Why Don’t We Just Build New Cities?

Yearning for a blank slate crosses the ideological spectrum—but sooner or later, new places will face the same old problems.

California Forever
September 27, 2023

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The first urbanists were recorded in the pages of Genesis: "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." But God struck down the Tower of Babel and cursed his people to rely on Google Translate forever.

Despite this false start, the dream of building a great new city continues to this day, even in developed nations like the United States, where we already have a lot of them. We start new companies, new schools, new neighborhoods all the time. Why not a new San Francisco, Boston, or Miami? The yearning for a blank slate crosses the ideological spectrum, touching socialists, antidevelopment activists, curious policy makers, and, most recently, Silicon Valley investors attempting to build a city from scratch—among them Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Michael Moritz, Nat Friedman, and Laurene Powell Jobs (who is also the founder of Emerson Collective, which is the majority owner of The Atlantic).

And they’re not just dreaming big or tweeting. As The New York Times reported in August, they’re backing California Forever, the parent company of Flannery Associates, which has acquired nearly 60,000 acres in Solano County, California, between San Francisco and Sacramento. That’s a lot of land—roughly twice the size of San Francisco or Boston, and slightly larger than Seattle. Housing developments crop up all the time, of course, and suburbs glom on to existing metropolitan areas. California Forever has something else in mind: a top-down community with brand-new infrastructure, where tens of thousands would live and, most important for the company’s vision, also work and play. It’s not your grandfather’s suburban development.

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"We’ve gotten into a situation where it’s completely acceptable to talk about inventing general artificial intelligence, and that’s something we’ve accepted is going to happen, but it’s not possible to build a new town where people can buy homes," Jan Sramek, the founder and CEO of California Forever, told me. (The comparison reveals more about his social environment than anything else; it is not commonly accepted that AGI is "going to happen.")

But building a new city is hard, and this most recent push to do so—unlike with recent gains in AI—doesn’t reflect an exciting breakthrough in America’s technological, political, or financial capacity. Rather, it reflects an abiding frustration with the ridiculously sluggish process of building housing in America’s most productive cities and suburbs. The dream of a new San Francisco is, then, rooted in the nightmare that the old one may be past saving.

Details about the new proposed city in Solano County are hard to come by, but sketches on California Forever’s website portray an idyllic town, foregrounded by open space and densely built with multiple housing types. Windmills turn in the background. The website reads: "Our vision for walkable neighborhoods, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, good jobs and a healthy environment is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather going back to the basics that were once the norm across America."

California Forever’s project has a lot going for it: The lack of urban or suburban development in the region means an absence of traditional groups that might fight against neighborhood change. Because California Forever has acquired so much acreage, local officials have a strong incentive to work with Sramek to prevent collapsing land values if his project fails. And Sramek is already considering ways to sweeten the deal for existing residents; he says one idea is "setting up a fund that would provide down-payment assistance for buying homes in the new community, which would only be accessible to current residents of Solano County."

But financing urban infrastructure is exceedingly expensive. "Organic" cities, in which firms and workers agglomerate and then begin to demand that governments finance infrastructure, have a preassembled tax base. If you try to build the infrastructure first, paying for it becomes tricky.

Alain Bertaud, a former principal urban planner at the World Bank and an expert on urban development, told me: "A new city, especially a large one … has a problem of cash flow." The city can’t raise taxes to build schools and hire teachers, for instance, but it needs to build schools and hire teachers before parents are willing to move—and be taxed—there. "If you look back to [recent] history … the only large new cities were new capitals like Brasilia, Chandigarh, Canberra, [where] the cash flow is not a problem [because] you have the taxpayers of the entire country paying for the cost."

Thinking of cities as mere infrastructure is a categorical mistake. New York City is not the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge; London is not the tube; and Levittown, New York—America’s quintessential "first" suburb—is not its single-family homes. Infrastructure follows people, not the other way around. "You don’t go to a new city because the sewer system is fantastically efficient," Bertaud said.

In general, the superstar cities we have today were not preselected from above; they were chosen by millions of workers in search of economic opportunity: Los Angeles (oil); San Francisco (gold); Boston (a port, academia); Seattle (lumber, aircraft, tech); New York City (a port, finance). Granted, workers tend to follow firms that follow transportation networks, which themselves are sometimes functions of state investments, but the principle is sound: Cities are people.

When people are choosing where to live, that decision is almost wholly dominated by job availability. What that means is people attract people. It’s a virtuous cycle in which people who move have kids and want teachers and day-care providers and taxi drivers and nurses, and those people want restaurant workers and iPhone-repair specialists, and so on. (Within a job market or when choosing between two equally promising job markets, people do of course consider the quality of life.)

But what if Sramek and his backers aren’t really building a new city after all, just a commuter suburb far away from the inner core? That’s what the pro-housing activist Jordan Grimes thinks is happening; he told the San Francisco Chronicle the project was "sprawl with a prettier face and prettier name." Solano’s population has a lot of commuters already. Census data from 2016 to 2020 indicated that of the roughly 207,000 workers who lived in Solano, more than 40 percent commuted to another county. Compare that with San Francisco, where of its nearly 510,000 workers, a bit more than 20 percent commuted to another county.

I asked Sramek: Is he truly looking to build a city with its own job market, where residents will be responsible for policing, fire services, parks and recreation, wastewater, libraries? Or is he looking to develop housing, with some space for retail, restaurants, and other cultural amenities? "This is one of those issues that’s very open for community input," he told me. "We do think that eventually this would become an incorporated city that does provide many of those services."

Sramek isn’t a developer, and his investors are not the sort of people who hope that their hundreds of millions of dollars go into the construction of a few thousand single-family homes. Someone close to the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it freely, told me the aspiration is to prove to the rest of the world what’s possible in America: We can build an attractive, dense, and climate-friendly metropolis, and we can do it quickly. The source also suggested that a big Silicon Valley player might one day move its offices to the area. (I reached out to Andreessen, Patrick Collison, Friedman, and Powell Jobs. They declined to comment.)

Either way, new city or new sprawl, this project is going to run headfirst into the politics of development. Right now, the land is zoned largely for agricultural use. The county holds that changing the current designation to accommodate high-density urban infrastructure will require a ballot measure. Sramek told me he might try to put the question to voters as early as November 2024, but victory is far from assured.

According to some local officials, Flannery Associates alienated the local community by refusing to announce its intentions before it began acquiring land. (Sramek argues that doing so would have made land values skyrocket.) Congressional representatives alerted the Treasury Department, worried that foreign investors were buying up real estate for nefarious purposes. They noted that an Air Force base is nearby. "I will tell you they have poisoned the well," John Garamendi, who represents a large part of Solano County, told me. "There’s no goodwill. Five years of total secrecy? Five years of not communicating with [local officials]?"

The process of building a city, difficult as it is, seems remotely rational only because trying to build within cities drives people mad.

Sramek and his director of planning, Gabriel Metcalf, who once ran the influential San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, say the idea for a new city came to them after deciding that working on incremental reforms would never yield the housing needed to make a dent in the overall shortage. As of now, the country needs more housing than almost anyone can imagine, a formidable challenge even if America’s political and legal systems were focused on meeting it—which, unfortunately, most of them are not. Instead of directing a building boom, states still devolve permitting decisions down to the hyperlocal level, where the default is to ban smaller, more affordable homes and where opposition from just a few people can quash desperately needed construction.

"It’s always hard to come to an existing place and try to change it very profoundly," Sramek told me, when I asked him why he wasn’t focused on building in established cities.

"I spent my whole career on the infill side," Metcalf told me. (Infill development is building on underutilized land within existing development patterns, such as turning a parking lot into a few townhomes.) "I believe in that completely, but we are only delivering a small fraction of what we need … Whether it’s trying to build a high-speed rail line or renewable-energy transmission line or high-density infill housing, there is a vetocracy in place that across America makes it incredibly difficult and slow to build the things we need to build." (Funnily enough, that vetocracy includes one of the investors in the Solano County project: Andreessen. I reported last year that he co-signed a letter with his wife opposing new development in the wealthy town of Atherton.)

The socialist writer Nathan J. Robinson has also issued a call to build new cities, and he, too, seems to have given up on the idea of reforming existing places: "​​The exciting thing about building new cities from scratch is that it allows you to avoid the mistakes that are made in the ‘organic’ (i.e., market-built) city … A new city can avoid all of the disastrous errors that gave us the ugly suburban wastelands that constitute so much of contemporary ‘development.’"

American cities and suburbs have earned Sramek’s fatalism. And certainly, building a walkable, thriving new town in Solano County would be positive for anyone who found a home they loved there. But Sramek and his backers want to set an example, and good examples should be replicable. This one isn’t. Sites like Solano County—near bustling job centers that lack residential development—are few and far between.

Two types of places need a development boom: those that already have lots of people living in them, like Boston or Miami, and those that are growing quickly, like Georgetown, Texas, near Austin. To the extent they’re failing to build, it’s not because they lack inspiration. They’re failing because the politics are genuinely thorny. Many people oppose new development on ideological grounds, or because they think it’s a nuisance, or because they deny the existence of a housing shortage at all, or even because they believe it interferes with other priorities.

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A new city, moreover, won’t necessarily escape these antidevelopment pressures in the future. It might expand for a while, but it will eventually face the same old problem: residents who don’t want change. Even in Manhattan, a place where residents are surrounded by high-density housing and cultural amenities that come from density, people regularly oppose new housing, new transit, and even new dumpsters.

Solving the housing crisis doesn’t require inventing new places for people to go; it requires big cities to embrace growth, as they did in the past, and smaller cities to accept change. Again, cities are people, and people are moving to Maricopa, Arizona, in the suburbs of Phoenix, and Santa Cruz, California, south of San Jose. These places may not feel ready to accommodate newcomers, but some will have to rise to the occasion.

What America needs isn’t proof that it can build new cities, but that it can fix its existing ones.