Mountain out of a Molehill: Part 1

Why start new cities in the first place?

Here were are, the year is 2021. The conditions are ripe for this, a 3-part Substack explainer about a single Tweet.

And I think the Tweet is worthy of the 3-part treatment. It's the tweet with the highest *idea density* I've ever read.

I'm not endorsing all of it. And, in fact, there are parts that seem dubious. But I think all of the ideas in here are worth discussing. And they provide a crash course in some of the the most interesting possibilities of how we might live, organize, and govern in the era of The Dizziness.

So come along on this journey as we turn a 48-word tweet molehill into a mountain of an essay series.

Part 1: Why start new cities in the first place?

Balaji jumps in with "How to start a new city?" but he doesn't explain the premise: Why we might want to start a new city in the first place.

Fact: We stopped building new (major) cities

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten how to build new cities.
We know how to *extend*existing cities (mainly through car-centric sprawl).
But new cities ... a bit of a lost art.

Here are the 10 most populous cities in the US. The two youngest amongst them — Phoenix and Dallas — were founded 143 and 160 years ago respectively.

Let's talk about 1841 and 1868 for a second.

Here's what else was going on around 1841:

  • The Opium Wars

  • The invention of Kerosene

  • The term "Dinosaur" was coined

  • The world's first postage stamp

Here's what else was going on around 1868:

  • French occupation of Mexico

  • The discovery of helium

  • Buffalo Bill Cody gets his first job

  • The world’s first underground railroad in London

The world was a VERY DIFFERENT place at the founding of our youngest cities. Completely unrecognizable from today. Women couldn’t vote. Slavery was commonplace. We were having border skirmishes with France and Spain. Over half the labor force was in agriculture.

And it’s from this era we inherit our cities. We are governed by ghosts from a forgotten era. And you can go much further down the list than the top 10. Not a single US city >250k people was founded in the last century.

Assumptions and possibilities

A new place or organization is founded with a set of assumptions and possibilities.

Assumptions are the constraints: They are the the boundaries that your perceived reality imposes.
Possibilities are the target: The place people think they can get to, given the assumptions.

It's probably safe to say that whatever assumptions and possibilities were present in the founding of Phoenix and Dallas - the youngest of our large cities - are probably less ambitious than the assumptions and possibilities of our present moment. Or at the very least, they are different.

And sure, cities get retrofitted. Dallas of 1841 is not Dallas of 2021. But there is a quite a bit of the founding that constrains the future.

No top-10 US city was founded before…

  • … underground railroads were a possibility

  • … you could communicate quicker than horseback

  • … women could vote

  • … municipal plumbing or electricity

  • … climate change or conservation was a consideration.

Certainly, no top-10 US city was founded before the internet.

Our present cities are constrained by a the Assumptions and Possibilities of distant past. You might see this in a city's infrastructure. You might see it in the layout. You might see it in the preserved architectural norms. You might see it in the institutions that run the place. You might see it in the amount of land set aside for public space (or lack thereof). You might see it in who owns what (in US cities: mostly private, mostly generationally inherited).

This is not to say that our existing cities were "messed up." There was clearly something they got very right to grow and prosper over the centuries. But foundations matter. And our cities foundations are very very very dated. They are like banking systems built on Cobol. Working just fine, probably leaving a lot on the table, hard to rip and out replace.

(Analogy) No new cities :: No new companies

To see what we might be leaving on the table, imagine a world in which no major new companies were founded for over a century. Suppose we had no new companies since 1917.

Sitting in this imaginary world, you might not even realize the problem.

AT&T might have eventually gotten around to commercializing the television or the internet. Du Pont might have come across the bandaid, dental floss, sutures, or duct tape (all Johnson and Johnson inventions). But in all likelihood, we’d be living a world with many fewer quality good and services … and we wouldn’t even know it.

It can be hard to imagine the counterfactual.

What sort of people care about the problem of new cities?

In short, idealists. But idealists of different stripes.

Group 1: Charter City People (aka governance entrepreneurs)

These people, above all else, are interested in the problem of governance.
Most US Cities are governed in a fairly similar way and have been for a long time.

People (unfairly in my view) tend to associate charter city supporters with libertarians. While it can be easy to see why this movement would appeal to libertarians, it really should work for anyone imagining new forms of governance. Marxists should be really into charter cities. Anarchists should be really into charter cities.

Really, anyone who thinks "maybe we haven't already landed on the best form of government that might ever exist" should be really into charter cities.

And because it’s a prerequisite to doing their work of governance experimentation, charter city people are highly interested in the question of how you start new successful cities.

The Charter City Institute, started by Mark Lutter is a good place to start here.

Group 2: Urbanists (particularly those interested in transit and sustainability)

Urbanists will be the first to tell you that our current urban fabric isn’t all that it could be.

The ultimate form of urban technical debt is the private car. Once a city decides to build for car-dependence it's virtually impossible (politically or operationally) to rid itself of car infrastructure. Even Manhattan is struggling to get rid of on-street parking.

Cars are an environmental, public health, and fiscal crisis that unfolds every day to a collective nationwide shrug.

A new city built today would likely be built around shared on-demand transit - public and private - as a foundational principle. Trains, buses, and bikes would be first-class citizens. Public space would be built around the needs of people rather than vehicles. Cars would be relegated to “only as needed.”

I count myself in this group and (along with Jeff and Ryan) founded Culdesac in 2018. Culdesac's eventual ambition is to create a new city. But it's starting with new neighborhoods. The first one is in Tempe and will have 1000 people and 0 private cars.

Group 3: Crypto Enthusiasts (i.e. Balaji).

Crypto people want to bring about a new decentralized world. And decentralization should also apply to the built environment.

If we are building web3, why not City2?

In a culture centered around creating new institutions and forming new collectives (and one with a lot of monetary resource), this impulse makes a lot of sense.

There are a few interesting projects in this space:

  1. CityDAO is putting land on the blockchain

  2. Wyoming is the first state to allow for DAOs to own property

Group 4: founders

A unusually high proportion of founders also seem to be interested in new cities.

Next time

We’ll talk about what’s stymied efforts to start new cities in the past, and what might (or might not) be different this time.