Top 4: Planned Cities

From East Asia to West Africa, new cities are being built from scratch to replace old metropolises, but why?

Image credit: Shutterstock / Mostafa Tracto


“If you build it, they will come!”
—Field of Dreams (1989)

Most cities that we know have evolved over a long period of time in an organic manner. Think of some of the most fabled cities in the world, for instance, which have been continually settled for millennia: Athens, Samarkand, Damascus, or Istanbul.

None of these urban centers were built overnight by one visionary founder, despite the apocryphal origin myths each of them may have.

Rather than being designed in a top-down manner, these cities have been developed in a bottom-up manner by countless people throughout the comings and goings of different empires, dynasties, populations, religions, and languages.

Nevertheless, it is not entirely impossible for a city to be built in a top-down manner—certainly not overnight—but over a relatively short period of time. Just look at a few instances in the 20th century:

The Australian seat of government, Canberra, was built in 1913 based on a master design by American architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin after winning a design competition. Griffin & Griffin’s design has been largely a success story because of its strategic location, inspired design, and the architects’ farsightedness to leave out spacious expanses within the city limits empty for future generations to decide on.

There are more examples. The construction work on the Brazilian capital, Brasília, started in 1956, and it was inaugurated in 1960. In the same year the construction of the Pakistani capital Islamabad began, and replaced Karachi as the seat of government in 1967.

Canberra, Brasília, and Islam Abad are legitimate urban centers today almost indistinguishable from an age-old metropolis, though they may not be as popular with tourists as older cities in their respective countries. Nevertheless, they are fully functional cities with everything you may expect from an administrative capital.

There are similar planned cities under construction in our time, as well. And here are a few of the more interesting future cities in the making.

Nusantara (Indonesia)

Though splendid in its own way, Jakarta as the current capital of Indonesia is turning into a nightmare of urban management. With a population of 11 million, the city is grappling with traffic congestion, housing problems, and insufficient public transport infrastructure.

On top of everything else, the city is prone to floods due to its low-lying location. The last major floods in 2013, 2020, and 2021 necessitated the evacuation of entire neighborhoods with thousands of residents.

It is understandable, as such, that the populous nation has been on the lookout for a new capital. The USD35 billion project to build one began in 2022, and it is expected that the new capital will be inaugurated on August 17, 2024—to coincide with the nation’s Independence Day.

The construction work on the island of Borneo, where the new city of Nusantara lies, has been huge in scale. Over 150,000 workers have been engaged, and the project has even influenced the GDP and unemployment rate of Indonesia.

Ciudad de la Paz (Equatorial Guinea)

Formerly known as Oyala, the planned city of Ciudad de la Paz is to replace Equatorial Guinea‘s current capital, Malabo. This is less due to any fault of Malabo per se, and more due to the fact that Malabo is located on the island of Bioko, at some distance to the northwest of mainland Equatorial Guinea.

The new capital, however, lies at the heart of the mainland and enjoys a benign climate, which is an improvement over Malabo’s monsoon climate and 2-month-long dry season (late December to early February).

Ciudad de la Paz has been under construction by a consortium that includes the largest construction company in the world, China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC). Videos leaking in 2022 showed that many of the new capital’s features were seemingly completed and ready to be inaugurated, including two glass towers, several administrative buildings, a university campus, and a hotel, among much else.

However, there has been a glitch in the plan. With Equatorial Guinea‘s oil revenues plummeting since 2022, the country has been short of cash lately, and the development of Ciudad de la Paz has been put on hold. The Wall Street Journal, has described the city as a “luxury ghost town,” and a “gleaming new capital in the jungle,” which still sound interesting enough to visit, if not to run a country from.

New Administrative Capital (Egypt)

Much like Jakarta mentioned earlier, Cairo is also struggling with all the problems that any capital housing over ten million souls will face: congestion, pollution, and overpopulation—all the usual suspects.

To keep up with the inflow of immigrants from across Egypt, Cairo has expanded in a not-entirely-sustainable manner over the last few decades, which has led to unplanned urban sprawl. Informal settlements make up around 60% of Greater Cairo metropolitan area, according to some estimates.

In addition to all the problems associated with urban sprawl such as the lowering of living standards, public health problems, and poor public safety, Cairo’s urban sprawl is also harming the nearby Nile River delta. Given the importance of the Nile delta as the heart of Egypt’s agricultural sector, such a damage is too horrible to contemplate.

Having realized as much, Egyptian authorities announced the beginning of construction work on a new capital in 2015. The New Administrative Capital (NAC) may not be imaginatively named for the time being, but much thought and consideration has been given to its design and planing. It is intentionally located at a distance of just 45 kilometers to the east of Cairo—far enough to be an independent city in its own right, but close enough to prevent a wave of new mass migration from Cairo.

The NAC will soon house all the ministries, foreign embassies, and government departments. It will also become home to the country’s financial sector. A few administrative entities have already relocated to the NAC, and the Egyptian Parliament will soon do the same, according to Al-Ahram.

Sejong (South Korea)

South Korea’s seat of government, Seul, is yet another capital with a population of just over 10 million. And if we have learned anything so far here, it is that by the time a city’s population passes the 10 million mark, the challenges will begin to get out of hand.

Seoul may, at first glance, seem cleaner or more orderly than Jakarta or Cairo, but it is essentially struggling with the same problems. And at a distance of only 24 kilometers from the notorious demilitarized zone (DMZ), it is dangerously close to the North Korean border.

Following the beginning of its foundation in the 2010s, Sejong has been gradually becoming the de facto administrative co-capital of South Korea, while Seoul still officially holds its status as the official seat of the government. Sejong also enjoys a unique status as a “special self-governing city”.

Over a dozen ministries have already decamped to Sejong, including the ministry of foreign affairs. However, the Yongsan Presidential Office, or the formal presidential residence of the republic, remains in Seoul. This may indicate that South Korea will use both capitals simultaneously to ease the pressure on Seoul.

While Sejong was being built almost from scratch, the Korean urban planners saw an opportunity to incorporate as much smart city features in the city’s design as the wished, including AI-powered surveillance, automated transportation management, and electric vehicles infrastructure.

If nothing else, the city will be a full-scale demonstration and testing ground of the concept of smart cities.