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:

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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.

If mathematicians addressed traffic problems

How would mathematicians solve traffic? Here are the suggestions from a 2020 book:

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All drivers need to be on the same navigation system. Cars can only be efficiently rerouted if instructions come from one center hub. One navigation system rerouting some drivers does not solve traffic jams.

Parking bans. Many urban roads are too narrow and cannot be physically widened. Traffic-flow models can indicate where parking spots should be turned into lanes.

Green lanes. For cities that want to increase electric car use, special lanes should be created for electric cars, providing an incentive for their use.

Digital twins. Traffic demands and available infrastructure can only be balanced with digital modeling that creates an entire “twin” of existing roadways. The software will be “an extremely useful thought tool in the hands of transport engineers.”

I have not read the book and this description is not long but it seems to depend on both understanding current and possible traffic flows through modeling. Often, Americans typically get more lanes added to roads – which then tend to fill up because there is more capacity and/or populations continue to grow.

I wonder how modeling would fit with other values underlying road and traffic decisions. A few examples:

  1. It might be better to have a centralized traffic and navigation hub. Is this technically feasible, would all car makers want to participate, and would there be privacy concerns?
  2. The politics of providing special lanes, whether for electric cars or high occupancy vehicles or bicycles, can get interesting. Americans often think the roadway should be for all users as opposed to particular users.
  3. The road system we have is the result of not just prioritizing efficiency but a whole host of actors and forces that includes privileging single-family homes (and generally keeping them away from busy roads) and highways in and out of major cities.

Walking to go somewhere or interact with people in contrast to walking suburban loops for exercise

Several months ago, I heard Andrew Peterson discuss “The Mystery of Making.” As he talked about places and suburbs, he mentioned something about walking: suburbanites walk in loops instead of having walks that go somewhere or involve interacting with people.

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As a suburbanite who walks both for exercise and in order to get to places, this is a thing. This could occur for multiple reasons:

  1. The design of suburbs limits walking options. Because of the emphasis on single-family homes and separating them from other uses, suburbanites may not be able to access many places as pedestrians. Can they get to schools, libraries, stores, workplaces?
  2. Perhaps suburbanites do not want to interact with many people. Suburbanites want to avoid conflict and interaction happens when people want it, not necessarily because of proximity or an orientation toward the community. Add headphones/earbuds/smartphones to this and pedestrians can be in their own waking cocoon.
  3. This sounds like a focus on walking as exercise as opposed to walking as a means to accomplish other worthwhile goals. Such a focus sounds like it would fit with American emphases on efficiency or productivity.
  4. If you really need to get somewhere, Americans often opt for a car, even when the route is walkable.

Having more walkable places would likely help here but it does not necessarily guarantee sociability or walking as transportation.

Chicago truly has a grid

Looking at a map of Chicago or seeing it from above coming in and out of the local airports shows Chicago’s road network is a grid. A recent study examined just how much of a grid it is:

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It is right to compare Chicago’s street network to something so obsessively exact. A recent academic study, “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy,” by Geoff Boeing, looked at the maps of 100 major world cities, and found that Chicago’s “exhibits the closest approximation of a single perfect grid.” Nowhere else have urban planners been so successful in imposing Euclidean order on natural surroundings. On a scale of 0 to 1, in which 1 is a perfect grid, Chicago scores 0.9. (The least-perfect grid is Charlotte, a Sunbelt city whose street system is more entropic than Rome or São Paulo.)

Why such a design?

The man hired to plat a town at the mouth of the Chicago River was James Thompson, a surveyor from Kaskaskia, and the father of the Chicago Grid. Illinois had already been divided into square townships and sections by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Since Thompson was subdividing a township section, he simply repeated that pattern in miniature when he designed Chicago’s first street map. It was less than half a square mile, bounded by Kinzie on the north, Washington on the south, Jefferson on the west and Dearborn on the east, but it was the template for a network that would eventually cover the 234 square miles of Chicago—and extend into suburbs beyond its borders…

Thompson’s grid was interrupted only by the river, and by established Native American trails which became diagonal streets: Elston, Clark, Milwaukee, Archer, Ogden. By 1869, the grid had become so integral to the city’s identity that the Tribune boasted, “There is no city where the opportunities for straight streets are so advantageous as in Chicago,” and demanded, “Give us straight, broad streets, running uninterruptedly from one extremity of the city to the other.”…

In our quest for orderliness, Chicago also has the advantage of being one of the flattest cities in the U.S., lying on a plain that was once the bottom of a proto-Great Lake. It would not be practical or possible to impose an uninterrupted grid on Pittsburgh or San Francisco, where streets wind sinuously around hills. As the study notes, “Boston features a grid in some neighborhoods like the Back Bay and South Boston, but they tend to not align with one another. Furthermore, the grids are not ubiquitous and Boston’s other streets wind in various directions, resulting from its age (old by American standards), terrain (relatively hilly), and historical annexation of various independent towns with their own pre-existing street networks.”

This sounds like a perfect storm of factors: a planner who applied methods from the Northwest Ordinance, a unique landscape that was flat and had only one waterway, and a quest for land development and profit with land that could be easily marked and developed.

Of course, this question of spatial order could be combined with consideration of how these different spatial orders are experienced. Do residents of Chicago and visitors have a better experience because of the grid or are cities, like Boston or San Francisco, with different spatial orders more interesting and vibrant? The grid has particular advantages for navigation but has less charm or uniqueness.

Taking Los Angeles from 10 million planned residents down to nearly 4 million

Today, Los Angeles has almost 4 million residents. At one point, planners thought it could have 10 million residents. What happened in local government in the 1970s helped lead to this change:

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Come 1970, there was broad support for a portentous shift: Los Angeles would abandon the top-down planning that prevailed during a quarter century of postwar growth in favor of an ostensibly democratized approach. The city was divided into 35 community areas, each represented by a citizen advisory committee that would draw up a plan to guide its future. In theory, this would empower Angelenos from Brentwood to Boyle Heights to Watts.

In practice, it enabled what the Los Angeles land-use expert Greg Morrow calls “the homeowner revolution.” In his doctoral dissertation, he argued that a faction of wealthy, mostly white homeowners seized control of citizen advisory committees, especially on the Westside, to dominate land-use policy across the city. These homeowners contorted zoning rules in their neighborhoods to favor single-family houses, even though hardly more than a third of households in Los Angeles are owner-occupied, while nearly two-thirds are rented. By forming or joining nongovernmental homeowners’ associations that counted land-use rules as their biggest priority, these homeowners managed to wield disproportionate influence. Groups that favored more construction and lower rents, including Republicans in the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and Democrats in the Urban League, failed to grasp the stakes.

The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, a coalition of about 50 homeowners’ groups, was one of the most powerful anti-growth forces in California, Morrow’s research showed. It began innocently in the 1950s, when residents living below newly developed hillsides sought stricter rules to prevent landslides. Morrow found little explicit evidence that these groups were motivated by racism, but even if all the members of this coalition had been willing to welcome neighbors of color in ensuing decades, their vehement opposition to the construction of denser housing and apartments served to keep their neighborhoods largely segregated. Many in the coalition had an earnestly held, quasi-romantic belief that a low-density city of single-family homes was the most wholesome, elevating environment and agreed that their preferred way of life was under threat. Conservatives worried that the government would destroy their neighborhoods with public-housing projects. Anti-capitalists railed against profit-driven developers. Environmentalists warned that only zero population growth would stave off mass starvation.

Much like the Reaganites who believed that “starving the beast” with tax cuts would shrink government, the anti-growth coalition embraced the theory that preventing the construction of housing would induce locals to have fewer kids and keep others from moving in. The initial wave of community plans, around 1970, “dramatically rolled back density,” Morrow wrote, “from a planned population of 10 million people down to roughly 4.1 million.” Overnight, the city of Los Angeles planned for a future with 6 million fewer residents. When Angelenos kept having children and outsiders kept moving into the city anyway, the housing deficit exploded and rents began their stratospheric rise.

Americans tend to like local government. And this is one reason why: local citizens get involved and they are able to advocate for what they want.

Whether these local decisions are good for the broader community, city, or region is less clear. On one hand, these homeowners groups wanted their neighborhoods to be a particular way. They purchased a home in a certain setting for a reason. They tried to protect this way of life. (Even a freezing a neighborhood or community in time is difficult.) On the other hand, this had consequences for many others. These are neighborhoods within a larger city. Housing decisions contribute to residential segregation. Decisions about density reduce housing options.

The residents of these specific neighborhoods might have won but at what cost?

If automated vehicles lead to more miles driven, does this mean cars will continue to dominate American society?

A new analysis suggests drivers who have vehicles that drive themselves put more miles on the road:

In a 2020 paper, Hardman interviewed 35 people who owned Teslas with Autopilot, and he found that most thought the feature made driving less terrible. “The perception by drivers is that it takes away a large portion of the task of driving, so they feel more relaxed, less tired, less stressed,” Hardman says. “It lowers the cognitive burden of driving.”

In new research released this month, Hardman and postdoctoral researcher Debapriya Chakraborty suggest that making driving less terrible leads to a natural conclusion: more driving. Using data from a survey of 630 Tesla owners, with and without Autopilot, the researchers found that motorists with partial automation drive on average 4,888 more miles per year than similar owners without the feature. The analysis accounted for income and commute, along with the type of community the car owners live in.

Extrapolate that result to the wider population, and it may be that partially automated vehicles are already influencing how people travel, live, consume resources, and affect the climate. For governments, which have to anticipate future infrastructure demands, understanding those changes are critical. Shifting commute patterns could affect public transportation budgets and road maintenance schedules. More miles traveled means infrastructure gets more of a pounding. If electric vehicles are doing the traveling, governments still haven’t quite figured out how to charge them for it. And though electric vehicles like Teslas rely on cleaner energy than those guzzling gas, the electricity still has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is not always a renewable source. A country made up of increasingly sprawling communities, where people blithely travel hundreds of miles via autonomous or sort-of-autonomous vehicles to get to work or play, isn’t an efficient or sustainable one.

The new research suggests that partial automation could have upsides too. The bulk of the extra thousands of miles that Autopilot drivers traveled each year happened on long weekend trips, Hardman and Chakraborty found. Prior to Autopilot, those drivers might have opted to fly, which would have generated more greenhouse gas emissions. In the end, their decision to stick to the road was likely the more climate-friendly choice.

As noted here, there are a lot of possible consequences. I would add a big question asked for decades in the United States: would this continue the dominance of cars in American society? Much critique in the postwar era emerged around planning cities and suburbs around cars as opposed to around people and community needs. All the driving and the infrastructure for it helped give rise to white flight, fast food, big box stores, and even more sprawl within metropolitan regions. Efforts to limit car use have done little to reduce reliance on personal vehicles. Do self-driving cars make cars even more prevalent in American society?

Going further, would electric powered autonomous vehicles mean even more miles driven? If gasoline is out of the equation and the electricity (and car batteries) can be produced with fewer emissions, Americans might feel even more free to drive, commute, and travel.

If a major concern in society is driving itself, no matter how enjoyable it may be, new kinds of vehicles may not be welcome.

Publication in Planning Theory & Practice: “Planning and Religious Pluralism, Community by Community”

It was an honor to be invited to contribute to a symposium titled “Rethinking Religion and Secularism in Urban Planning” in the journal Planning Theory & Practice. See all of the contributions here.

My small piece worked with two articles I have published in the last few years: the 2019 article “‘Would Prefer a Trailer Park to a Large [Religious] Structure’: Suburban Responses to Proposals for Religious Buildings” and the 2020 article “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City region, 1992-2017.” I argue the aggregate of religion in the United States – interesting in itself given the particular history, legal structures, and social changes of the United States – and the community level religious experience are both important to reckon with because local officials and residents can respond to the wishes of local religious groups and residents.

For this particular symposium, all of the authors considered the role of urban planners amidst religion and secularism. Building on my findings, I suggest urban planners can play an important role in helping communities plan for future religious uses and, once a proposal is made, focus on welcoming groups and working with them and the community rather than allow the community to emphasize threats.

This will continue to be an issue in communities across the United States as both secularism and religion continue and change. For example, a recent survey suggesting 43% of millennials do not believe in God received a lot of attention in some quarters. But, it would be a mistake to focus on such a find just at the broader, abstract nation-state level; this has implications for communities.

Considering Jane Jacobs’ advice for parks when planning a major suburban park

Jane Jacobs is famous for her observations regarding sidewalks in the opening chapters of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Right after this is a chapter on parks. In summary, she suggests are not automatically good as they can easily become problem areas if there is not regular foot traffic in and through the park.

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I thought of this when seeing a plan of how the former Motorola Campus in Schaumburg might be turned into “a Millennium Park for suburbs”:

Schaumburg trustees Tuesday will consider approving a $1.1 million bid for construction of the first phase of a 12-acre, urban-style park ultimately envisioned as a sort of Millennium Park for the suburbs.

Planned for the former Motorola Solutions campus, the park when completed could house such amenities as a large outdoor performance venue, a sculpture garden, a dog park and a winter ice rink.

Phase one, however, will focus on the basic outline of the park and providing passive recreation opportunities to serve residents of the area, before the next set of upgrades are budgeted and built.

A suburban park, no matter how beautiful it is or how many amenities it has, could easily fall prey to the issues that Jane Jacobs describes. Do people live around the park? Will there be people regularly walking through the park? Will it have the same kind of lively pedestrian activity and interaction that she recommends for sidewalks?

A park built on a former office park campus might not have any of these. Located in a sprawling suburb, would the majority of users have to drive here? Would people be there just for the park and its particular amenities or are there nearby activities that would keep them in the area such as shops or restaurants? Are there enough residents within walking distance who can informally help keep an eye on the park and those who use it?

This could all be in the eventual plans. In the Chicago suburbs it is currently popular to suggest mixed-use developments to replace office parks, shopping malls, and other large properties. But, it takes time for such developments to happen and for community to arise. Parks do not automatically work like they do in Simcity where placing a park next to commercial or residential property boosts property values. Just because there is a pristine park in the plans does not mean that the park becomes the kind of asset Jacobs suggests they can be in the right conditions.

Where will the new work from home people in suburbs and other places want to settle and spend their money?

Now that we have more clarity on where remote workers have moved, another question arises: what do they want to do in their new communities?

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“People who are working from home still want to go out, either during the day or after work, and they still want to spend their money on interesting things and interesting places,” says Bill Fulton, who directs Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “If you move from San Francisco, you’re not going to want to spend all your money at Applebee’s, right?”

Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies real estate development, puts it another way: “I think annoying people with laptops are going to be everywhere. They’re coming for your favorite spot.”

The changes have elected officials, city planners, and developers mulling how to plan for this still-hazy future—and asking plenty of questions. Who will live here? Who will work here? Who will drive or take transit here, and when? Most essentially: What kinds of housing should we be building and for what sorts of people?…

City planners and economic development officials recognize that there’s an opening here. But most say that the work so far has been the equivalent of building the plane while it’s in the air. Work has been quick, a little harried, and focused on helping businesses just make it to the next day. Longer-term economic development—planning for places that might host new stores, restaurants, and housing—is more time consuming. It also demands more information on post-pandemic life.

Another way to think about it: how much risk are these communities with new residents willing to take? The pandemic brought changes but it is less clear how long-lasting these changes will be. Will people move back to cities or are there in these new places to stay? Is work from home going to continue at higher rates or not? Is this part of longer trends – retrofitting, “surban” development, etc. – or a blip? Certain development decisions could require multiple sources of capital: financial commitments, political moves, and significant changes to the character of particular communities.

Unfortunately, there may be no guarantees on these choices. Some suburbs and cities could do well, others may not. There may not even be fairly consistent success or failure within the same region. There could be some benefits to moving quickly and showing momentum; or not if trends go another direction or hasty planning fails to take everything into account.

At the same time, this is unique opportunity for communities. As noted in the title of the post, it could lead to new revenues, an issue facing many communities during COVID-19. Population growth is also seen as good. This could be a turning point to a different future.

Addressing the many less-than-3-mile trips in suburban settings

One of the authors of a new book on retrofitting suburbs highlights the number of short trips in suburban settings:

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Right now, 46 percent of trips from predominantly single-family-home suburban neighborhoods are three miles or less. Which would be perfectly fine for a bike ride, a scooter ride, or a walk in many of those trips, if there was adequate infrastructure to make that a safe choice. That would have enormous impact.

This is a problem that New Urbanist designs hope to solve by placing necessary goods and services within a fifteen minute walk from residences. This means that housing is within slightly less than a mile from important destinations.

Even at this shorter distance, how many Americans would rather drive? Factor in different circumstances – weather, the purpose of the trip (buying groceries?), who is involved in the walk (a solitary pedestrian versus a family with small kids), and the American preference for driving in the suburbs – and this may just seem to be too far.

Stretching the radius from just less than a mile to three miles then is a significant change. A bicycle or scooter would certainly help. Local mass transit would help. But, this would require a lot of infrastructure. Helping pedestrians feel safe instead of unwanted guests alongside busy roads. Safer options for bicyclists. Denser land use. Planning that helps strategically place needed services and buildings where non-drivers can access them. A commitment to a slower-paced life where getting somewhere is part of the fun rather than an impediment to consumption.

It is maybe that last piece that I think may be the hardest to address. Retrofitting will be attractive in some places due to particular needs and dissatisfaction with sprawl. Indeed, “surban” settings will help some suburbs stand out from others. But, if it only happens in pieces across suburbia, it will be hard to address the bigger question: do Americans object to having their lives are designed around cars? They may not be happy with it but this is different than explicitly making individual or collective choices to try a different way of life. As of now, the American Dream still typically involves cars and vehicles and it may take a long time before alternative modes of transportation are viewed as desirable.