The California Forever project is a great idea

The implementation will be very tricky, but there's a big opportunity here.

Jan 20, 2024
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In 2014, a Czech-born entrepreneur named Jan Sramek came to the San Francisco Bay Area, and felt inspired to build a new city. He got together a bunch of investors, and in 2017 his new company started quietly buying up low-grade farmland in an area of Solano County, located between San Francisco and Sacramento. Here’s a circle indicating roughly where the land is:

Here’s a close-up map of where it would be located within Solano County:

Now the company has gone public, submitting a ballot initiative to the county to establish a new city. The initiative would give the company great flexibility with regards to planning and zoning in that new city, meaning they will basically be able to design it from scratch.

When I first read about this project, I liked the idea, but I also thought it sounded a bit insane. It’s not unprecedented — Irvine, California began as a somewhat similar planned community back in the 1960s and 70s. But given the absolute mess of land-use regulations and vested interests that has grown up in California between then and now, I thought it would be impossible to pull off a similar feat in the 2020s. And the sheer complexity of a task like this is utterly daunting — it will require a deep knowledge of transportation planning, land use planning, environmentalism, county politics, national security (there’s an Air Force Base nearby), architecture, civil engineering, zoning, disaster planning, and any number of other complex fields.

I am now starting to believe that my initial reaction was way too pessimistic. Those challenges are all very real, but Sramek and his team appear to have carefully considered all of these challenges, and have taken proactive steps to prepare for them during the years that they spent buying up the land. A lengthy recent post on their site shows the depth of their thought and planning. Which doesn’t mean the project will be a success, but does show that the planners had a good idea of what they were getting into. Their attention to the details of environmental issues is especially encouraging. I also spoke with Sramek, and he mentioned and addressed many of the various other technical challenges without me having to bring them up.

So I now think there’s a decent chance that this project ends up creating something really interesting and useful.

What excites me about this project

The thing that makes me the most optimistic and excited about California Forever is that it’s intentionally designed so as to improve on the most glaring weaknesses of California’s existing cities.

California is a land of overpriced low-density sprawl. People generally live in single-family homes, often because zoning codes have specified that this is the only kind of home available. Low density means it’s often very difficult to walk anywhere. NIMBYism has made it hard to build trains, so what happens is that people drive to where they need to go — often along clogged, crowded highways or arterial roads. This driving causes a lot of stress and wastes a lot of time.

Then when Californians finally do get to where they want to go — their office, a shopping center or a restaurant — they aren’t really able to walk around much, except maybe inside a mall. Sitting in their isolated office parks or shopping at a strip mall, they are deprived of many of the pleasures that people in dense cities take for granted — the ability to walk out and get a coffee, or see a bunch of interesting people on the street, or try a new restaurant without driving fifteen minutes to get there, or randomly bump into people you know on the street. They live their lives point-to-point, shuttling themselves between isolated nodes of development.

California Forever wants to do something different. Their city would explicitly be zoned to encourage dense housing, public transit, mixed-use development, and walkable streets:

The neighborhood fabric of the California Forever city plan has an average density of at least 20 dwelling units per acre…But livability [is] also about designing for mixed uses and narrow, slow streets so that the physical advantages of compact urban form are translated into the pleasure of daily walking, biking, and transit…

The great neighborhoods of older cities always have a local shopping street at their heart…They are where you go to get your hair cut, buy groceries, and people-watch while sitting at a cafe…The California Forever city plan tries to put every resident within easy walking distance of a good local shopping street…

We distinguish between "movement streets," which have separate lanes for cars, bikes and transit; and slower streets, where space is shared among modes…The California Forever city plan relies heavily on the lessons of Japanese urbanism and Barcelona’s superilles

The California Forever city plan proposes a grid of at-grade transit lines running in dedicated rights of way at frequent headways. Think of it as a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) style operation…Each transit line terminates at a parking garage at the edge of the city, making it easy to store cars at the periphery and proceed in on transit…[T]he California Forever city plan will encourage less car use for internal trips…

[T]he California Forever primary approach to housing is simple: provide a full range of homes, both rental and for sale, all mixed together in every neighborhood…The small parcel fabric means that buildings can change over time, and a more organic process of evolution and adaptation can take place in the decades to come…This is a proposal for a city largely focused on "missing middle" housing.

This sounds exactly like the urbanist dream that YIMBYs have been fighting for for over a decade now. Except instead of trying to nudge existing cities into redeveloping themselves in this direction — a good project, but one that will take many decades to come to fruition — California Forever wants to simply build the YIMBYtopia from scratch.

It’s such an ambitious dream that even some YIMBYs themselves are having trouble imagining it. Here was how Jordan Grimes, a noted YIMBY activist on the San Francisco peninsula, reacted to the California Forever plan:

Many other YIMBYs were more positive. But Grimes’ instantaneously dismissive reaction — so similar to the way California NIMBYs react to any proposed development in their communities — shows how entrenched the mindset of stasis has become in the Golden State. His characterization of the project is wrong, of course — as even a cursory perusal of their website shows, California Forever’s plan bears almost no resemblance to the typical car-centric bedroom community he envisions. But the fact that even a YIMBY activist finds it hard to imagine someone in California building something new and different shows how much the past half century has shriveled our collective imaginations.

That’s why if the California Forever project succeeds, the ramifications will go way beyond having one nice new city of 50,000 — or even 400,000. It would serve as an example to other cities all over the country, showing them a vision of what they might become if they had more density, walkability, transit, and mixed-use development. So far, all we have are various renderings of what California Forever’s new city might look like:

You’ll notice that these images don’t really look like each other; they are merely artistic renderings. The reason is that the California Forever people don’t actually know what their city is going to look like. They’re not going to plan every building’s architecture, like some fancy subdivision; instead, they’re going to simply set the rules and allow private developers to build what they want, within those rules. How much they nudge things in a certain direction via the approval process remains to be seen, but it’s certain that the final product will be something that nobody can quite imagine right now.

Whatever emerges out of that process will serve as a physical example of what other cities will look like if they reform their zoning laws and other regulations in order to give developers more latitude to build new stuff. The process of how that city gets built — including both the successes and the inevitable missteps and failures — will also teach key lessons about how to realize urbanism in America.

The creation of a new city could also revitalize the discipline of urban planning in the U.S. The era of stasis that has engulfed America since the 1970s has made planners focus more on small-bore projects, or — even worse — on finding reasons to forbid things from being built. The creation of a planned new city that’s livable, pleasant, and environmentally responsible would undoubtedly get at least some planners to think big again.

This is what excites me about the California Forever project, even more than the prospect of more housing for Californians, or of a cool new city to visit. America needs to be shaken out of half a century of stasis, and we need to reimagine urban infill as a new frontier. Irvine, the corporate-planned city of the 1970s, became the ultimate sprawling modern city-as-suburb — a living symbol of what post-70s California would look like. California Forever has the potential to be the anti-Irvine —a city planned for density rather than sprawl, pointing the way to the next 50 or 70 years.

Some failure modes and how to avoid them

Having said all that, I think there are many ways the California Forever project could fail to build an interesting new city. One big hurdle, national security, appears not to be a big deal. The project’s investors are almost all American (as is Sramek himself, who got naturalized), except for a couple of Europeans such as the Collison brothers. And they seem to have worked out an understanding with the local Air Force base.

The second obvious hurdle is if the Solano County ballot measure fails this November; Californians tend to fear change, and there will inevitably be some opposition. But let’s assume the ballot measure succeeds, and focus on more interesting failure modes.

I see two challenges that need to be overcome: 1) water availability, and 2) transportation. Neither seems insurmountable. In addition, I see two potential failure modes for the city: 1) agglomeration shadow, and 2) cultural blandness.

First, water. The land where the California Forever project wants to build a city is low-quality farmland, so no one bothered to irrigate it. But there’s groundwater under it, which is currently being used to irrigate some nearby almond farms that California Forever also owns. The project plans to convert the almond farms to grazing land and divert that groundwater supply to the city instead. That should at least be enough for the initial community of 50,000. But if the city does succeed in scaling up toward its ultimate goal of 400,000 people, at some point it will need more water than it can sustainably pull out of the aquifer.

The project’s website acknowledges the challenge and outlines its solutions:

We are taking a layered approach to water supply, including a combination of recycled water, surface water rights, local groundwater, and out-of-county supplemental water to serve the community…

The site is above two separate groundwater sub-basins…[W]e will provide groundwater replenishment through stormwater recharge and infiltration of irrigated landscaping and agriculture, providing a net offset to groundwater extracted for water supply…Supplemental water will likely be required to meet demands at full build out of the community, and we are already working on acquiring water supplies from outside Solano County that will bring new water into Solano County[.]

This sounds good, and models for recycling water and capturing rainwater to maximize efficiency certainly exist (e.g. in Israel). But whether sufficient supplemental water supplies can be purchased from outside the county at a reasonable price remains to be seen.

Transportation seems doable, for similar reasons. The new city will have good transit within its boundaries, and residents will be able to use Highways 12 and 113 to drive to Sacramento, San Francisco, and other external destinations. The initial size they have planned for the city, just 50,000 people, is small enough not to be a disruption to the existing highway system — that’s half the size of nearby Vacaville, and would be just 10% of Solano county’s population. Even double that probably wouldn’t be a big burden on the existing infrastructure. Scaling up to their future dream of 400,000 residents, of course, would require much more extensive highway construction, and commuter rail lines would help at that point as well. But in the beginning, at least, I don’t see much of an issue.

One big failure mode, however, is what economists call agglomeration shadow. The suitability of any location for economic activity depends crucially on the pattern of economic activity around it. The California Forever city will be about halfway between two large existing centers of economic activity: San Francisco/Oakland and Sacramento. Those cities might exert such a massive pull on industry that it’ll be impossible to lure companies to the new city in Solano County. If California Forever’s new city can’t attract companies because they keep moving to Sacramento and SF/Oakland instead, it’ll end up being a "bedroom community", just as Jordan Grimes fears.

That said, I believe there are two powerful forces on California Forever’s side here. First, the theory of agglomeration says that rural land in between big cities can turn into a city when the existing cities become "full" — i.e., when their costs rise so much that it becomes worth it to build on cheaper land. San Francisco has done its utmost to raise costs for companies and workers, mostly by failing to build new housing, but also by taxing businesses to pay for overpriced nonprofit services, and by failing to deal effectively with urban disorder in its downtown area. Oakland is a bit more permissive about new housing, but is a very dangerous city. Sacramento is better, but is also a very expensive city.

Second, California Forever’s land is close to a university: UC Davis. Traditionally, high-tech industries need to be close to university, which supplies them with talented young employees, research spinoffs, and so on. Currently, Sacramento gets a lot of the benefits of UC Davis, but California Forever’s new city will be located on the other side of the university, closer to Oakland and SF. If college grads want to live near their alma mater but closer to the Bay Area, Solano County is an attractive choice. So if I were the California Forever people, I would advise them to cultivate a close and positive working relationship with UC Davis from day one.

Anyway, the California Forever folks are explicitly betting that they can be more than a bedroom community. They’ve tied their ambitions for a scaled-up city to the availability of local jobs:

[O]ur initiative includes the Solano Jobs Guarantee, which requires that once the population of the community reaches 50,000 residents, no more homes can built unless an independent auditor confirms that the new community has created at least 15,000 good-paying local jobs, which are defined as jobs paying above 125% of Solano's average weekly wage.

The other failure mode I foresee is cultural blandness. To be a bedroom community, you don’t need to be an interesting place to live; you just need cheap housing fairly close to a city. But California Forever wants to be much more than a bedroom community — it wants to be a thriving mini-metropolis where people live, work, and play. For that, you need to be a cool place to live. That means being a place that young people want to live, as well as families and the elderly. And that’s very tough to do, if you’re a little startup city out in the country instead of a big existing diverse metropolis. Cultural vibrancy will require active, imaginative, flexible, and adaptive intervention by the city planners.

What makes a place cool is difficult to define, and every successful place does things differently. When Pike Powers and other Austin influencers were trying to build Austin into a tech hub in the 1970s and 80s, they set out to make it the "live music capital of the world", in order to attract young high-skilled workers who enjoyed live music. That strategy likely won’t work for California Forever’s new city, but becoming a cultural center for young people will be a definite plus.

Fortunately, the California Forever folks appear to be thinking about this. On their proposed zoning map for the new city, I notice some "maker & manufacturing" areas scattered throughout the town, which are distinct from the "industry & technology" zone in the north.

Source: California Forever

The project’s website describes those districts thus:

[W]e have zoned for a "maker and manufacturing" district, which is modeled on the former warehousing district you see in many older cities – a mixed use precinct where arts, culture, nightlife, apartment buildings, lofts, and small scale artisan manufacturing all mix to create something wonderful. Examples include R Street in Sacramento, the Arts District in Los Angeles, the Pearl District in Portland, DUMBO in New York, and Fulton Market in Chicago.)

That sounds great. Perhaps these districts can attract some of some of the old East Bay warehouse art and party scene that got priced out of Oakland. There also might be an opportunity to lure some of the priced-out East Bay art scene, by promoting art galleries and cheap studios.

Of course, a thriving city should be attractive to more than just kids. An idea is to copy the approach of Irish towns like Kilkenny that are known for their annual festivals.

I also think there’s an opportunity to harness California’s love of Asian culture to create a more vibrant town. In San Francisco, shopping centers like the Japan Center Malls and (to a lesser extent) the Stonestown Galleria have transcended the typical blandness of American malls by attracting a bunch of Japanese and Korean stores and restaurants. Generally, the more Japanese and Korean stuff you can get, the more interesting an urban area will be — witness how Koreatown in Dallas is giving that city a vibrant downtown area for arguably the first time ever. And of course no California city is complete without an "Asian mall" centered around a Ranch 99 or H-Mart.

So anyway, I think that if California Forever’s planners can win their referendum and solve the water issue, they’re well-positioned to overcome the other big hurdles to building a startup city. I still think that the task is extremely daunting, but the project has impressed me on the upside so far. I think they have a chance of creating something truly special that will serve as an example of how towns across America can lift themselves out of the stasis they’ve been mired in since the 70s.

Oh, and one more suggestion. California Forever’s new city doesn’t have a name yet, so let me be the first to suggest "San Vicente". The name isn’t taken yet, and it’s the name of the patron saint of builders.


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