Why Tech-Utopian City Plans Fail

Like others before him, e-commerce billionaire Marc Lore wants to build the ideal city from scratch. Urban experts don't have much faith in his chances.

2 minute read

September 9, 2021, 10:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Rendering of aerial view of Telosa city

City of Telosa / Rendering of Telosa city

Marc Lore, e-commerce founder and billionaire, has set his sights on planning a utopian community, reports Joshua Brustein. Inspired by the philosophy of 19th century economist Henry George, Lore has "come up with the modest proposal to start a private foundation, buy 200,000 acres or so of land, probably somewhere in the American West, and build a 5 million-person city from the ground up—a Georgist utopia that will serve as a demonstration project for a new, fairer phase of capitalism." 

For Lore, the key would be the foundation's commitment "to take the appreciation of the land and give it back to the citizens in the form of medicine, education, affordable housing, social services." The model "mimics the way employees at startups are paid partially in stock. He says he’s planning the city much in the way he’d launch a business."

Lore is taking the project seriously: "[h]e’s hired a team that includes a transportation planner, an engineer, and an urban historian. His real estate consulting firm has narrowed the search for a site down to about six states and has even identified some specific 50,000-plus-acre parcels in Nevada—whose governor has proposed rules to encourage new cities—as potential sites." But despite his wealth, he doesn't have the funding, and he "hasn’t acquired land or water rights, precursors to undertaking the daunting task of persuading people to leave real cities for his hypothetical one," or "figured out how the foundation would operate or persuaded local officials to grant it the power it’d likely need to function."

Sarah Moser, associate professor of geography at Montreal’s McGill University, says the "tradition of trying to improve urban life by starting new cities from scratch" has a long, but largely unsuccessful history. Recent projects tend to have backing from the tech industry, whose "motivations vary from the desire to create test beds for technologies such as autonomous vehicles and citywide networks of sensors, to the Silicon Valley-esque conviction that privately owned startups are the solution to every problem." According to Alain Bertaud, former principal planner at the World Bank, brand new cities fall broadly into three categories: "libertarian attempts to escape government regulation; technocratic areas established to foster and showcase innovations; and projects seeking some novel model of collective welfare."

To Moser, projects like Lore's "are at best a distraction from the boring work of building functional cities—a particular shame at a time when places that already exist are struggling with the pandemic and the growing challenges of climate change. At worst, they end up being vehicles for private interests to extract concessions from local governments desperate for capital that could lead to economic development."

Wednesday, September 1, 2021 in Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Ornate, tan stone capitol building with a gold dome roof and low-rise city buildings in the background.

States Are Banning Guaranteed Income Programs

Four states now have laws in place that prevent cities and counties from creating or continuing guaranteed income programs, and several more have tried or are trying.

May 23, 2024 - Bloomberg CityLab

Aerial view of Oceanwide Plaza skyscrapers covered with graffiti tags.

LA’s Abandoned Towers Loom as a “$1.2 Billion Ruin of Global Capital”

Oceanwide Plaza, shuttered mid-construction after its developer filed for bankruptcy, has stood vacant on prime Los Angeles real estate since 2019.

May 21, 2024 - The Architect's Newspaper

Close-up of electric stove range with front burners red-hot.

California Cities Suspend Natural Gas Bans Following Court Ruling

A Ninth Circuit court ruling forced Berkeley to reverse its ban on natural gas in new buildings, prompting other cities to suspend their own efforts to promote all-electric buildings.

May 28, 2024 - East Bay Times

BART heavy rail train on elevated track pulling into Concord, CA station with cloudy sky and trees in background.

Bay Area Transit Projects Awarded $18 Million

The funding supports eight ‘near-term’ projects slated for completion within the next one to three years.

2 hours ago - Contra Costa Herald

Silver UTA On Demand transit van in Utah.

Utah On-Demand Transit Hits 1 Million Rides

The service connects outlying communities with fixed-route transit lines.

3 hours ago - Utah Transit Authority

Texas Flood

Texas Flood Plan Shows One in Six Residents Live With Flood Risk

One-fourth of the state’s land falls within 100-year or 500-year floodplains.

4 hours ago - The Texas Tribune

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.