In a recent campaign video, former president Donald Trump announced a proposal to create ten new “freedom cities” on 3.2 million acres of federal land. The proposal also included investment in vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) vehicles, “baby bonus” payments to new parents, and a general “beautification” campaign. Such bold plans are commendable: it’s past time to get America building again and to recapture a spirit in which ambitious projects were regarded not only as achievable, but desirable. However, as is the case with all such plans, reality throws some curveballs. And when it comes to building new cities, curveballs abound.
New cities are having a moment. Hundreds are being built globally, and for every flashy, futuristic project you may have heard of—like Saudi Arabia’s 110-mile-long, straight-line city NEOM—dozens more exist throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America that you likely haven’t. The target populations, economic strategies, locations, and motivations behind these cities run the gamut, from exclusive bedroom communities to new capital cities to accessible engines of economic opportunity for the poor. But all new cities share common burdens of feasibility in advancing from an urban plan on paper to a populated, thriving locality. And it is these common burdens that make the United States particularly ill-suited to constructing entirely new cities.
“Location, location, location” is a truism for even the smallest of real estate projects, and it’s especially true when building new cities. Trump wants to build new cities on federal land, most of which is located in the mountain and desert West. Simply put, these are terrible locations for new cities.
Desert wasteland and untouched wilderness are far too remote to attract the critical mass of jobs needed to get people to move somewhere. A city might be planned for 1 million residents, but no one wants to be the first to live there. And even if VTOL projects were clustered in one of these new municipalities, we’d be talking about the creation of a small town, at best. How many of America’s most innovative companies and talented people are willing to settle in the middle of nowhere, where it takes hours just to drive to Reno or Boise? How many people will be willing to leave everything behind to open a restaurant or become a teacher in such a location? How long does it take, and how costly is it, to ship a finished product from this site to a port at, say, Long Beach or Tacoma?
Agglomeration effects—the social benefits that accrue from having more people in a certain location, such as availability of job-switching, knowledge transfer, or common suppliers or customers—are nonexistent in such locations. San Francisco, despite its outrageous rents and complete failure in urban governance, remains the global hub of software innovation because of agglomeration economies.
There’s also an important moral question at play here: Are we willing to destroy America’s remaining natural wilderness simply because our cities are getting strangled by the urban vetocracy? If our cities could densify, with less red tape and less arbitrary discretion blocking new development, the affordability crisis driving this push for new cities could be abated, and more of America’s natural beauty could be preserved. And let’s not forget, if we start building these new cities on federal land, burdensome regulations like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will apply. Maybe a Freedom City would be built, but between the environmental review, litigation, and other certain delays (in the absence of needed reform), there seems little hope of an American Freedom City anytime soon.
New cities are an inspirational idea, but the fundamentals must be sound for success to be achievable. New cities are most feasible in rapidly urbanizing countries. Who’s going to fill up a city for 100,000 people in the United States, let alone 1 million people? We’re already urbanized, and any rural-suburban-urban shifts are marginal, within a global context. Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, are moving to cities every year. You could plan three new cities for 1 million people in Nigeria and still face excess demand, given the massive pressure to provide infrastructure and services that a city like Lagos faces, as reflected in the Biden administration’s new U.S.-Africa Strategy, which envisions a “rebalancing towards urban hubs.” In fact, it is exactly in countries where demand for new urban development is highest, rather than in the United States, that Freedom Cities could play a key role in American foreign policy.
When the creators of HBO’s Westworld wanted to depict Los Angeles in 2058 as a city of the future, did they shoot there? No—they went to Singapore. New York was once the global vision for a city of the future, but no longer. The former president deserves credit for advancing a vision of a revitalized America that embraces a builder’s spirit and strives toward the technological frontier. “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized,” legendary Gilded Age architect Daniel Burnham said. But bold thought has to meet the facts where they are. Other parts of the world are ready to embrace a new urban future, but the United States has some deeply important reforms to tackle first.