yet-to-be-completed city of Abuja.
Lagos, the former capital, was polluted, congested, and lacking in sufficient infrastructural facilities. Being a coastal city, it was also hot, humid, and most importantly, open to attack by foreign powers. Therefore, the leaders of Nigeria decided to relocate the seat of the government to a place that was better developed, more fortified, in close proximity to all the states or provinces, and deemed neutral to the numerous ethnic groups of the country.
Nigeria, being the largest oil and gas producer in Africa, accumulated substantial wealth during the 1970s Energy Crisis, due to the elevated price of petroleum in the global market. This provided the funds for the construction of a new capital city.
Consequently, in 1979, the Federal Capital Development Authority of Nigeria held a competition, where participants were to design a master plan for the new capital city. The contest was won by the International Planning Associates (IPA), a consortium of urban planning and architecture firms led by Wallace, McHarg, Roberts & Todd of Philadelphia.
The designers took advantage of the natural contours of the terrain, envisioning individualized, arching streets and neighborhoods, unlike the rectilinear ones found in other planned cities such as Brasilia and Islamabad. They demarcated two distinct zones within the city – a residential and shopping zone in the peripheries and a central zone for government buildings and cultural institutions.
Construction began in 1980, when amenities such as water supply, healthcare centers, schools, and public transport quickly followed the construction of government facilities. As government officials from Lagos began moving into the new capital city along with their families, telephone and water systems capable of accommodating a million residents were speedily put in place.
Representing the two major religions of Nigeria, the skyline of Abuja is dominated by the golden dome of the National Mosque and the intricate spires of the National Christian Center, the two buildings facing each other across a busy highway at the center of the city. The 170 meter Millennium Tower, designed by Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti, is another striking landmark, which is also the tallest artificial structure in Abuja.
Unlike the other cities on this list, Destiny City is still under-construction and has yet to become a fully functioning urban center. The 65-square-mile city was originally proposed as America’s first planned environmental development, supported and recognized by the Clinton Climate Initiative. The designers of Destiny City essentially envisioned it as the Silicon Valley of green technology, which will one day attract environmental research groups and eco-friendly companies from various parts of the world to Florida.
Once completed, Destiny City will offer sustainable infrastructure, ample open spaces, thoughtful preservation of natural resources, and a pollution-free environment for residents. Located at the center of Florida’s Clean Tech Corridor, the city’s economy will revolve around the development of cutting-edge green technology, R&D, education, and innovation.
An area of 41,300 acres has been set aside for eventual development under this project, which will include about 100,000 residential units (housing 250,000 people), and more than 160 acres earmarked for business or commercial use. This large-scale, environmentally conscious community will be powered entirely by sustainable bioenergy. Some of the major sources of energy in Destiny City will include a massive waste-management system for extracting methane, an energy farm designed to generate biofuel, and a 30MW solar array.
From an urban planning perspective, Destiny City is expected to provide a blueprint for the integration of biofuel production into a mixed-use community. A major cornerstone of the city’s economic proposition is the use of sustainable agriculture as a primary source of all the food and fuel used by the community. Farms in Destiny City are currently planting sweet sorghum, jatropha, and other sustainable energy crops, in a bid to replace the fertilizer-intensive farming practices required for the production of corn ethanol.
At an estimated cost of $1000 per acre, the farms in Destiny City will utilize a gravity flow system and a 1V solar-powered irrigation system to improve water distribution within the community. The energy crops that this system produces will provide power, cash, and fuel for the residents.
In terms of infrastructure, Destiny City will be home to an International Clean Technology Center, which will serve as a hub for organizations and businesses focused on the development of clean technologies and renewable energy sources meant to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels.
The city will also feature Florida’s first dedicated electric automobile charging station, a 400-acre energy research park, a “green-mart” convenience store powered by solar and geo-thermal energy, and a mixed-use airport complex. Solar panel manufacturers and composting companies have been some of the first businesses to set up shop in Destiny City.
If ever a place was in dire need of new cities, it would be the West Bank, near the Mediterranean coast of Western Asia. For almost half a century, the Israelis and the Palestinians have struggled to find common ground (in more ways than one), and the resultant conflicts have blighted the economy of Palestine, as well as its citizens’ standards of living. The new city of Rawabi, the first planned city ever to be built by and for the Palestinians, is intended to change all that and kick-start a renaissance in the West Bank.
Bashar Masri, the lead developer behind Rawabi, wanted to create a self-sustaining community that would provide residents with employment opportunities as well as safe, healthful living conditions – neither of which are abundant in the West Bank. The city has been designed to provide an anchor for the region’s economy and act as a destination for long-term investment. It has also been seen by many as an unambiguous political statement from the Palestinian people, a way to assert their rights over the land and claim it as their own.
The word Rawabi means ‘hills’ in Arabic, and a bustling, cutting-edge metropolis of sandy-golden stone on the mountain is exactly what the city is shaping up to be. As of now, Rawabi can accommodate about 40,000 residents in its 6,000 housing units spread across six neighborhoods.
The city center, which includes offices, banks, petrol stations, shops, mosques, walking trails, and eight schools, is surrounded by the residential neighborhoods. Other amenities that Rawabi offers include a seven-screen cinema, a hospital, a fiber-optic telecommunications system, several galleries, and a piazza lined with cafes and shopping centers.
The construction of Rawabi has resulted in more than 10,000 jobs for Palestinians, including engineers and architects. One-third of these workers are women, an unprecedented female labor participation rate in the Arab world. On average, these workers are paid 30 percent above the Palestinian minimum wage.
An elaborate recycling infrastructure is one of the distinctive features of Rawabi. Buildings in the city do not have water towers, with a computerized system being used to recycle the drinking water. Any excess is redirected immediately to water the city’s many public parks. The public transport system (once completed) will run exclusively on electricity and provide free transit to all residents, with only visitors being required to pay.
A Roman-style amphitheater with 15,000 seats, girded by honey-colored columns, was completed in 2018, and is the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Rawabi will also be home to the largest mosque in Palestine, a church overlooking the open-air amphitheater, and a tech hub that is expected to facilitate the growth of the Palestinian ICT sector.
Founded in 1913, the city of Canberra in Australia was built to resolve the longstanding dispute about whether Melbourne or Sydney (the two biggest Australian cities) should be declared the national capital. A compromise was reached, and it was decided that a brand new capital city would be constructed from scratch in the Yass-Canberra region of New South Wales.
The Department of Home Affairs launched an international design competition in 1911, with the husband-and-wife-team of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin eventually emerging victorious. They designed a master plan for the new capital city, which consisted largely of geometric shapes and patterns adjusted to the natural landscape. The inner-city area, therefore, consists of several concentric hexagonal and octagonal streets emerging from various radii, but the outer areas of Canberra, which were built later, are not laid out geometrically.
Large stretches of open, grassy parkland dot Canberra, which was originally envisioned as a quiet, leafy city situated in the lap of nature. Even today, the city is home to 37 nature reserves in and around the urban center, all of them collectively known as the Canberra Nature Park. It is not hard to see that the Griffins’ master plan was influenced largely by the garden city movement, a method of urban planning that incorporates the use of ‘greenbelts’ surrounding self-contained urban communities.
A hierarchy of districts, local suburbs, industrial zones, and town centers constitute the urban areas of Canberra. The seven residential districts are subdivided into smaller suburbs, which have their own town centers, where most commercial and social activities take place.
The Royal Australian Mint, the National Library of Australia, the Australian High Court, and the Australian War Memorial are some of the many buildings of historical importance that have made Canberra a thriving tourist destination as well as being the seat of the national government. The New Parliament House, comprising no less than 4,700 rooms, is also popular among tourists. Other attractions include the Australian National Botanical Garden and the National Zoo and Aquarium.
Canberra may not be counted among the most influential or well-known global cities, but this carefully planned metropolis provides world-class infrastructure, healthful living conditions, and an enviable standard of urban living to its inhabitants. It is, without doubt, one of the most sustainable and livable urban centers in the world.
Many cities are built from scratch around the world, for a plethora of practical and political reasons. Planned cities can often facilitate better (and more sustainable) living outcomes for their inhabitants. Good urban design has the potential to make a city more functional, livable, and aesthetically appealing. However, to be truly successful, these new cities need to be designed with a view to long-term sustainability, and have built-in economic drivers that provide an organic impetus for growth and development.