Designing New Cities in the 21st Century

Although it was thoroughly lost amid his travails as the most prosecuted ex-president in American history, on March 4, in a video released on his campaign website, Donald Trump proposed a national contest for urban developers to submit designs for new “Freedom Cities,” with 10 winning designs to be allocated federal land for their construction.

Whatever else that many will say of him, with this, Trump is on to something. Why shouldn’t the federal government allow for the privatization of a mere 0.5 percent of federal land in the United States? That would be roughly 5,000 square miles. If split evenly and allocated as squares, this would result in 10 new cities, each 22 miles on a side.

There’s something intriguing about this proposal that is at its core a libertarian notion – turning public land back over to the private sector. Digging deeper, it invites Americans to create 10 futuristic scenarios for urban development on a blank slate. The mix of public and private funding could be left up to the individual participating states.

How these cities planned to manage their transportation, energy, water, food and waste-management challenges could differ greatly, and the various outcomes would offer instructive examples for urban revitalization all over America. Red states might strike a balance between innovation and sticking with more cost-effective conventional building codes and enabling infrastructure, whereas in blue states, one might expect designs that aspire to become models of sustainability, hopefully in sufficiently practical applications.

Plenty of new and transformative innovations are at our disposal today, including using laminated timber for construction of high-rise and mid-rise structures; innovative ways to reuse water and harvest nutrients from wastewater and indoor agriculture; and a radical expansion of transportation conduits, both underground and in the air.

Cities from scratch, yesterday and today

Creating a completely new city on raw land is an opportunity that has intoxicated architects and urban planners since the dawn of civilization. The first urban planners, otherwise known to history as pharaohs and kings, built the earliest cities on the confluences of navigable rivers. The patterns formed by the transportation arteries of these first cities would be recognizable today – a linear city along a single main road, a rectangular or square grid, or a radial pattern. And as wood gave way to stone, the ruins offer timeless monuments to help us imagine the cultures of these earliest builders.

With the harnessing of water, then wind, then coal and oil, and as stone gave way to steel, cities reached for the sky. Within a few decades, the grand cathedrals of Medieval Europe, most of them built in the 16th century and towering up to 500 feet, were dwarfed by high rises built with steel superstructures and electric elevators. Measured against the preceding centuries, the transition upward using these new materials has been breathtakingly swift.

The Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889, rose 984 feet over Paris and for 41 years held the record as the world’s tallest structure. It was dethroned for only one year by the Chrysler Building in 1930 at 1,046 feet high. The next claimant to world’s tallest building was the Empire State Building, at 1,250 feet. It wasn’t until 1971, 40 years later, that the World Trade Center made its debut at 1,368 feet, surpassed only a year later with Chicago’s Sears Tower at 1,450 feet.

The tallest buildings since then constitute a surprisingly short list, and in all cases, the victory torch has left the United States. In 1998, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia were completed, setting a new record at 1,483 feet. Six years later in Taiwan, Taipei 101 was built at 1,671 feet. And in 2009, defying gravity and perhaps practicality as well, the Burj Khalifa was opened for business, rising an astonishing 2,717 feet over the petrostate of Dubai. Clad in shining steel, sparkling glass and polished granite, these high rises are a testament to the technology, wealth, ambition and pride of a confident people.

If the great epochs of cities gave rise to wonders such as the Pyramids and the Acropolis in ancient times, magnificent cathedrals in the Middle Ages, and spectacular skyscrapers during the industrial era, what’s next? With everything we’ve learned, and all the materials at our disposal, what will the information age bring? We can go higher than ever and build as dense as we wish.

We can only guess how many ways we can further enhance our digital connections. We will have air mobility and autonomous vehicles. Presumably, we will aspire to carbon-neutrality, with cradle-to-cradle recycling, and every gadget more complex than a coffee cup wired into the Panopticon.

Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of planners, spanning the continuum from visionaries to despots, who have been busily thinking about what’s next, many of them imagining a new city on raw land. In what may be the most notorious of plans, the prospective site is a massive stretch of empty desert in Saudi Arabia, where the government proposes a linear city named The Line.

As currently designed, this megastructure will be just over 100 miles long, 1,600-feet tall, and 650-feet wide. Renderings of The Line show a climate-controlled interior atrium with tall trees on the base and countless aerial catwalks overflowing with greenery. In the middle of a burning desert, The Line plans to house nine-million people. What could possibly go wrong?

Understanding the prerequisites leading up to and inspiring concepts such as The Line offers a useful glimpse into modern architectural megalomania. All the elements are present in this scheme: an autocratic regime, access to stupefying amounts of wealth, and a coterie of willing acolytes and experts that rationalize this bizarre megalith as a hallmark of environmental sustainability and the epitome of inclusive, equitable urbanism. Where the skeptic sees an elongated Borg cube, an elaborate zoo with alluring pens for the animals, the idealist sees utopia. If U.S. planner Robert Moses and Nazi architect Albert Speer could procreate, their child would be The Line.

Imagining successful future cities

The material and technology available today may translate into an unprecedented range of options for the urban environment, but the fundamental logistics haven’t changed in 5,000 years. To be inhabitable, cities must deliver adequate energy, water, food, waste management and transportation conduits. For much of the federal land in America, an immediate concern would be water, since most of it is in the parched Western states. But while the federal government only owns 4 percent of the land east of the Mississippi, that still translates into an awful lot of land.

In fact, if a federal land allocation for a new city were a square 10 miles on a side, which is plenty of space to work with, the only states that wouldn’t have enough federal land to make that grant possible would be Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

But what about the wild west? What about a new city rising out of the sagebrush with a futuristic skyline and a million inhabitants? Are there practical solutions to the logistical requirements of a large city built in an arid region where all the easily available water allocations already are claimed? If American ingenuity is going to inspire the rest of the world to build state-of-the art, environmentally sustainable new cities, while also choosing freedom and prosperity, the answer has to be yes.

If a new city is built in a parched environment, water security can be obtained through a combination of interbasin transfers and – to minimize the quantity of imported water – total recycling of wastewater. Developers can secure abundant energy using the latest modular nuclear reactors, along with other more conventional technologies. But what about new cities in the relatively populated, rain-drenched eastern United States?

Even in regions of the United States where water and energy connections are easier, it would still be interesting to site new cities in rural locations far removed from the existing grid. Not only will new technologies to manage energy and water make this more feasible, but the economic engines of these new cities, no matter where they are, will benefit because one third of all jobs can now be done remotely – from anywhere – and by the fact that decentralized air mobility is just around the corner.

These two factors, along with the burgeoning potential of indoor agriculture and the increasing feasibility of buildings that are nearly self-sufficient in generating and reusing water and energy, enormously reduce the amount of transportation and utility conduits needed within cities and to connect cities to the grid.

The economics of infrastructure

There is a perennial trade-off at work in the development of urban infrastructure. To the extent payments to finance its construction place an unaffordable burden on ratepayers, the government has to step in with subsidies. But before subsidizing anything, governments have to explore the potential of deregulation to lower private-sector capital costs.

In the United States, and California in particular, most of the excess costs for construction are the product of excessive regulation. In Israel, the Sorek desalination plant’s capital cost per unit of freshwater output is one-fifth what the capital cost was to build the Carlsbad desalination plant north of San Diego on the California coast. In most parts of California, private developers cannot build affordable single-family homes while still making a profit. In these cases and others, California’s crippling regulatory environment is the reason nothing is affordable in that state.

When new cities are developed on raw federal land, we may presume the regulatory environment will be more forgiving than what might apply when massive redevelopment investment goes into well-settled areas including the urban cores of well-established cities.

But this brings up what may be the greatest challenge of all. If the barriers to land acquisition and fundamental infrastructure logistics have been resolved, what sort of city will get built? Once the utility hookups are in place, and thousands of private parcels are ready for purchase, what sort of zoning restrictions will apply? How will the new city manage its evolution, if, for example, it is a massive success and lower-density districts face the pressure of densification, or require new transportation conduits?

To help answer this, history offers two competing extremes. We have the autocratic coercion of Robert Moses, who as a parks commissioner in New York City from 1934 through 1963 wielded influence far beyond that innocuous title. Moses presided over the construction of bridges, tunnels, highways, parks and public housing that mercilessly shoved the Big Apple into the 20th century, but his legacy is controversial. While the transportation corridors he blasted through old neighborhoods may have been necessary for a growing city, they could have been handled with more finesse. The housing projects he built demolished functioning neighborhoods and replaced them with what became crime-ridden tenements.

A writer who greatly influenced urban studies in the 20th century was Jane Jacobs, author of the 1962 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Jacobs observed how cities were living ecosystems, where people would independently organize into healthy, safe and economically vibrant neighborhoods that would invariably be devastated by top-down urban redevelopment. Jacobs is a pioneer of what is known today as New Urbanism, which promotes walkable neighborhoods with mixed-use development and a diverse base of local employment.

Creating a new city in the 21st century offers an opportunity to create a base infrastructure that is robust enough to never require the wholesale demolition that Robert Moses and his acolytes across the United States felt, perhaps justifiably, was necessary to restore adequate transportation corridors to cities that had outgrown their circulatory systems.

It offers the opportunity to incorporate the best new technologies, enable residents access to unprecedented communications, and achieve near self-sufficiency in energy, water and food. It is a chance to strike the optimal economic balance, whereby the appropriate level of deregulation and government investment in infrastructure lowers the ongoing cost of essentials, thus maximizing the potential for small, cost-conscious private businesses and households to thrive.

At the same time, the builders of new cities can incorporate everything we’ve learned from Jacobs and the New Urbanists to engage in mindful development, so that distinct and vibrant neighborhoods evolve organically. With thoughtful design that always prioritizes its impact on the human experience, these new cities will each come to express a next-generation cultural identity that is both authentic and unique, and entirely unpredictable.

New cities might still be a thought experiment, but it’s something worth thinking seriously about.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Pacific Research Institute.

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