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Lessons from the Promise and Pitfalls of New City Development

In recent decades, there has been a remarkable surge in the development of new, master-planned cities across the Global South. Since 2000, the number of new city projects has more than doubled compared to the previous 50 years. Many of these emerging cities have experienced significant growth, sprouting on greenfield sites, blossoming outside major urban centers, and transforming quiet villages into vibrant metropolises.

New city projects hold immense potential. They can stimulate economic growth, enhance living conditions for urban residents, support environmental sustainability efforts, and foster national pride and identity.[1] However, there are also significant obstacles to the success of new cities. Often, developers must navigate funding and land constraints, political inefficiency or instability, environmental concerns, and social apathy or resistance.

Closer investigation into recent new city developments can help elucidate the diverse aims, obstacles, and dynamics that shape such projects. In this regard, the cases of New Town Kolkata in India, Tamesna in Morocco, and King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia offer particularly valuable insights for future new city endeavors.[2]

While each of these three cities was designed to serve a unique purpose, their common experiences underscore two important lessons. Firstly, effective governance at local and national levels plays a critical role in shaping project outcomes. Secondly, integrating social justice and equity considerations is essential at every stage of the new city development process. Using participatory approaches that prioritize inclusivity, fairness, and community engagement, new cities can better serve the needs of their residents. By harnessing these insights, new cities can unlock their transformative potential and lead the way toward a more sustainable and equitable future.

Rajarhat New Town, India

Growth of Rajarhat New Town, India, 1984-2022 (Source: Google Earth Engine)

Rajarhat New Town is a master-planned eco-smart city located in the northeastern state of West Bengal, India, just outside of Kolkata.[3] Its primary objective is to alleviate growing population and housing pressures on Kolkata, the urban nucleus of West Bengal. From the outset, Rajarhat New Town was designed to be “a self-sustaining [eco-friendly] city with revenue gathering assets.” The 3,075-hectare master plan for the city includes a central business district and several IT parks to help foster the growth of information technology (IT) services, commercial businesses, industries, and trade. The plan also features educational institutions, cultural centers, and open green spaces, such as the popular Eco Park, to help promote community ties and support sustainability efforts.

Since construction began in 2007 under the New Town Kolkata Development Authority (NKDA), Rajarhat New Town has grown rapidly. The city has attracted several high-profile firms, such as Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, Adani Enterprises, and Reliance Industries Limited. Many of these companies have acquired land in a 200-acre area slated to become the Bengal Silicon Valley Tech Hub. With the project expected to attract over $12 billion in investment and generate 50,000 new jobs, Rajarhat New Town is positioning itself as a leader in the tech ecosystem.  

However, the city faced many obstacles in the initial phases of development. Announced in 1999, the first eight years of the project were spent conducting impact studies and reports, obtaining permits, including environmental clearances, and acquiring land. The land assembly process – often the most contentious stage in new city development – proved to be particularly lengthy and complex.  

West Bengal’s former Communist state government took the lead in the acquisition, using “land monetization as a means of accumulation” and “land transfers [to developers] as a means to incentivize the creation of new urban spaces.”[4] Former government authorities claim that the process was largely peaceful, smoothed by concerted efforts to include, compensate, and resettle residents impacted by the acquisitions. Former state officials also claim that the process was informed by the “systematic formation of neighborhood committees comprising political leaders from ruling and opposition camps, farmers, sharecroppers, and residents of the area to negotiate issues related to acquisition and compensation.”

However, the land acquisition story propagated by the state government belies the reality for many residents impacted by resettlement. Some farmers claim that they were forced from their land during a state-sponsored land grab and poorly compensated. In fact, evidence suggests that the state acquired land from farmers for approximately $107-129 per acre, then sold it to developers for about $12,903 per acre, who in turn, made profits of around $320,000-$430,000. Ultimately, “the farmers received 1% of the profit of the government or 0.0001% of the developers’ profit.”

Discontent came to a head in 2006 when the state government attempted to acquire an additional 997 hectares of land in the district of Singur for the Dankuni Township Project. Villagers rallied under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee – the Trinamool Congress chief – to protest the acquisition. Due to such intense local opposition, the plan was eventually scrapped. Issues related to land acquisition in Singur subsequently contributed to the ouster of the West Bengal’s Communist government in 2011, after three decades in power.[5]

In this way, heavy-handed state intervention in land acquisition, poor compensation and unjust treatment of landowners undermined the early growth of Rajarhat New Town. While it is undeniable that the city has subsequently experienced remarkable success, it is also essential to recognize the issues faced in the early stages of its construction to inform land acquisition processes and equity considerations for future new city developments.

Tamesna, Morocco

Growth of Tamesna, Morocco, 1984-2022 (Source: Google Earth Engine)

Tamesna is a master-planned satellite city in Morocco, located 15 kilometers outside Rabat. Developed as part of the Moroccan government’s “Villes sans bidonvilles” (VSB) – or “Cities Without Slums” – program, Tamesna was designed to provide an alternative to the informal settlements which have grown around the periphery of Morocco’s capital.

Started in 2004, VSB aims to eradicate informal settlements and promote socially inclusive urban expansion. The Moroccan government sees the development of new cities as crucial to this effort. Former Minister of Housing Abderrahman Chorfi explains that new city projects under VSB are “especially intended to serve the needs of low-income residents, who cannot afford housing in Morocco’s major urban centers.” The second city to be established under the VSB program, Tamesna was envisaged as a resettlement site for approximately 10,000 households living in informal settlements. Originally planned to house 250,000 residents, as of 2019, Tamesna had a population of approximately 45,000.

Resettlement has been managed by the national public real estate company, Al Omrane. Under the semi-voluntary process of ‘relogement,’ households are provided with new apartment units at a price below market value.[6] While many households have been eager to obtain new lodging, some of the most vulnerable are still unable to afford social housing, and others refuse to give up their claims to inherited land. Furthermore, for many of the households that have completed the resettlement process, the reality of life in Tamesna has failed to live up to their expectations.

One resident describes the social housing units as “cages of 40 or 50 meters squared” and explains that there is a clear divide in the quality of low-income and high-income neighborhoods, which is opposed to the government’s vision of inclusivity. Residents also argue that the town suffers from lack of strong economic base, inadequate connectivity to nearby cities, and limited options for entertainment, leading to “pervading sentiments of boredom and demotivation.” This is only further exacerbated by the plethora of vacant units in Tamesna, a consequence of real estate speculation, which dampens community life.

Additionally, rural misclassification and poor local government capacity has contributed to a breakdown in public service provision and heightened insecurity. Because the city is situated in the rural commune of Sidi Yahya Zaer, it falls under the purview of local authorities and is “governed with the means and prerogatives attributed to rural entities in Morocco.” In other words, the city of Tamesna does not have its own governing apparatus and is instead administered by the local rural authorities, which lack the resources and bandwidth to effectively support the city. Consequently, garbage and sewage services are inadequate, street lighting and power frequently cuts, and construction on essential infrastructure is slow. Insecurity has also been exacerbated by the lack of a local police force; instead, the city is patrolled by a small unit of gendarmes.

In the face of such challenges, some residents are taking matters into their own hands. Many have made alterations to their dwellings to fit their needs and aesthetic values. The establishment of a marketplace in the center of the city provides residents with access to otherwise unavailable goods. A number of community organizations have also begun to fill the vacuum left by the lack of local governance, organizing cultural events and beautification initiatives which contribute to place making. Ultimately, with the government falling short of its promise to create an environment that “provides joy of living, fulfillment, and an improved standard of living for all inhabitants,” the residents have shown remarkable resilience and ingenuity in creating a space that meets their needs.

Future new city projects intended to support inclusivity must engage residents at every stage of the development process to mitigate the challenges and shortcomings experienced in Tamesna. Furthermore, new cities must be endowed with the devolved governing authority necessary to properly administer a city and provide for residents. Failure to engage citizens or to properly organize local governance bodies can severely undermine the growth of new cities, particularly those that are aimed at social inclusion.

King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia

Growth of KAEC, Saudi Arabia, 1984-2022 (Source: Google Earth Engine)

Located on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is one of six economic cities being developed as part of the Saudi government’s efforts to diversify the country’s economy, reduce dependence on oil exports, and provide jobs for the bulging youth population.

To this end, the primary industries being cultivated in KAEC are logistics, light manufacturing, and services, including tourism. One of KAEC’s most marked successes thus far is the booming King Abdullah Port, which was named the second fastest growing and second most efficient port in the world. Due to KAEC’s status as a free trade zone and its growing importance as a central logistics hub, several industrial tenants have also set up shop in the city. Some of the major investors include “Sweden’s IKEA, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, French oil company Total and chocolate firm Mars.”

Approximately the size of Washington, DC, the city was designed to accommodate two million residents across six distinct neighborhood districts, each marketed to specific demographics, such as families or young professionals. The city boasts a high-speed rail station, connecting it to the major cities of Mecca and Medina, and two universities, the King Abdullah University of Sciences and Technology and Prince Mohammed bin Salman College. In a major shift, both universities are co-ed, which is emblematic of the modern and progressive vision for the city. In fact, social liberalization within the city – including suspension of the law that women wear the ‘abaya’ in public spaces – has appealed to the overwhelmingly young Saudi population.  

However, thus far, the city has been unable to attract and retain a substantial population due to slow residential development. In fact, only about “25 percent of the physical area of KAEC” has been developed, with the city boasting an estimated population of only 10,000-15,000 residents. Plans for future residential development have been constrained by lack of adequate financing. Despite attracting major investment when it was placed on the Saudi stock market under Emaar Economic City, it remains to be seen whether the project will be “financially sustainable long enough…to become self-sustaining.”

Under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, KAEC has also received less support from national authorities. After coming to power in 2017, MBS has instead turned his attention, and his pocketbook, towards his own pet project – the line city of Neom.[7] Although the project leaders of KAEC argue that the development of Neom will introduce positive inter-city competition, KAEC can no longer rely on a steady flow of funding from the Saudi crown family to cover financing gaps. As one critic argues, “logic suggests that [MBS] should have doubled down on KAEC…[but to] add luster to the name of the late king, and not the crown prince…would run contrary to the goals of royal vanity projects.”

Investors, residents, and tourists may also be deterred from KAEC due to Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record and lack of sustained commitment to social equity.[8] Although the government envisions the city as an island of social liberalization, it is unclear how the proposed dual legal systems will peacefully coexist, particularly amidst the country’s increasingly authoritarian political environment and enduring religious conservatism. As KAEC grows, scholars expect that there will be “tensions and debate…about the role of the city in the kingdom’s trajectory and how the city will be governed.”

With substantial financing and governance obstacles to overcome, the success of KAEC is by no means guaranteed. At its best, the city has the potential to “spark broader economic opportunities and help to foster an entrepreneurial culture that can successfully diversify the economy and foster knowledge industries…[as well as catalyze] broader social change.” Whether such lofty goals are achieved will be heavily influenced by the kingdom’s national political climate and the whims of Saudi leadership. As evidenced in KAEC, national governance dynamics and commitment to social justice issues have the potential to substantially influence the success or failure of new city projects.

The cases of Rajarhat New Town, Tamesna, and KAEC demonstrate the potential of new cities to address urbanization pressures, promote technological transfer, and spur economic growth. Rajarhat New Town is a particularly good example of a successful new city that has blossomed into a thriving tech hub. Tamesna and KAEC have also experienced some early success but have yet to become self-sustaining entities. Although it is home to a growing population, in Tamesna most residents’ needs remain unmet, economic opportunities are scarce, and local governance is severely lacking. Conversely, in KAEC, the booming growth of King Abdullah Port promises economic opportunity, but the city has yet to develop a large amount of attractive, accessible residential space. Financing gaps have only become more daunting due to the country’s deteriorated political environment and the Saudi crown’s decision to concentrate efforts on the city of Neom.

The experiences of these three cities highlight two important lessons for future new city developments. Firstly, governance at both the local and the national levels is a key component in the success or failure of new city projects. Heavy-handed state intervention in land acquisition in Rajarhat New Town led to popular discontent, the scrapping of another new development, lost investment, and the ouster of the state’s governing party. Tamesna’s rural misclassification and the resulting absence of a municipal governing authority has led to poor public service provision, heightened insecurity, and fractured social relations. Political instability and inconsistency also threaten to undermine the success of KAEC, particularly as the regime shifts its focus to other, more opulent, city projects.

Secondly, social justice and equity considerations must be integrated into new city development plans and informed through participatory approaches. Participatory approaches, when employed, have already proven successful for land acquisition in Rajarhat New Town and for place making in Tamesna. Social liberalization in KAEC also promises to attract young men and women in search of access to higher education and professional opportunities. These dynamics suggest that civil society leaders and residents have an important role to play in every stage of the new city development process.

As new cities continue to grow and evolve, it will be crucial to support local governing authorities, granting them the means and powers necessary to effectively attract and provide for residents. Subsequently, by engaging with residents and aligning policy goals to meet their needs, local governing authorities can promote the long-term success of new cities and create a more equitable, sustainable, and prosperous future for all.


[1] Moser et al. (2015) make the interesting point that new city plans are increasingly included in ‘vision’ documents.

[2] These new cities were selected because construction on each project started within the same year and they represent the diversity of new city projects.

[3] In 2001, the West Bengal government officially changed the name of the city from Calcutta to Kolkata to better reflect its Bengali pronunciation.

[4] See Gavin Shatkin’s excellent Cities for Profit (2017).

[5] Throughout West Bengal, this period witnessed other protests related to forcible land acquisition by the state. Some of these culminated in violence, such as in Nandigram on March 14, 2007.

[6] Participating households must initiate the resettlement process, then work with local social workers to provide the required paperwork, make financing arrangements, and schedule a time for the demolition of their former residence.

[7] Recently, Neom has also come under scrutiny for the forced relocation of the Howeitat tribe, who live on the site slated for the city’s construction.  

[8] In fact, the former head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Group, Amr al-Dabbagh – who provided the initial funding for KAEC – was detained and reportedly suffered physical abuse during a controversial anti-corruption campaign launched by MBS.

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