Glass House Conversations: The Case for New Cities

May 20, 2011

The Glass House Conversations invited Greg Lindsay to host a conversation about new cities. I couldn’t resist the temptation to throw some stones:

In this century, billions of people will move to cities. On the current trajectory, far too many will go to places that don’t want them. As a result, they will live in conditions that deny them equal treatment under the law and exclude them from full participation in the modern economy.

To achieve true inclusion, we will need an environment like the one that prevailed on the frontier in the United States, where cities were in frantic competition to attract more residents. How can we replicate these conditions on the scale now required?

In principle, existing cities could learn how to grow in ways that benefit both existing residents and new arrivals. After all, the evidence clearly shows that bigger cities are better places to live. Sadly, a combination of bad management and bad politics means that the world’s existing cities probably won’t rise to this challenge. They could grow by accommodating immigrants, but they are more likely to fade in stature.

Fortunately, those who want a chance to live as a legal resident in a modern urban center don’t have to wait for the legacy cities to act. A new city is worth far more than it costs to build one. Without relying on any charity, new cities could emerge and provide the competition that is the only real hope for the excluded and marginalized.

Ideally, new cities will be created close to the greatest source of potential residents, in developing countries. They typically do not have in place the system of rules that a successful city will require, but their governments can offer these rules in large-scale special reform zones on unoccupied land. These zones can put new rules in place without forcing them on anyone. People will then have a chance to opt-into life under these rules if they want to, just as when millions of people from Communist China opted in to life in Hong Kong.

The challenge for policymakers, academics, and the planning and design community will be to support the countries that pursue this strategy of inclusive, affordable urbanization. To use an automotive analogy, the world does not need a few more hand-crafted, one-off luxury sedans that feed off of status competition among the elite. The demand is for model T’s.

The action in this century will not revolve around new cities for the rich like Dubai, new technology demonstration projects like Masdar, or new showcase capitals like Brasilia and Canberra. In the city building business, the real opportunity will be to build cities like Hong Kong of the 1950s. A few hundred could make a real difference.

This post originally appeared on the NYU Stern Urbanization Project’s blog. To read the original post, click here.