Why brand-new cities beckon

As the world becomes more urban - and urban areas become more gridlocked -- 'insta-cities,' surge. 

GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS
A ZEBRA GRAZES IN KENYA’S NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK OUTSIDE THE CITY.

Discontent mobilizes pioneers and explorers, stirs the imagination of inventors and revolutionaries. “Why keep doing the same old thing?” they wonder. “Why not start from scratch, build a better world?”

The world does better as a result. Most of the time. Unintended consequences often hitch a ride on great ideas. The automobile age is vastly preferable to centuries of pedestrianism and equestrianism. But the internal combustion engine’s effect on air quality, sprawl, and road casualties has been huge. From the French Revolution to TNT, nuclear power to the Internet, the new and improved rarely come without side effects.

In a Monitor cover story, Ryan Brown reports on the surprising number of new, privately funded cities rising worldwide (click here to read it). She focuses on Eko Atlantic, a luxury community sited on reclaimed land south of the gridlocked Nigerian megacity of Lagos. Similar cities are in the works from South Africa to Egypt, the Persian Gulf to China. The most jaw-dropping is Jing-Jin-Ji, being built between Beijing and the Port of Tianjin. As big as Kansas and with a population larger than one-third of the United States, it is meant to relieve pressure on the capital and become northern China’s tech and culture hub.

Seen one way, the insta-city boom is just the latest chapter in the long story of civilization. New cities (hint: the word “new” is usually in their name) are founded by people fed up with old ones. They often feature barricades and moats to keep barbarians at bay and to protect their fresh ideas in urban living. In time, however, any successful citadel gets tired of walls. Trade and variety always outmatch security and exclusivity. 

But then a tipping point tips: Once-new cities can seem old and crowded. Ask a Neapolitan or New Yorker.

So new beckons anew. Artists’ conceptions of uncrowded, leafy streets and sleek, unpeopled dwellings have lured generations of weary urbanites into sales offices. There is often a class element in such marketing, though, a hint that only the “right sort of people” will live behind the walls, gates, greenswards, and water hazards that buffer utopia from dystopia. 

Sure, a new city might be a little boring, but the trash gets picked up – although that’s when unintended consequences appear. Laborers who pick up trash and clean bathrooms during the day seldom are welcome at night. Meanwhile, as knowledge workers and tax dollars migrate to shining new metropolises, old cities fall further behind. 

The insta-cities springing up around the globe are understandable responses to the dysfunction of established cities, especially the ever-more-crowded ones of Africa and Asia. They can be more than just luxurious fortresses, however. They can be labs to learn how to make all cities better. Beyond that, insta-cities can even be interesting – if they can figure out how to balance the security and comfort they promise with the vibrancy, surprise, and diversity of the great world outside their walls.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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