Building Affordability into Tomorrow’s Megacities

Olivia Nielsen, Marja Hoek-Smit and Adriana Navarro-Sertich

By Olivia Nielsen, Marja Hoek-Smit and Adriana Navarro-Sertich

The global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, of which 70% will live in cities. Billions of additional new housing units will be needed to meet our growing population in its new urban environment.

As Governments seek to accommodate present and future population growth, several countries have sought to break with the past and build new cities from scratch, some even moving their capital in the process. In the grand scheme of urban development, the concept of designing and constructing entire cities from the ground up offers an unprecedented opportunity to implement modern strategies for sustainability, resilience, and inclusivity. One such city currently under development is NEOM’s The Line in Saudi Arabia, envisioned as a beacon of future urban living.

However, as we build these cities of the future, it is crucial that we heed lessons from the past, particularly the essential need to incorporate affordable housing in the design.

Affordable Housing: A Cornerstone of Sustainable Cities

Housing is a fundamental human right and plays a pivotal role in the overall health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. The lack of affordable housing in many of the world's existing cities has led to severe economic and social challenges. From the sprawling “slums” of Mumbai to the homeless crisis in San Francisco, the consequences of not incorporating affordable housing into city planning are all too clear.

Affordable housing serves as a cornerstone of social and economic sustainability. Affordable housing in proximity to urban employment and services promotes inclusion and social equity. Well located affordable housing can contribute to reducing urban sprawl and promote compact and sustainable urban development, alleviating pressure on natural resources and land outside the urban core. By providing affordable housing options in various locations within the city, households can more readily respond to employment opportunities and the need for long commutes is minimized.

Lessons from the Past: Failures and Successes

There are many examples throughout history of new cities failing to incorporate affordable housing in their development. One such example is Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, built from the ground up in the 1960s. While envisioned as a utopian city with equal living conditions for all, the city failed to provide enough affordable housing for its workers, leading many to live in informal satellite housing areas, without adequate services and to face long daily commutes. Dodoma, Tanzania’s new capital, and Abuja, the new capital of Nigeria, both conceived in the 1970s, faced similar problems in their development. While worker’s housing was included in the master plan for Abuja of 1975, it was never systematically implemented, and most low-income workers had to create their own housing solutions, often in sub-optimal underserved locations.

Examples from older cities, particularly rapidly growing cities in urbanizing emerging market and developing countries, show that it is not enough to incorporate affordable housing in the initial plans, but that a future supply must be planned for from the outset. Filtering down of older units to lower income households will not provide the numbers of affordable units needed to accommodate urban household growth driven disproportionately by poor rural migrants.

Another critical lesson is that affordable housing  cannot be successfully provided in isolated zones or into the far  outskirts of cities, as this approach leads to social segregation and transportation challenges and housing abandonment. Mumbai, India, serves as a prime example, where the lack of integrated affordable housing has resulted in many low-income residents being forced to live in overcrowded informal settlements on the outskirts, with limited access to basic services.

Mexico’s experiment with leaving it to developers to build affordable housing on cheap land far away from employment centers and services has equally backfired and led to large numbers of vacancies and loss of assets by low-income households. To address these issues, it is essential to seamlessly integrate affordable housing into the urban fabric, promoting mixed-income and mixed-use communities.

Chile's approach has demonstrated the importance of providing affordable housing in central locations, ensuring access to employment opportunities, services, and transportation networks. Amsterdam strong focus on social housing and inclusionary zoning, ensures that affordable housing is not segregated but rather integrated into mixed-use developments.

Hammarby Sjöstad district in Stockholm, Sweden has implemented a mixed-income approach, ensuring that a range of housing options is available to residents of different income levels. The neighborhood incorporates a combination of privately owned and publicly subsidized housing units, allowing for a diverse population and promoting social integration. Moreover, the design of Hammarby Sjöstad also encourages community interaction, with shared public spaces, community facilities, and amenities that enhance the overall quality of life for residents.

Looking Forward: NEOM's Opportunity

NEOM, with its $500 billion backing, has a unique opportunity to incorporate affordable housing right from its blueprint stage, avoiding the pitfalls encountered by other new  cities. With its vision to be a "living laboratory" and a model for future urban living, NEOM should commit to inclusive development, ensuring it caters to all strata of society and not just the middle and high income groups and not just in the planning stage but into the future..

NEOM, with its ambitious vision and substantial financial backing, has the opportunity to learn from past examples and experiences and adopt sound and tested practice  principles for the provision of affordable housing. Incorporating affordable housing in NEOM will not only be socially responsible, but it could also lead to economic and social sustainability. By ensuring that a diverse population can afford to live and work in the city, NEOM can create a vibrant, innovative, inclusive and equitable urban community.

The Imperative of Affordable Housing

As we continue to witness the emergence of new cities built from the ground up, it is imperative to incorporate the provision of affordable housing from the outset. Doing so will help ensure that these new cities do not repeat the mistakes of the past but instead represent truly sustainable, inclusive, and equitable urban communities.

From Metropolis to Blade Runner, a multitude of sci-fi movies have depicted a dystopian future which is overwhelmingly urban, overcrowded and inequitable. The future of urban development lies not only in the high-tech and sustainable infrastructure but also in the creation of cities that prioritize people of all income levels. The inclusion of affordable housing in these plans will be a vital step toward achieving this vision.

In the end, the success of cities like NEOM will be judged not only by their skylines and innovations but also by their ability to provide an  affordable and high-quality life for all their residents.