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A group of tech billionaires wants to build a new city in the middle of California farmland

A group of tech billionaires and others is hoping to get residents in Northern California’s Solano County to approve what backers hope amounts to a new city.

The project is called California Forever, and it aims to turn farmland into a medium density city that could grow to up to 400,000 residents in the future.

This isn’t the first plan to build a new city in this part of the country. Microsoft’s Bill Gates bought land in west Phoenix with the aim of building a smart city there. A few years ago, a tech billionaire announced plans for a new sustainable city to be built somewhere in the desert Southwest. And there are others.

The Show spoke with Greg Lindsay about the new California Forever proposal. He’s an urbanist who’s studied, written and spoken about cities for years.

Full interview

GREG LINDSAY: Well, you know, the the history of corporate plans, planned cities in America is an old one. I mean, there's a number of master plan communities around the country built by, for example, the Howard Hughes Corporation, the Woodlands in Houston or Summerlin in Las Vegas. So there's nothing new about that about the idea of, you know, building at a scale of tens of thousands of homes. Obviously, what's different about California Forever is that some of its backers include billionaires, including a jobs including Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and others and, you know, the checkered history of tech billionaires wanting to build cities or evoke evoking the principles and they would like to build them along, I think raises suspicion for good reason.

MARK BRODIE: Yeah, why is it that, specifically in the West, I mean, you mentioned Texas, you mentioned Las Vegas, this is California, there have been efforts around the Phoenix area and other parts of Arizona as well to sort of have these master planned cities that you know, look to the future, maybe for their, for their development, for their planning. Why is it in the West that this seems to be such a popular concept?

LINDSAY: Well, I think that has to do with the fact that the American West has always been seen as, you know, the frontier, the frontier of progress. I mean, you know, obviously Silicon Valley sees itself as the center of the world even though it's on the edge of America for sure. And also just you know, the availability of land there. Now this of course gets problematic over time because water, wildfires, other environmental factors are coming into play.

For example, there's another master plan development in California, Tejon Ranch, 12,000 homes. It's about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. A judge recently threw out their entire environmental impact because they didn't adequately factor in the risk of fires. So you're seeing sort of the the hubris of some of these projects running headlong into the real hard constraints of of the environment and other factors are first and foremost

BRODIE: Right, which seems kind of interesting because at least for some of these projects dealing with those are trying to acclimate to those kinds of issues seems to be kind of at the core of what these new cities are hoping to achieve.

LINDSAY: Well, yes, I think a lot of the interest that California Forever has garnered has to do with the fact that these, you know, tech, tech billionaires and their front man acquired, you know, 60,000 acres in secret. And there's reports that they bullied some of the local landowners in acquiring the parcels. And you know, the fact that this sort of, you know, starting in secrecy which even Governor Newsom has acknowledged or starts them on the back foot is going to run headlong into the ultimate unstoppable force or sorry, the immovable object to unstoppable force, which is California NIMBY, they have to get, you know, approvals if they want to up zone this farmland near the Sacramento River Delta, up into, you know, a neighborhood of, you know, something like 50,000 homes in the end.

And they've got a lot of powerful enemies arrayed against them, local landowners, the state senator and others. So, it'll be interesting to see about, you know, whether their dream that they can escape, what they see as the intractable problems of San Francisco will run headlong into,, you know, the problems of trying to get a ballot initiative in California.

BRODIE: Yeah. I mean, are there ways to try to get around that sort of nimbyism? Are there arguments to be made to, you know, folks who already live nearby about how, you know, this project maybe benefits them as opposed to just hurts them?

LINDSAY: Well, they're certainly trying to make the case. I mean, the, the, the ballot measure that they've put forth is called the East SOTO Homes Jobs and Clean Energy Initiative. And purposely describes it as creating quote, "middle class homes and good paying local jobs" end quote. So they're doing their best to ingratiate themselves with the local communities and, and portray themselves as, you know, in their, in their renderings and their imagery as not as a, you know, futuristic tech city, but something closer to Mayberry in many ways.

But but this is always the problem and this is why professional urbanists look at these projects askance because it's often fueled by this dream that we can just escape the city and we can escape these problems and escape governance and create their own, maybe utopian communities in some way but create their own governance and it just never works that way. There is no such thing as virgin land, there's no Tabula Rasa. There are communities and there's always local problems and you can't simply drop a new city on top of people. They tend to resent that.

BRODIE: Right. So I wonder you and you alluded to this in terms of, you know, some of these tech folks trying to, you know, get out of San Francisco, get out of the Bay Area in general. Is there a message in some of these proposals to basically build a city from scratch as opposed to trying to work within existing cities or existing communities to maybe make them better.

LINDSAY: Yes. And again, it comes back to the notion that, you know, that they see themselves as, you know, perhaps above the fray or better suited to run, you know, America and, and cities from scratch rather than participating in local government. Although they have done that. There's some history also of billionaires in the Bay Area, you know, meddling in San Francisco politics recently. But there's a whole interesting strain in, in a lot of tech circles about the idea that if we could just get away from governance, we can, you know, we could innovate faster. There's no sign so far with California Forever that it is along those principles. Again, they're, they're playing very nice at the moment. But it's the strain that runs through the idea of, we can just get away if we could just, you know, build this from scratch the way you write a piece of code from scratch and it doesn't work that way.

BRODIE: So, is it more of a, a desire to get away from, from government, from governance as opposed to thinking, hey, we can solve the problems of transit of water of energy better than, than is being done now?

LINDSAY: Yeah, I think there's a couple of different strains to that. I mean, you know, to an extent, historically, you know, what's called the, the California ideology, it's the idea of, of private libertarian innovators, but really funded by state governments. And so that's, you know, that goes back into the 1960s in California. But there's also a strain of, you know, this idea that, you know, that we don't need, you know, we don't need trains, we don't need buses, we'll have autonomous cars do the work. And as we can see right now in Phoenix and in the Bay area, the dream of autonomous cars, which about 15 years old is running into some very hard limits at the moment and real resistance.

So this idea that, yeah, that, you know, that that we can out innovate, you know, the bus is, is also I think part of their dream, I mean, Uber thought it could do that and Uber has fallen back on very expensive taxi rides. So, you know, there's a, there's a lot of the strain of thinking of, you know, if we go back to first principles as they call it, if we just ignore all these accumulated habits and rules of thumb, then we can do a better job. And that's what cities are, cities are, of course, the accretion of so many different people, their hands, how they live all those things. That's what makes them amazing. And that's again, what makes I think people suspicious of billionaires bearing gifts.

BRODIE: So one of the first of these sort of like planned communities like this is, is here, of course, in Arizona, Arcosanti. I'm wondering if you see any parallels between either California Forever or some of the other projects that have been talked about and/or attempted. And, you know, this one from many decades ago, I don't see any parallels so far between Arcosanti and California Forever. The latter has again tried to keep it very normal, I think for lack of a better word in terms of how it depicts itself. I mean, I mean, Arcosanti, I think is, is many, is what many people fear when they think about these new kinds of communities. The idea that we're going to completely re invent how we live on, you know, in the form of the archology, his, you know, Paolo Soleri's giant landscape he imagined that's that sort of utopian dream from the 1960s and '70s that appears to have passed and, and in many ways, it's tragic that we don't think, to, you know, to build in that kind of way or be that level of ambition.

But then again, I mean, you know, I subscribe to the idea that, you know, a city is not a laboratory that, you know, residents are not experimental animals to be tested and prodded. And so, you know, perhaps it's better that, you know, that Arcosanti was, was left in its uncompleted form and, and let's hope that California Forever, maintains a level of modesty in its own way.

BRODIE: Sure. Interesting. All right, Greg, thank you so much for the conversation. I really appreciate it.

LINDSAY: My pleasure.

BRODIE: Greg Lindsay is an urbanist and has worked with institutions including Cornell Tech and the Future Urban Collectives lab at MIT.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.