Ramon Boersbroek

Cities are hot. Kanye West wants to build a city. Akon wants to build a city. Silicon Valley wants to build cities. Unfortunately, a real-world version of SimCity is the dominant mental model for would be city builders. It is assumed that top down planning of everything from transportation, to districts, to the skyline can be developed in advanced.

It typically starts with a real estate developer. They have experience building hotels, or industrial parks, or sub-divisions, when they stumble across a city building opportunity. As they are experts in developing city blocks, and a city is merely thousands of city blocks, transitioning to the larger project is easy.

They’ll hire a handful of urban planners and architects. Only the best, from Harvard, MIT, Stanford. If they’re feeling adventurous, they might even bring on an urban economist. The experts will fly to the host country, most of them for the first time. On the first day, they’ll be brought, by helicopter, to the chosen site. They might even spend a few hours walking around. Next, they’ll be given a luxurious working area. In a few days there’ll be a city. Cities, like hospitals and airports, are sterile environments that can be planned effectively from the top down.

Admittedly, it will only be a rough sketch of the city, and it will be a sketch, or more likely several. The key elements will all be there. The location of the airport and port will be determined. Districts, including industrial, commercial, residential, and financial will be neatly delineated. Parks will be drawn. There may even be a skyline. The urban planners and architects are the best, so they’ll be on the cutting edge of the latest city fashions.

By accident, sometimes an outsider will get invited to this odd ritual. When discussing the location of the finance district, as well as the height of the finance buildings, he might point out that successful financial centers require transparent and trustworthy governance. He’ll attract funny looks. What does it even mean to have a transparent and trustworthy governance in a financial district? The breadth of knowledge of architects and urban planners apparently stops at the borders of the UAE. It is, admittedly, difficult to conceive of a zone with a different legal regime than the host country.

Zoning will probably be discussed. The buildings need a certain look, a certain style. After all, Manhattan is renowned for it’s lack of charm, if only they had effective zoning in the early 20th century. The outsider might question the need for zoning. Don’t zoning and land use restrictions increase rent? This is just the superstition of pseudo-scientific economists. True city planners, the real estate developers, urban planners, and architects know better, or possibly, are completely unaware of such arguments. Either way, the outsider is just one person, and the architects and urban planners have worked together on similar previous projects. The objection is quickly forgotten as the group moves onto the next pressing matter, the amount of park land between the river and the real estate.

As the room is full of the best urban planners and architects, there will be remembrances of failed projects. Brasilia, for example, which of course everyone is familiar with and has learned the lessons from (maybe the lesson is don’t design your city to look like an airplane from the sky?). When the need for walkability is discussed, Jane Jacobs will be invoked with reverence.

The next step is largely specification. The basics have been put in place, all that remains is to work out the details. More architects and urban planners will be hired. Surveys to estimate demand will be done. Soon, dirt will start moving.

In the end, billions of dollars will be spent. The city will be built. Success will be declared, though expectations will have been lowered. Perhaps the original vision of the world’s first zero carbon eco-city will transform into an expensive hood ornament to showcase new technology. The world’s first smart city will trouble to attract residents as $30 billion-dollar projects sometimes miss the human element.

The alternative is to memory hole the city. Who remembers a $100 billion-dollar city listed on the stock market, when there’s a shiny, new $500 billion-dollar city announced. The project becomes a mirage, an ephemeral, unpopulated city in the desert, a tribute to Ozymandias.

Yet the projects continue. Cities are hot. The world is urbanizing. The urban planners and architects all pat themselves on the back, having padded their resumes and made good consulting fees, and go on to their next project. After all, when you want to build a city, who will you call?

Mark Lutter is founder and executive director of the Center for Innovative Governance Research, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. He has consulted and advised a half-dozen new jurisdiction projects and his work has been translated into three languages.