By James Cody Birkey
In discussion of the King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, our class discussion not only argued the financial feasibility, but ultimately the rationale for building “new cities” in the first place. What could KAEC do that couldn’t be done somewhere else in Saudi? If the same money and resources were allocated to upgrading existing cities, or even dispersed as cash as was alluded to at one point, would it have greater effect?
One of the most difficult and inherent problems that “cities from scratch” face is a problem of raison d’être. A city from scratch implies that it is located in a place that has little to no population—a place that market forces have not naturally selected for to date. If the only reason why a city is being built in that place is because it has been decided so, from inception the city must overcome all the market forces that prevented this site from being urbanized before.
Government, however, may have been one of the most successful ways to give a new city a “reason for being.” Many capitals were re-established as new cities in previously under-populated areas. Brasilia, Washington, and Helsinki all serve as examples of this. So why would it seem far-fetched for a nation like Equatorial Guinea to do the same?
The tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish-speaking nation in Africa, is made up of two parts—an island that holds its major city and capital, and a slice of central African jungle on the mainland. Because the recent discovery of oil off its coast, the nation of 700,000 people now sees over $1bn in annual oil revenues. This has made Equatorial Guinea the twentieth-wealthiest per capita in the world in real dollars—ahead of even Spain, its former colonizer. Its president has decided to build a new capital city deep in its mainland interior, and may just have the finances to do it.
The city is to house not only government, but a new university, sustainable transit systems, opera houses, museums and all the trappings of a modern city. The president hopes that by the time he hands power over to his son the new capital will house over 200,000 in an idyllic jungle destination—powered entirely by renewable energy.
Far-fetched? Mostly likely. Even if the government can afford to build such a city, will the people come? Will business actually locate to this remote place? If history is any indicator, it would at best take a long time.
But despite a major effort to grow the aforementioned capital cities by infusing them with a nation’s largest employer, they nearly always still require decades upon decades to actually flourish. Washington, for example, was conceived in the 1790’s and failed to amass significant urban population until the American Civil War in the 1860’s—seventy years later. In the meantime it mostly consisted of seasonally occupied buildings in the midst of estuarial swamp.
So, then, could a project like Oyala last the 70 years it may take before it will become effectively established? Fortunately, the irony of building a “sustainable city” by clearing the rainforest will likely not outlive the embargoed regime financing it.
The presidential regime in power in Equatorial Guinea makes this perhaps a perfect example of money that could be better spent. While it is true that the GDP per capita in the country is on paper one of the wealthiest in the world, over 90% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Surely, if any new city project should suffer from an issue of raison d’être, it is this one.