Don’t Build Cities from Scratch Unless You Need To

By Neel Bhargava

To accommodate the growing and rapidly urbanizing population over the next decades, governments and societies across the world have two options: build new cities or expand existing cities. When faced with this choice (though there will not always be one), expanding existing cities almost always makes the most sense, for several reasons, two of which I describe below.

The first reason is simple but critical: building cities from scratch is difficult. Very difficult. As the case of King Abdullah Economic City (“KAEC”) illustrates, city building involves numerous different tasks, many of which are interdependent. For example, transportation infrastructure must be built before businesses can operate. And schools must be present before people can move into new residences. These dependencies mean that those building new cities face the daunting task of amassing capital – both financial and human – to simultaneously develop and coordinate multiple types of infrastructure. In contrast, expanding existing cities can be done more piecemeal, first building new housing, then attracting new businesses, then expanding mass transit, and so forth.

Second, even if all the infrastructure and amenities of a city can be recreated, history and tradition cannot. This is very important, I believe, because of the second order effect: commitment and loyalty of population. Detroit is one of the most impoverished cities in the US, and one of the least attractive to live in on many dimensions. Yet, as I have seen firsthand from many friends who have moved back to Detroit, many people from Detroit still believe in the city and want to revive it. Will the same be said about KAEC, or Dubai, or Chongqing, if they fall on hard times in the future? It remains to be seen, but my hypothesis is that the less history people have in a city, the less resilient that city will be.

Finally, a comment: cities must be built with a purpose in mind. Without a clear purpose, it is much more difficult to make decisions and calculate tradeoffs. KAEC is again a relevant illustration of this – was the purpose to develop a new port, create a more streamline business environment for foreign companies, demonstrate a new “modern” way to live, ease population congestion, or all of the above? I don’t know the answer to this and I’m not sure the KAEC team does either, which has strongly contributed, I believe, to the stalled progress of the city.

One thought on “Don’t Build Cities from Scratch Unless You Need To

  1. Neel, great post. I agree with you that expanding new cities is less difficult than building new cities, however I believe it is a situation of high risk and high reward. It is undoubtedly difficult to pull off a successful greenfield city, particularly to the scale of KAEC or the complexity of Masdar, but if it is successful the rewards in terms of sustainability, community, and prosperity could be enormous. I think there can be more organic choices to site locations that will hopefully alleviate some of the non-organic economic factors that the cities planners have to induce. Historically cities often spring up in proximity to natural resources or trade routes, I think this is what the KAEC planners had in mind.

    As you say expanding existing cities can be done in piecemeal, which is easier operationally, but may fail to address the holistic approach new cities can offer by not being tied to local politics, regulations, divergent economic interests, legacy (inefficient) infrastructure, and unsuitable land that is chose simply because of its proximity (building in the flood plains of New Orleans or urban sprawl in Southern California).

    I think a hybrid option, which hopefully addresses your second concern about community is taking a greenfield approach (fresh view, holistic planning, and separate from the current city regime) and choosing a site location that is close enough to existing cities where the new city can rely on specifically chosen aspects of the older city until they can be sustainably developed internally, such as higher education and some employment opportunities. This might compromise the near term sustainability of the new city, but this sacrifice may be worth it to ensure the city survives the inevitable global recession.

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