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Open Letter to Cities of the Future
A startup city, to really come to life, needs to have stories.
It seems like every month there’s an announcement about a new startup city being planned. Egypt is well on its way to building a new capital city. Saudi Arabia has The Line. Billionaire Marc Lore has the pipedream of Telosa. Most recently, it became public that a group of prominent tech investors are planning to build a major city between San Francisco and Sacramento. Their objective is to build “a bustling metropolis that could generate thousands of jobs and be as walkable as Paris or the West Village in New York.” They’ve already bought up over $800 billion worth of land outside the Bay Area.
Every time I hear about one of these new cities, I have the same thought: Sounds awesome, but even if it gets built, will it have a vibe, a feel, a sense of place, a sense of culture and richness and uniqueness? Or will it be bland and lifeless?
When you see a mock-up of one of these cities—whether it’s for The Line in the Middle East or Telosa in the American Southwest—you see a lot of glass walls, steel beams, and gray walkways. The street views from one to the next could almost be interchangeable, like a Starbucks in London looking the same as a Starbucks in Miami.
This speaks to an incredible missed opportunity. If you’re going to spend billions on a new city, you might as well give it a few touches of life and novelty in the process.
I don’t often reference Jordan Peterson, but he has an inspiring rant from a few years ago about the pricelessness of beauty and the importance of surrounding yourself with art:
I think Paris has more tourists than people most of the time. And the reason for that is that it’s just so damn beautiful you just can’t stand it. And you think, what’s the economic value of that? It’s absolutely incalculable.
The tech investors in North California seem to have the right idea, looking to build a walkable city like Paris. But it can’t just be walkable. It needs walkable streets made out of cobblestone, buildings with wood beams and exposed brick, alleyways that are a little seedy; it needs quirky cafes, artist lofts, dimly-lit dive bars, book stores and record shops. Hell, maybe even a red-light district.
As I’ve written previously, “What is a city without a certain level of seediness, a certain level of illicitness and danger? It’s a playground with no slide or sandbox. It’s a coffee shop that only serves decaf. It’s a highway with a top speed of 25 mph.”
Oh, and another thing. And this is what I really want to write about. A startup city, to really come to life, needs to have stories associated with it.
A City with Stories
When I was 21 and about to graduate college, I was desperate to move out of the rainy, gloomy Pacific Northwest. When considering where I should move, I took a lot of factors into consideration—not least of which being the weather. But more than anything, I fell back on the stories that were inspired by the various cities I was thinking about. New York meant Warhol paintings, Velvet Underground songs, and any number of novelists. LA meant Bukowski and a million different movies. San Francisco meant the Beats of North Beach and the hippies of the Haight-Ashbury.
When enough stories about a place accumulate, a sense develops not only of culture, but of mythology. Having a mythology is the key to turning an assortment of buildings and streets into a destination—a larger-than-life place that people are drawn to in order to feel like they’re a part of something meaningful and timeless.
In this respect, startup city developers would be foolish to not hire hire artists, writers, and filmmakers to craft stories centering around the new city. Even to have an artist take up residence briefly could do wonders for adding meaning to the city’s new streets. For example, in Sacramento where I now live, I’m two blocks away the historic Didion House, where Joan Didion spent much of her youth. This fact brings a strong sense of literary culture to the neighborhood, and often becomes a point of discussion among locals.
Beyond recruiting artists to the project, developers should also consider building a sense of mythology from whole cloth—or from a composite of simulacra: creating a new place by copying mythological elements from other places. In my piece “A New Theory for Urban Planning,” I describe how San Francisco and LA pulled this off to great success:
Some of the most memorable urban places were developed based strictly on mythology. For example, San Francisco’s Chinatown was created by a bunch of white dudes who (acting in the interests of the local Chinese community who didn’t want to be displaced) built a neighborhood based purely on what they thought a Chinese neighborhood should look like. And of course there are the palm trees of Los Angeles, which were brought in specifically to create the image of a tropical paradise to entice people to move.
And that’s not to mention Las Vegas, with its rip-off Eiffel Tower, NYC skyline, Venetian canals, Egyptian pyramid, etc. By compiling these familiar symbols in the middle of the Mojave Desert, Vegas created something new yet recognizable.
Of all the startup cities being planned or developed, Cotino by Disney has a natural edge on any competition because it comes with stories built in. The city will be developed outside Palm Springs in a location described as “a living painting that has ignited the imaginations of many for centuries—including Walt Disney!” In addition to comfortable residential areas, there will be “amenity areas that will reflect the imagination of Disney Imagineering.”
Cheesy? Yes, for sure. But as Scott Galloway has noted on the Pivot podcast, the affiliation with Disney stories will be an amazing benefit for elderly residents because it will guarantee that their grandchildren will want to visit.
Fine, build some tall glass structures. Put in some cement walkways that meander through green space. Whatever you have to do to build a modern city on a budget—I get it. But while you’re at it, put up a few warehouses to serve as artist lofts. Hire a popular muralist to go wild with the warehouse walls. Instead of Starbucks coffeeshops, bring in the types of cafes that host open mic nights for young musicians and poets. On your narrowest streets, put in a strip club, a night club, a dive bar, a cheap hotel, a weed dispensary, a corner store, and a 24-hour donut shop. Then recruit—I don’t know?—Dave Eggers or William T. Vollmann or someone to live in that cheap hotel for a month and write about how shitty it is.
And for god’s sake, don’t forget public transit. All your hordes of drunk, stoned, partied-out artists will need some way to get home at 3 a.m.
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