We talk a lot on this blog about how best to intensify and add housing to our existing cities. But here’s alternative approach: Why not just built entirely new cities? This way you don’t have to worry about fixing any of the things that are currently broken in our existing cities or worry about messy things like community engagement.
Now, I disagree with many, or perhaps most, of the points that Nathan J. Robinson puts forward in the above Current Affairs article, but I think this is an interesting question to unpack. Robinson’s argument is that the main obstacle for building new cities in the US is ideological rather than technological. You need a bit more central government planning if you’re going to pull off a completely new urban center. And that’s not how things are generally done in the US.
However, I think the real problem is that cities have powerful network effects that encourage centralization (even if some people are working from home). It’s easy to look at a large country like Canada and say to yourself, “but look at all that empty land. How could we possibly have a housing shortage?” The reality is that most of our land is empty and cheap because it has little value. The jobs are in our cities and that’s why Canada is a largely urban country.
Indeed, this is how most cities have emerged historically. They start with some sort of economic purpose, be it an important trade route, access to resources, or some other driver of prosperity. It is for this reason that urbanists like Alain Bertaud will tell you that, typically, urban infrastructure follows the market, and not the other way around. Because who wants to live in a city with nice infrastructure but no jobs? More importantly, how long can a city without a strong economic purpose even last?
Take for example Delhi. By 2030, Delhi is expected to be the largest city in the world. This has made it exceedingly difficult for the city to build enough new housing. So government there has been focusing on building new cities on the outskirts surrounding Delhi. These cities are referred to as “counter magnets”, and their purpose is to intercept and literally attract new migrants before they reach Delhi, thereby relieving some of the urban pressures on the capital.
The fact that these cities are referred to as “counter magnets” speaks to exactly my point about centralization. It is recognition that Delhi is by far the biggest urban magnet. Because of this, these satellite cities haven’t been as successful as everyone had initially hoped. Migrants seem to still want Delhi. You can build new housing, but without jobs and economic opportunity, people will continue to flock to the biggest urban magnets.
So sooner or later, you’ll need to fix what isn’t working.