Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Return of the City State - Galt's Gulch

City State - Old Model
Who would have thought the newest and most remarkable innovation in city planning may come from Honduras. There, the Honduran president, Porfirio Lobo has given his full backing to an idea to build new cities that are outside the laws, tax system, judiciary and police of the country. The goal is to turn around their disastrous economy by allowing less restrictive growth and development in new areas of the country outside the specific control of the government. Millions have been pledged by an investor group. (GO HERE for the Guardian article)

Much of this is based on the ideas of Paul Romer, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He calls these “Charter Cities” and cites examples such as Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Good company if you can make it work. There are no scratch recipes available to make these experiments work. But there are some things going for it – but now after a lot of negative reactions, Romer has issues with much of what is planned – or he’s lost control, not sure which. A lot of this sounds strange and interesting at the same time. Who are the developers, why give up such control, and how will you employ (as the developer says) 45,000 people in less than three years?

As a planner, I know that the greatest difficulty many new communities face is integrating new neighborhoods into the existing urban framework. And this means both physically and politically. Every city I have worked in sees these new neighborhoods as sources of revenue to fix existing infrastructure, schools, and transit problems. From the start these new residents are saddled with a disproportionate amount of fees to covers bonds to build the community itself, fix adjacent roads, and repair old and tired sewer and water systems. The new community’s success is often marginal, and during bad times, like the last five years, disastrous. This Honduran model is new and dangerous, bold ideas are always a threat to someone.

Already declared elitist and for the rich, the usual forces are mustering to fight these attempts to bring some better level of housing and business growth to one of the most unsafe countries in the world (its murder rate is one of the highest). And if there is one thing that scares off businesses and developers is murder and kidnapping. But businesses do employ people who may then begin to have a better standard of living. Sometimes you have to do things that are remarkably different to be successful – witness the threatened entrepreneur in America and their fight for deregulation and creative freedom.

The usual canards are thrown out about forests and agricultural frontiers (read subsistence farming). Indigenous peoples are threatened, cultures will be lost. Possibly. But then again poverty and social collapse have significant impacts on these people and cultures as well – maybe more so.

The Socialist Party, a Marxist blog/news site (it calls itself Marxist), claims that it is just another attempt by the Honduran elite to crush worker’s rights. (GO HERE) They even mention Bain and Company as a consultant to the group (and they throw in Mitt Romney’s name for spite). It is better to be a citizen of a failed country, living in fear, than an employee in a safe environment, I guess.

The primary developer is MKG and its idealistic libertarian Michael Strong. The government/management structure, as noted in the New York Daily News.Com is:
Daily operations will be administered by a board of governors.
Those governors will establish the rules and laws of the city, and future legislation will be subject to popular vote, said Michael Strong, CEO of MKG.
Hondurans will be allowed to live and work in the cities — which Strong says will be home to textile manufacturing, product assembly and outsourced businesses, like call centers.
"Once we have jobs, then we will need affordable housing, schools, clinics, churches, stores, restaurants, all the businesses that create a real community," he told the AP. (GO HERE)

Here is a blog that may have more information – but I am not sure of its validity, (GO HERE) One my favorite magazines Fast Company, has this interesting take on the story (GO HERE).

Notwithstanding the controversial aspects of something like this, this is a concept and something to ponder. How would such an entity survive in the Californian structure of urban plans, general plans, statewide development studies, urban boundaries, and urban limit lines? It is virtually impossible to start a “new” city almost anywhere in the United States. It would be seen as a threat to any existing city, county or state. Laws of your own? Management of employees outside the current labor accords? Schools run by private organizations? And most probably non-union? I find it fascinating – so Galt’s Gulch (for the Rand insider only).

Italy was such a land of city states until the end of the 19th Century; it took a civil war to bring Italy together. I will keep an eye out on the goings on down south, a land not unknown to civil wars.

Stay Tuned . . . .

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