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Saudi Arabia's NEOM is Breeding a New City Built Around Genetic Engineering

Cities for people or people for cities?

An unlikely marriage between city planning and gene modification is reinventing the future city. It’s also pushing the technological edge of gene modification as a tool for good – potentially as a natural outgrowth of the legacy of city planning as a tool for public health – and inspiring a debate around eugenics, one of humanity’s darkest obsessions.

When Saudi Arabia’s plans for NEOM were announced, readers around the globe were entranced with the city’s vision of glowing sand, an artificial moon, and flying cars that would render the traditional road-based framework of cities as we know them a thing of the past. Also curious were numerous allusions to the city as a hub for genetic research, gene modification, and fertilization technologies, along with language committing to the city as a place where public health would be optimized and diseases would be eliminated - the healthiest city in the world.

Whether a relationship exists between the city’s effort to reinvent the form of the contemporary metropolis – rethinking the utility of even the most basic conventions of the dogma that guides urban development today – and its broader effort to create a perfectly optimized city that will make people happier and healthier, and with better genes than ever before – requires creative thinking, but it is hardly a stretch. It also lends some thinking to the broader motivations of the $500 billion city being envisioned by the Crown of Saudi Arabia as the sparkling jewel that will propel the Kingdom’s efforts to reinvent itself for the 21st century.

Much has been made of the vision for the city to grow tourism, education, economic opportunity, and wealth within the Kingdom. That it would also be a public health experiment in improving quality of life is an important part of the vision as well. After all, city planning has a long legacy of contributing to advancement of human health.

In fact, many of the very tenets of city planning dogma today are the product of such efforts over time: Philadelphia’s innovations in running water and public sewers, for instance, were borne from and key to eliminating the cholera epidemics that plagued American cities in the 19th century. Paris’ grand boulevards developed under Baron Haussman were envisioned with the goal of eliminating portions of the city where sunlight never fell that had long been festering grounds for rats that spread the plague. And the entire City Beautiful movement of the United States was borne from the shared innovations from the Athletics movement of the late 19th century, and workers’ rights movements of the same period, and the innovations of individuals like Sylvester Graham, who transformed the thinking about American diets at the time. The result was a push for cities with large breezy open spaces, healthier living quarters, less smog and soot from factories, and an ecosystem of accessible parks. They were also designed to improve mental health by creating a grounded city of hierarchical public amenities like churches and civic resources.

Contemporary cities have been under scrutiny from both sides for contributing to poor public health performance. Density advocates have long lobbied against the auto-orientation and heat island impacts of cities developed with a suburban orientation, which they assert are contributors to obesity, asthma, and malaise. Contemporary trends like transit-oriented development, bike lanes, and Vision Zero, for instance, are all designed to reduce vehicular travel, emissions, and make pedestrian movement safer.

On the other side, however, density opponents have pointed out that cities, even when developed densely, can still be terrible performers when it comes to mental health. A 2016 story in the Washington Post noted that for decades and decades the densest places make people unhappy, and in an age of technology coupled with a greater focus on mental health generally, the problem is only getting worse. Cities as they are built today, in short, are in crisis, as they are making people miserable and exacerbating a societal explosion in depression and technological fatigue.

It stands to reason that the world is in need of a fundamental reinvention of cities as part of a broader societal strategy to addressing both physical AND mental health. Such a moment would be part of the natural evolution of cities, continuing on the great tradition of the Garden City and City Beautiful movements.

What’s interesting about NEOM, however, is that these innovations are being explored within the public health context of Saudi Arabia that is unique for the world, and that has given credence to exploring them not only as physical innovations, but as biological ones as well. The primary reason for this is that in addition to obesity as the product of a natural desert environment that discourages outdoor activity, Saudi Arabia is uniquely impacted by a wide range of genetically inherited diseases. Due to its extremely private cultural orientation which emphasizes close bonds with family and tribe over mingling and experimentation, Saudi Arabia has long bred marriages and relationships within tighter relatedness circles than other cultures. By some estimates 40 percent of Saudis are married to first cousins or first relatives.

Naturally, the closeness of such relationships has borne high rates of genetically inherited diseases. The incidence rates for most such diseases in Saudi Arabia range from two to ten times international averages, which has created a national emergency of sorts that demands urgent action to protect the health of the nation.

Under pressure to address the situation, Saudi Arabia has launched a national genome project, albeit decades later than other nations did the same. Overwhelming any moral concerns, the potential for strategic genetic modification to help take out diseases through embryo modification and implantation, including modifying the genetic code of babies, is seen not only as an opportunity to create designer babies, as it often is in the west, but as a critical response to a public health emergency for the country.

The need for international expertise in this realm is critical for Saudi Arabia, and links directly to the Kingdom’s ambitions for NEOM to draw international attention and investment from around the world. The vision for NEOM as an attractive place for international experts to move and live is heavily shaped by the need to make the city a global hub for genetic research and gene experimentation. And it’s been tempting for that ambition not to be tied to the Kingdom’s further ambitions to grow a strong and culturally unified population.

What’s unique about NEOM as a model for urban planning is that it is trying to address similar national issues through both physical and biological innovation. Not only is it trying to resolve public health by creating a new kind of city form that is responsive to all sorts of mental and physical illnesses – in other words, creating the perfect habitat for humans – but it is also trying to flip the script of the equation, within the cultural and environmental character of the place trying to create humans that befit the habitat.

In doing so, NEOM may have unearthed a tremendous innovation in the way that city planning is conceptualized. Criticized internationally in some circles for physical urban development ideas that seem fantastical and experimental – Disneyland in the desert, as some have called it – NEOM has challenged the status quo by flipping the script. For decades planners have toiled with imperfect success to create the best urban environments for people. Genetic modification has opened up a new kind of Pandora’s box: creating more ideal people for the environment in which they live.

As its successes or failures are sure to catch the attention of autocrats around the world, it will invariably spark a discussion about the value of genetic experimentation as a tool of urban planning for public health, as well as a debate about where to draw the line between gene modification to protect future generations from disease and eugenics in a bid to make those future generations perfect.

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