By Regan Turner
In studying brand new cities such as King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) and Masdar, we saw examples of ambitious sovereign governments taking on bold development projects that encapsulated their vision for how their country’s population would live, work, and play in the future. In undertaking these projects, however, these governments also assume enormous financial and social risk that the cities may never reach their potential. In the future, therefore, I would argue that master-planned growth should happen in locations where people already choose to live, rather than in places that are sparsely inhabited, or not inhabited at all.
Across the globe, populations are urbanizing and densifying. For the first time in the world’s history, more people now live in urban centers than in rural locations, and as Figure 1 shows, that gap is growing.
Figure 1: Urban and Rural Population of the World (Source: United Nations, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/WUP2005/2005wup.htm)
As people move from farms to cities, they will do so because they perceive that their way of life will be better in the city than in the countryside and that jobs and better pay await in population centers. Such opportunity-seekers, therefore, are much more likely to locate to mature cities with robust economies than new cities like KAEC that are built on the premise of attracting corporations and residents through economic incentives.
Economic incentives alone will not create enough demand for a new city to rise from desert sands, an infill site, or existing green space. Governments can, however, help their cause by locating an abundance of public-sector jobs in new cities if they want the private sector to follow. Brazil successfully did this by building Brasilia and making it the national capital – the workforce and therefore economy, were guaranteed by virtue of the government locating its operations there.
Sovereign governments should look at Brasilia as the successful exception of a planned city, not the rule. Rather than building new cities, governments should instead look for ways to densify areas that are already populated because of the economic advantages and efficiencies of scale that can be achieved. Densification can be encouraged through relaxed zoning laws, density incentives for real estate developers, and increased public transportation that will encourage people to work and live in convenient locations to transit stops.
In municipalities where this option of “smart growth” is chosen, housing and workforce demand is already proven and governments will be taking on much less of a risk about trying to plan for how and where people will live in the future.