What are the odds that a proposed 5 million person American city built from scratch gets off the ground?

A recently unveiled plan from an American billionaire for a new large city verges on the utopian:

Photo by Una Laurencic on Pexels.com

The cleanliness of Tokyo, the diversity of New York and the social services of Stockholm: Billionaire Marc Lore has outlined his vision for a 5-million-person “new city in America” and appointed a world-famous architect to design it…

The former Walmart executive last week unveiled plans for Telosa, a sustainable metropolis that he hopes to create, from scratch, in the American desert. The ambitious 150,000-acre proposal promises eco-friendly architecture, sustainable energy production and a purportedly drought-resistant water system. A so-called “15-minute city design” will allow residents to access their workplaces, schools and amenities within a quarter-hour commute of their homes…

The first phase of construction, which would accommodate 50,000 residents across 1,500 acres, comes with an estimated cost of $25 billion. The whole project would be expected to exceed $400 billion, with the city reaching its target population of 5 million within 40 years…

On Telosa’s official website, Lore explains that he was inspired by American economist and social theorist Henry George. The investor cites capitalism’s “significant flaws,” attributing many of them to “the land ownership model that America was built on.”

From what I read here, I would say the odds are low that this comes close to the proposed population. Playing Simcity is one thing; building a large city from scratch and with such a master plan is difficult to pull off in the United States. At the same time, having a good plan and incorporating the latest ideas could help avoid problems later that cities face as they age (such as with infrastructure). Taking the best of older cities and adding more recent ideas could break through the problem of updating existing communities.

One factor I could see in favor of this plan is a significant public-private partnership developed with a state or a local government. The United States has a long history of public-private partnerships to address public goods. Imagine a state or county or public agency that is looking for a unique opportunity or a way to generate economic activity. Starting a new city with multiple funding sources could help provide jobs, residences, and a new sense of community. This could be the “garden city” of the twenty-first century on a grander scale compared to the smaller American efforts in the twentieth century.

Adjusting city infrastructure to meet new challenges

What is underneath the streets of older major cities may not be enough to face new weather patterns and additional challenges cities face today. Here are some of the efforts from recent years in New York City:

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

New York had its first climate-related wake-up call nine years ago, when Hurricane Sandy brought a storm surge that flooded low-lying areas and, yes, subway stations. Since then, the city has spent almost $20 million on climate-proofing the city, according to the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But some of that funding went to solving a different problem than the one presented by Ida: water coming from the rivers. This week, all the wet stuff fell from the sky, threatening even areas above sea level…

Now, after years of updates, 60 percent of New York City has a combined sewer system, which uses a single pipe to carry both wastewater and stormwater to treatment plants. During heavy rainstorms, the system can get quickly overwhelmed. The detritus of city living—trash, plants, general gunk—clogs drains, further gumming up the works. “So if you get a really big kahuna like this, I don’t think it really has a shot at draining that out fast enough to avoid flooding,” says Farnham.

The city has worked to separate those combined sewer systems and to clear clogged drains, especially when storms threaten. It has raised and in some cases eliminated subway grates, which were built to allow fresh air to flow down to dank underground spaces but which now look like holes to let more water in. In some places, the MTA constructed flood-proof doors, which can close when the water gets too close.

More generally, cities like New York can create more green infrastructure to help with their water problems—basically, less pavement and more dirt. You might, for instance, create roadside green spaces where water can percolate before moving into stormwater drains, removing trash and pollution in the process. Los Angeles has been doing this to catch rainwater. “This is a long-term thing,” says Horodniceanu. Retrofitting cities to deal with what’s coming, and what’s already come, will take gobs of one of the scarcest resources of all: much more funding.

As cities expand and change, fixing the infrastructure already there to incorporate new technologies and grow the capacity is a difficult task. How disruptive will the efforts be? How much will it cost? It could be much easier in the long run to anticipate these issues way ahead of time and proactively make changes rather than only act after a major issue is exposed.

Water is particularly destructive as much of modern life depends on the fact that water will be excluded from the system. Residences, businesses, mass transit, electronics must be dry to function well. If there is an overwhelming storm or a breach of the water defenses, water can quickly wreak havoc both in the short-term and long-term. Cities require a lot of things to go right to properly go about their business but water can quickly disrupt this operation.

The recent events in New York City and New Orleans also remind me of the planning that can go into highways and parking lots: they can be constructed with peak use in mind. The parking lot needs to be large enough to handle the biggest crowds, hence the shopping mall parking lots that can handle Thanksgiving weekend shopping but are not fully used throughout the rest of the year. Or, the highway that needs more and more lanes to handle rush hour traffic while there are many hours when that capacity is not needed. Sewers need to handle really big storms or events. But, in each case, can the largest need be forecast correctly? Adding lanes to roads can increase the traffic. Right-sizing parking lots can be tricky. And planning for the rare storm is hard, particularly if conditions are changing. Similarly, people will not be happy in these cases if there is not enough capacity and there will be calls to fix the problem afterward.

Losing friends when moving from the city to the suburbs

When people move from the city to the suburbs, do they lose their friends in the city? Here is one recent example from an advice column:

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Q. Not urban, not yet suburban: One of my best friends just informed me, after I called him out on avoiding me for weeks, that because I am moving from the city where we both live to suburbia, he is no longer “feeling the friendship” and wants to end it. The TL;DR is that he has an enormous fear of being abandoned, and I think proactively decided to abandon me so I couldn’t do it to him—except that I had no intention of abandoning him, and was caught completely off guard.

He is single; I’m married with a preschooler, who adores him, by the way, and will definitely notice the lack of his presence—and he talked about how now I could be a “suburban mom” and forget all about my city friends. He gaslit me, making it sound like I had told him I wouldn’t miss him, wouldn’t come visit the city ever again (I’m moving 20 miles and a direct train ride away; it’s hardly a hardship to come see friends!), and because he doesn’t have a car and can’t come see me, there was no point to staying friends at the same level we have been. I never said or even came close to any of this! I admit that I’ve been talking a lot about my move very positively—it really does feel like a fresh start to me, having a home and yard after living in 750 sq. ft. apartment for the pandemic with a toddler—but he claims I’m just too happy about leaving the city and he loves the city so much that we can’t be friends the same way.

I’m so angry at him right now that I can’t see past any of this to consider contacting him again, but to not contact him would mean that he’s right, I moved away and abandoned him. But…is this a friendship worth salvaging? And if so, how? This all feels like so much bull to me. We’re in our 40s, by the way!

A: I can very much imagine getting a letter here from a single man saying, “One of my best friends moved from the city to the suburbs and all she talks about is countertops and lawn care and finding a nanny and it’s so boring and I just don’t feel like we connect anymore and don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.” I would probably tell him to make an effort to talk about things that interest him, to give you a little space to be excited about your new life, to be deliberate about making plans together, and to hold off on declaring the friendship dead until trying these things.

But instead, he just cut you off. To me, that’s a sign of being a bit immature, selfish, and inflexible—and that he only valued you for the way you fit into his current life rather than who you are. If you don’t feel like contacting him, don’t—after all, he’s basically ended the friendship without your input. But maybe, like you said, this is just a tantrum over feeling abandoned. If once you get settled, you decide you’re still thinking about him and want to be the bigger person (and the person who rides the train to meet for dinner), tell him you miss him and offer to meet up somewhere convenient to him. If he accepts, you can feel out whether you enjoy the new iteration of your friendship and what it takes to maintain it. If he declines, you have your answer and you can live your suburban life in peace.

There are multiple factors at work here:

  1. Even in an era of social media, video calls, and the Internet, proximity matters for friendships and relationships. Being further away makes it more difficult to get together. Twenty miles from city to suburb is not insurmountable but it is not necessarily easy depending on transportation and traffic. People can often form relationships with neighbors, people at work, and others they see regularly at groups and places even as they have the option to date and meet people through apps.
  2. Suburban life is often focused on different things than urban life. The priorities can be different. Here is my list of why Americans love suburbs: single-family homes, family life and children, race and exclusion, middle-class utopia, cars and driving, local government and local control, and closer to nature. This leads to an everyday experience centered on private homes and family lives, driving, limited diversity and cultural opportunities compared to many cities, and distance from the big city. This could be contrasted with what residents of cities often say they value: being close to activity and cultural opportunities, more people around, less driving, and more diverse populations. Life in the suburbs and cities can look very different, though some of the things people like in each kind of place can be found in the other.
  3. Possibly losing a close friend is hard. Social media makes it possible to hang on to relationships for a long time without much interaction but that is not the same as regular, in-person interaction.
  4. Individual preferences and actions. The letter above speaks to a particular situation between two people even as it hints at broader patterns (#1-3 in the factors above).

Can city/suburbs relationships work? Yes. Does it have particular obstacles? Maybe. Do people like it when their friends move away? No.

Getting more suburban churches to develop affordable housing

As churches in cities develop affordable housing, how about more suburban churches doing the same? First, what some Atlanta churches are doing:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The project is one of several in Atlanta where faith leaders are investing in affordable housing for the sake of their communities. Across the country, churches with property in prime locations are turning over one block, one building, one lot at a time through movements like “Yes in God’s Backyard” in California. Atlanta-area pastor Rev. David Lewicki discusses the calling of affordable housing as a ministry.

“We are increasingly convinced that affordable housing is the foundation of beloved community,” the Presbyterian minister wrote at Faith & Leadership. “Housing is a profound and even holy good.”…

Lewicki’s church got involved in lobbying for more inclusionary zoning policies to allow for lower-priced options in their area and began to create a land trust so they could get involved in addressing the legacy of racial and economic segregation in the city…

Affordable housing and community development can seem like just business ventures—which they are—but pastors know how much these issues directly affect their congregants and stem from biblical calls for community.

Here are a few compelling reasons why suburban churches should follow this course:

  1. Affordable housing is needed throughout metropolitan regions. For example, in the Chicago region, experts suggests there is a need for tens of thousands of units. And the need is not limited to Chicago or just specific communities; it is needed in many locations.
  2. Welcoming people goes beyond Sunday morning and indicating to people that they are wanted in the community all week round. It is one thing to be part of a church community; it is another to be fully welcomed into all of the community.
  3. Housing is critical in a suburban environment as it helps in access to jobs, schools, parks, and other amenities that lead to a higher quality of life. Plus, homeownership is highly valued in suburbs so if there are opportunities for congregations to provide affordable single-family homes, this helps attendees match suburban aspirations with reality.
  4. Suburban churches have funds and local power to make this happen. It takes money to buy, develop, and maintain properties. It takes expertise and influence to work with municipalities and concerned neighbors. Congregations are often viewed as assets in communities and they often have built up goodwill over the years.

While this may not be an easy task in many suburban locations as neighbors and communities resist providing housing for residents with fewer resources, religious congregations could help lead the way.

Cities as “a bulwark against disaster”

A review of a new book of essays about cities includes this discussion of how cities can hold up against disasters:

Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

Mattern’s deft dissection of metaphors for cities shows that when they’re misguided, they point to a failure not only of imagination but of a city’s ability to carry out its chief function—as a bulwark against disaster. Humans build cities as fortresses against failure: economic collapse, natural catastrophe, human venality and cowardice. The city walls keep those things out, when they work. If houses are, as the architect Mies van de Rohe said, “machines for living,” then cities are places where those machines get daisy-chained into a society. Cities are machines for cooperation, and survival.

Last summer, the disasters of climate change and disease pointed at the ways those machines could fail. The past year has made it clearer than ever that economic and racial inequities around the world, and especially in the United States, have imminent, deadly consequences. The warning lights are all flashing red: A conversation about cities can no longer be about the invisible data of surveillance cameras and stock trades. It has to be about the visible, more human-scaled construction of something better. The built environment can’t be an accident anymore, because that leads to catastrophe. We don’t live in a metaphor. “The built environment is the product of so many agencies and institutions, often working in the background,” Mattern says. “It’s hard to localize responsibility for that.” As she writes, cities aren’t mere computers. but I might still deploy a facile idea from that metaphor: Justice and survival now depend on cities getting a serious upgrade to their firmware.

Cities are often celebrated for what they bring or expand. Think of the wealth generated, the culture produced, the diversity experienced, the large population nurtured. Cities can be places of opportunities and change.

The quoted section above presents the flip side of this. The bringing together of people, activity, and resources helps ensure that difficult times do not wipe out human activity. People can work together to make things happen, even in the face of problems. In a more spread out landscape or with lower densities, humans might not be able to overcome these issues.

It is good to keep both of these features of cities – what they enable and what they limit – in mind. In the United States, conversation can often turn to the unique issues that cities face. Indeed, there might be societal and environmental issues that arise because of cities and then it remains to be seen how cities can address them. However, focusing on urban crises of the time can prevent us from seeing cities in a broader perspective.

Agglomeration, working from home, and the character of places

Why do certain industries cluster together in one location? Social scientists have answers:

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Economists believe agglomeration — like the clustering of tech in the Bay Area — has historically been the result of two main forces. The first is what they call “human capital spillovers” — a fancy way of saying that people get smarter and more creative when they’re around other smart and creative people. Think informal conversations, or “serendipitous interactions,” over coffee in the break room or beers at the bar. These interactions, the theory says, are crucial to generating great ideas, and they encourage the incubation and development of brainiac clusters. The other force is the power of “matching” opportunities. When lots of tech firms, workers and investors clustered in Silicon Valley, there were lots more opportunities for productive marriages between them. As a result, companies that wanted to recruit, grow or get acquired often gravitated to places like the Bay Area.

However, remote work could actually improve certain matching possibilities. Companies can hire smart people anywhere in the world when they drop the requirement that they physically be in a central office. Not only that, they can pay them less. Moreover, killing the office can significantly lower costs for companies, which no longer have to pay for expensive real estate.

So, in this theory, the future of work and the economic geography of America really hinges on whether companies can create those “human capital spillovers” through computer screens or in offices in cheaper locations.

This is a phenomenon with a pretty broad reach as cities could be viewed as clusters of firms and organizations. What has been interesting to me in this field in recent years is how places like this come to develop and what it means for the character of the place.

Take Silicon Valley as an example. This is the home of the tech industry and, as the article notes, the big firms have committed to physically being there with large headquarters (including Google, Apple, and Facebook). These headquarters and office parks are themselves interesting and often a post-World War Two phenomena as highways and suburbanization brought many companies out of downtowns to more sprawling campuses. At the same time, the impact of all of this on the communities nearby is also important. What happens when the interests of the big tech company and the community collide (see a recent example of a Facebook mixed-use proposal)? What did these communities used to be like and what are they?

This is bigger than just the idea of employees working from home. This potential shift away from clustering would affect places themselves and how they are experienced. If thousands of workers are no longer in Silicon Valley, what does this do to those communities and the communities in which more workers are now at home? Silicon Valley became something unique with this tech activity but it could be a very different kind of place in several decades if there is new activity and new residents.

The same could be said for many other communities. What is New York City if Wall Street and the finance industry clusters elsewhere or disperses across the globe? What happens to Los Angeles if Hollywood disperses? And so on. The character of places depends in part on these clusters, their size, and their history. If the agglomerations shift, so will the character of communities.

An ongoing American antagonism toward big cities

As noted in a recent opinion in the New York Times, the divide between cities and other kinds of communities in the United States has a long history.

From the beginning, Americans have differed on whether to uphold as ideal the urban life or the rural life. Should the model be New York, Boston, or Philadelphia or the plot of land in the country? These differences became more pronounced as urbanization picked up in the 1800s. With the majority of Americans now in the suburbs, the issue still is ongoing as many Americans say they prefer small towns (the suburbs?) while enjoying proximity to urban centers (jobs, cultural opportunities, transportation, etc.).

This is not just a geographic distinction or a set of preferences that some people have compared to others. These choices and systems that push people one way or another (with a lot of social actors and forces involved in encouraging uburbanization) also include a moral dimensions or a set of values and meanings. These are not just spaces; Americans have processes of meaning-making in all of these contexts.

With that in mind, there are several ways one could think about this ongoing contrast:

  1. A binary between city and country. This encourages each side to praise the traits of their option and denounce the other. Very black and white, one is better and one is worse.
  2. The suburbs are an attempted solution to this ongoing binary: some of the country, some of the city (or, as critics of the suburbs might say, none of either).
  3. Connected to different political battles. In the early days, this was part of the issues between Jefferson and Hamilton. Today, this is an issue between Republicans and Democrats. This is also about local/state/regional politics where urban interests go against those of other locations.
  4. A superfluous debate for a long time as we should think about regions with cities as anchors for wide territories where economic, social, and political activity is all intertwined. Think of Boston in the Northeast.
  5. A reaction to the rapid urbanization of the last two centuries that has upset much of human history where most people lived in small communities. Perhaps we are still figuring out how everything works with megacities where so much – population, economic activity, political power, globalized activity – is so concentrated.

In short, this divide is probably not going away soon. Hopefully, the conversation is more productive than denigrating other kinds of communities but rather seeking ways of working together since many of the issues Americans care about would benefit from cooperation across geographies.

Urbanism in board game form, 7 Wonders Duel edition

I am intrigued when the topics I study as a sociologist intersect with board games. Here is another example: the highly rated two person 7 Wonders Duel game includes a token that through science gains you can acquire called “urbanism”:

The way it works is that it immediately provides the player 6 coins and then each time they acquire a building for free, possible if you have already constructed a building linked to the proposed structure, they gain 4 additional coins. In short, you get more coins for constructing free buildings. Hence, urbanism as you are building your city faster.

There is little doubt that urbanism is one of the most important forces in human history. This is about the process of cities developing as well as a particular way of life that emerged in and around cities. Urbanism was important in multiple time periods. This includes the last two centuries as megacities developed around the globe concurrently with industrial, economic, and societal change. It is also the case in the last five or so millennia as population centers around the globe emerged. This is the period that 7 Wonders is covering as ancient wonders are constructed and denser permanent centers of political, religious, and economic life emerge. Most of these cities are not the size of cities today yet their permanence and way of life transformed human and societal fortunes.

In playing the game, having free buildings also contribute free coins is a helpful bonus. More buildings beget more buildings and wealth.

Neighborhood change via highway construction and the resulting change in local character

Neighborhood or community change happens over time. Yet, as this look back at a Black Dallas neighborhood that was drastically altered by the construction of a highway in the late 1960s suggests, it was not just that the physical aspects of the neighborhood that changes: the intangible yet experienced character of a community matters.

Photo by Mizzu Cho on Pexels.com

That is why these three forgotten old News stories about Deep Ellum are so important. Almost unintentionally, they document what was really lost when I-345 was built. Sure, the neighborhood lost shops, hotels, and historic buildings. But the most significant loss was something more intangible. Call it memory, or character, or spirit. Call it a continuity of shared experience, or sense of identity shaped by the ebbs and flows of prosperity and decline.

Whatever you call it, that intangible quality is the real ingredient that makes cities and neighborhoods great. You can’t plan it or build it. You can’t fund it through philanthropy or market it in a tourism brochure. It isn’t “walkability” or “urbanism.” It takes generations to take shape. If you’re lucky, you capture it by carefully preserving all the beautifully ugly conditions that feed it life.

But if you lose it, it’s gone forever.

This helps explain the anger and protests in the last sixty years or so about highways bulldozing their way through urban neighborhoods. The particular form of highways – wide, noisy, made to help people speed through the community rather than visit or stop – and consequences – often bisecting lively places, erecting a barrier, destroying important structures, and furthering connections for wealthier and suburban residents at the expense of others – could be very detrimental.

More broadly, this hints at the delicate nature of neighborhood or community character. Change will happen but it matters how quickly the change happens, what form it takes, and who drives the process. Highways do not do well in these three metrics: they tend to go from bulldozing to construction to use within a few years, it is difficult to rebuild street life around it, and it is pushed on a community by others. Could highways support neighborhood character in any form? Perhaps not. But, it is a question asked not just of highways: the issue of character comes up with structures and development of a different form including denser housing among single-family homes, a major height differential such as a 20 story tall building in a community with a current max of five story buildings, or a new kind of land use. It could be easy to write off the concerns of local residents and leaders as NIMBY concerns but they may have a point in that new construction could change the character.

And, as noted above, the character of a place is vitally important. The people who live and work there have a particular understanding of what it is. When it is threatened by something as characterless as a highway, this can be particularly painful.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: from urban corner stores to suburban corporate headquarters back to cities

Where exactly did Flamin’ Hot Cheetos come from? According to Frito-Lay, the impetus for the popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came from Northern cities and Plano, Texas:

Flamin’ Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand — she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence…

Six of the former employees remember inspiration coming from the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit. One of the earliest newspaper articles about the product corroborates that detail: A Frito-Lay spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News in March 1992 that “our sales group in the northern United States asked for them.”…

Over the next few months, Greenfeld went on market tours of small stores in Chicago, Detroit and Houston to get a better feel for what consumers craved. She worked with Frito-Lay’s packaging and product design teams to come up with the right flavor mix and branding for the bags. She went with a chubby devil holding, a Cheeto, Frito or chip on a pitchfork, depending on the bag’s contents, she recalls, a memory independently corroborated by newspaper archives…

“In response, Frito-Lay launched a test market of spicy Lay’s, Cheetos, Fritos and Bakenets in Chicago, Detroit and Houston” beginning in August 1990, the company wrote in a statement.

The article focuses more on the controversy of exactly how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came about but I think the geography is pretty fascinating. Here is why I think the geography matters:

  1. The impetus were existing products in urban stores. Even as more Americans lived in the suburbs than cities by the 1980s, a large company like Frito-Lay cannot ignore consumers in the city.
  2. The product was developed in the Dallas suburbs. Plano is a notable suburb because of its growth and wealth (and McMansions). But, there are plenty of suburban office parks where ideas are discussed. Who knew the snacking fate of America was decided in a relatively anonymous suburban facility by business professionals? (And how many other products have a similar story?) Across the street is Toyota American Headquarters and then each direction on major roads leads to strip malls, fast food, and highways.
  3. The product was tested in cities and the idea developed in the suburbs took flight. Now, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are widely available (though it would be interesting to see the sales breakdown by geography).

Modern capitalism was able to span these disparate locations and churn out a product loved by many. From a suburban office park to snack aisles everywhere…