People have been building new cities from scratch for millennia. From the foundation myths surrounding Athens and Rome, to the clearance of virgin forests in western New York state to create the “Garden City” of Buffalo, to scores of purpose-built capitals – Brasília, Canberra, Astana, Washington DC – building new cities is just something that humans do.
More than 120 new cities are currently being built in 40 nations around the world.
We are standing on the precipice of a new city building boom unlike anything we’ve seen before. These shiny new metropolises hold the dreams and aspirations of people and nations. Will they deliver a bright new urban future or a debt-fuelled bubble of historic proportions?
According to the UN, 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. This means 2.5 billion more city dwellers, with 90% of the uptake happening in Asia and Africa. Half of the urban area that will be needed hasn’t been built yet. We would need scores more Delhis, Shanghais and Lagoses.
“The sad thing is that we’re going to develop more urban area in the next 100 years than currently exists on Earth,” says the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Romer of New York University. “If we stick to business as usual most of it is going to be disorderly and less functional than the stuff we already have.”
Neoliberalism and deregulation have created a wild west atmosphere that facilitates the circulation of footloose capital globally. It is easier now than in previous decades to acquire vast tracts of land and to then use that land for any purpose, including urban and commercial. The reality is that new city projects can only move forward with massive loans, often from foreign banks, with no guarantee that the city will be profitable enough to repay the loans. The average price tag of a new city is between $100bn to $161bn.
“Our vision is to create a new city in America that sets a global standard for urban living, expands human potential and becomes a blueprint for future generations,” said a statement from Telosa.
The project also promises transparent governance and what it calls a “new model for society.” Taking its name from the ancient Greek word “TELOS” (a term used by the philosopher Aristotle to describe an inherent or higher purpose), the city would allow residents to “participate in the decision-making and budgeting process.” It will be built on the idea of “equitism”, a community endowment will meanwhile offer residents shared ownership of the land.
Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is master planning a city called Telosa for the US entrepreneur Marc Lore, which is set to be built “from scratch” in the US desert.
Announced on Twitter by Ingels’ architecture studio BIG, Telosa would be built on an unoccupied 150,000-acre (607.05 km2) site in the western United States. If built – which is by no means certain at this stage – would be located on an unoccupied site somewhere in the US, with the first residents moving in by 2030. One key concern will be that it has natural resources like water too, which is a dire problem in some areas of the US.
The new city has been sold as a one-stop cure-all for an array of urban and economic issues facing emerging markets around the world: overcrowding, pollution, traffic congestion, housing shortages, lack of green space and economic stagnation, to name a few. By starting from scratch, governments and/or private investors hope to move on from their current clogged and dysfunctional urban centres and develop new economic sectors to help them leapfrog other nations. City building itself can also be a highly profitable endeavour for some.
“Our vision is to create a new city in America that sets a global standard for urban living, expands human potential and becomes a blueprint for future generations,” said a statement from Telosa: cityoftelosa.com
On Telosa’s official website, Lore explains that he was inspired by American economist and social theorist Henry George. The investor cites capitalism’s “significant flaws,” attributing many of them to “the land ownership model that America was built on.”
“Cities that have been built to date from scratch are more like real estate projects,” Marc Lore said in a promotional video for the project. “They don’t start with people at the center. Because if you started with people at the center, you would immediately think, ‘OK, what’s the mission and what are the values?’
“The mission of Telosa is to create a more equitable and sustainable future. That’s our North Star.”
The city is the idea of Marc Lore, an entrepreneur and former CEO of e-commerce at retailer Walmart, who sold his start-up website Jet.com to the supermarket giant for $3.3 billion in 2016.
Marc Lore’s idea is to acquire a large plot of land that would be donated to a community endowment so that its increasing value could fund the city’s development and improve the resident’s welfare.
Telosa to be built on community-owned land
“There’s a finite amount of land and that land was claimed generations ago – communities were created, tax dollars were used to invest in the land, and therefore the land increased in value over time with landowners not having to produce anything or take any risk,” explains Lore on the Telosa website.
Initially, the land will be donated to a community endowment, which will use the money made through increasing land values to enhance public services and ensure every single citizen has equal access to healthcare, housing, education and transportation. In due course, those living in Telosa will get a stake in the site, so as the city does better, the residents do better. The entrepreneur believes Telosa could eventually be worth as much as $1 trillion and generate $60 billion a year for its inhabitants.
Envisioned to grow to a population of five million over the next 40 years, the organisers are aiming to create a city for 50,000 people by 2030.
Aim is to be “the most sustainable city in the world”
Broadly based on the principles of urbanist Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities in the UK, the city would have a density of around 33 people per acre – broadly equivalent to that of San Francisco.
According to Lore, building Telosa from scratch would allow it to become “the most sustainable city in the world”.
Telosa was first conceived by Marc Lore in response to rising inequality in the US.
His idea is based on the socioeconomic model of equitism, which, unlike capitalism, is based on community ownership: ‘Capitalism has been an incredible economic model, but there are significant flaws, especially around income and wealth inequality’.
Many of these flaws are a result of the land ownership model that America was built on…says Lore on the Telosa website.
‘What if that land had been owned by a community endowment? What if you took that land appreciation and gave it back to the community since they created the value? at first glance it seems impossible to turn back the clock and have a do-over. The land was claimed. but there’s plenty of land left —what if we had a clean slate to demonstrate this new model?’
Marc Lore continues, ‘We have a chance to prove a new model for society that offers people a higher quality of life and greater opportunity. When I look out 30 years from now, I imagine equitism serving as a blueprint for other cities — and even the world — and telosa being a place of pride for all who live there.’ Lore’s plan is for all Telosa’s land to be donated to a community endowment, which will use the increasing land values to fund enhanced public services such as education, housing, health, jobs, and retraining.
Of course, before any of that can be built, Marc Lore and BIG will have to pick a site for the city. Location scouting is currently underway for 1,500 acres (6,07 km2) of land in the Southwest, with plans to eventually expand to 150,000 acres (607.05 km2). Once the right spot is found, expect things to move quickly.
Although planners are still scouting for locations, possible targets include Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Texas and the Appalachian region, according to the project’s official website.
Funding will come from “various sources,” project organizers said, including private investors, philanthropists, federal and state grants, and economic development subsidies. Planners hope to approach state officials “very soon,” with a view to welcoming the first residents by 2030.
To say that Telosa will be difficult to realize is putting it mildly and the potential pitfalls – and criticisms (especially with regard to the environment) – are considerable. Still, it’s definitely a project to watch. It’s also not without recent precedent. Bill Gates has previously revealed plans to build a city, while Prince Charles successfully created a town in England.
It is not the first new city being planned by Ingels’ firm, which famously installed a ski slope on top of a Copenhagen power plant and has co-designed Google’s new headquarters in London and California.
In January 2020, Japanese carmaker Toyota revealed that it had commissioned BIG to create a master plan for a new 2,000-person city in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Although significantly smaller than Telosa, the project, dubbed Woven City, promises autonomous vehicle testing, smart technology and robot-assisted living.
The new city building boom is nearly as much about maintaining and attracting high-value talent as it is about creating space for the droves of rural migrants searching for their first handholds in an urban environment.
Many new cities are scrambling to attract these global elites through creating luxury properties that they can buy, luxury retail and restaurants, and infrastructure for their lavish hobbies: particularly docking facilities for yachts. The developer’s goal is to maximise profits and this is done in large part by creating luxury condos and villas. There is not much money to be made in affordable family housing, so developers are not interested.
Many new cities that are currently being built are clearly being designed for emerging middle classes. If provided with the right opportunities, this well-educated, big spending and highly mobile sector of society can be a boon for just about any country. If those opportunities are not provided they are especially prone to flight – emigrating to better jobs and lifestyles in the US, Canada and western Europe.