Why Doesn’t California Solve Its Housing Crisis By Building Some New Cities?

Around the world, when cities are overcrowded, governments have orchestrated the building of new cities. In the U.S., this seems absurd or utopian. Why?

There shouldn’t be a housing crisis in California. It’s not like California is full—the state’s land is vast and mostly sparsely populated. Most Californians live in and around the state’s few big urban centers: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento. In these cities, housing is insanely expensive. The median house price in Los Angeles is around $800,000, which will buy you an extremely modest single-family home. A 1-bedroom apartment in San Francisco costs $3,300 a month. Unsurprisingly, because the rent is too damn high, the homeless population in the state has exploded, and there are enough homeless people in California (160,000) to populate an entire city of their own. 

Everyone talks about the California housing crisis, but nobody seems to have any idea how to fix it. Cities spend fortunes on homeless aid programs, without fixing the problem. There’s a development-friendly lobbying coalition that calls itself the “YIMBY movement” (which stands for “yes, in my backyard”) that argues for reducing regulations so that the free market can work its magic and provide more housing. You’ll hear many urbanists say that the problem is insufficient density and zoning, as they complain about single-family homes. But the “change the zoning” and “set the market free” crowds run into strong opposition, because in practice they’re proposing drastic changes to the existing urban fabric, often displacing large numbers of existing residents, gentrifying neighborhoods, eliminating preserved historic buildings, etc. Yes, you could turn San Francisco into Hong Kong, and fill it with skyscrapers containing little sleeping compartments, and the rent might come down a bit. But would it still be San Francisco? The YIMBYs often dismiss the complaints of those of us who value history and neighborhood character, branding their opponents “NIMBYs” and enemies of progress. 

But something very obvious has been left out of the whole discussion about California housing: the state clearly just needs some more cities. San Francisco can’t expand—it’s on a peninsula—so increased density means radically altering the housing stock of the city. Some say that instead, the suburbs of San Francisco are the places that need to become more dense. But the discussions always take for granted that we must work with the cities we have.

Why, though? When China needs new places for people to live, they just build a new city. They’ve built 600 of them since 1949. In fact, countries around the world are building new cities. These megaprojects even occur in poorer countries in the developing world—although, as Katie Fernelius documents in a report on a privatized city rising in Nigeria, some of these places serve dubious interests. In Britain, after World War II, new towns were built to relieve urban overcrowding. (I was actually born in one of these.) Many were ugly, because everything built in the ‘50s and ‘60s was ugly. But the idea was sound: instead of saying “How do we increase the density of London?” planners said “Where can we build some new cities?” 

It feels as if, in the United States, the very idea of new cities seems somewhat ridiculous and utopian. I attribute this entirely to the phenomenon of “capitalist realism,” the inability to think outside of narrow ideological constraints that prescribe only “market solutions” to social problems. The state can regulate the market, to be sure, but that is about all it can do. So housing discussions are about how to rewrite zoning regulations, or whether to require developers to include affordable units. But the idea of a well-managed state-led megaproject is simply inconceivable in the United States, even if other countries demonstrate that such projects are feasible.

The problem is that building a new city from scratch requires a certain level of central economic planning of the kind associated with Soviet Communism and thus ideologically verboten. Of course, some American oligarchs are so rich that they talk of single-handedly funding the building of their dream cities. But (1) these projects are almost certainly never going to happen, because most billionaires are full of shit, and (2) if they do happen, the resulting cities will be dystopian. (See, e.g., the Saudi crown prince’s pet project NEOM.)  

What we need is for the state to take charge and build whole new cities. We don’t need to raze historic neighborhoods and put in skyscrapers. We need wholly new urban centers. Skeptics of government power may view this as an impossible task, or tell some story about how a real city can only arise “organically” rather than “from above.” But this isn’t true: I’ve previously written about the Garden City movement, which produced one of the loveliest places in Britain, Welwyn Garden City. It was a planned city, but it was planned thoughtfully and is full of lush green spaces.

In the U.S., we have lost faith in megaprojects. We associate them with boondoggles like the Big Dig in Boston. Even building a high-speed rail network seems an impossible dream, even though there’s no reason it should be. (France, a country not generally associated with efficiency, has managed to build an excellent one.) To build whole cities? Unthinkable.

But examples from across the world show that the obstacles to doing it here are ideological rather than technological. California’s crazy ballot referendum system means that almost any wacky idea can be subject to a public referendum, and the people of California simply need to approve a plan to build some more cities, perhaps in the largely uninhabited northern third of the state. (Taking care to avoid the redwood forests, of course.) 

The exciting thing about building new cities from scratch is that it allows you to avoid the mistakes are made in the “organic” (i.e., market-built) city. Los Angeles is a planning disaster. It’s not walkable, the public transit is horrible, and everyone spends half their life stuck in traffic. This is totally unnecessary. A new city can be full of green spaces, of moderate density, and with everywhere accessible by efficient, green public transit. A new city can avoid all of the disastrous errors that gave us the ugly suburban wastelands that constitute so much of contemporary “development.” 

One problem, of course, is that any city built today will likely be ugly, because contemporary architecture is almost universally unpleasant to look at (this is proven by the fact that when people visit a city for its beautiful architecture, they are always visiting cities with buildings built before the 1940s). California should not build the kind of cities that feature culturally nondescript minimalism which nobody will want to visit. If a city is to be built, it should be built using a pattern language that reuses and reimagines the best of traditional architecture and gives people something they enjoy living in and looking at.1

Developers should not be the ones leading new development. Development of places should be democratic, and building new cities in California will be an opportunity to figure out how to balance efficient central planning with broad public input and a design that gives people what they want rather than what planners or architects assume that they want. 

There is something a bit utopian about the idea of new cities. They give the opportunity to create something totally different, something that embodies our conception of how things ought to be, which may depart substantially from how they are now. Any such proposal forces us to ask questions like: “In what way does the ideal city differ from 21st century Los Angeles?” The answer will likely be that it differs in many ways, and so the very act of building a new city requires the revolutionary rethinking of the status quo. 

This, I think, partly explains why the idea is completely “off the table” even though it makes perfect sense. It should be that the idea of razing historic neighborhoods and cramming ever more people into the confines of San Francisco sounds ridiculous. Instead, for some reason, it is the much more rational idea of building new cities that has slipped out of the realm of the conceivable. But why? And for how long? Will there never be big new cities? Seen from the outside, it is the capitalist realist framework that is absurd, because it forces us to overlook obvious solutions to our problems to preserve a market system that does not and cannot satisfy human needs. 

PHOTOS: Some beautiful places for California to take inspiration from as it designs its new cities: St. Augustine, FL, Barcelona (a well-planned city), Seaside, FL, and San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico.

For instruction manuals on how to build the new cities, buy A Pattern Language, A New Pattern Language for Growing Regions, and The New Civic Art

  1. Stylistically, I recommend Gothic futurism. A safer choice is Art Deco or Art Nouveau. Design the city Gaudi would have built. 

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