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New Cities From Scratch

January 24, 2010

Songdo, South Korea--City of the Future?

We’re starting to see an emerging market for city-scale development. Gale International, a US-based firm, is teaming up with companies like Cisco to build new, green, tech-friendly cities from the ground up. Fast Company’s Greg Lindsay has a think piece on their efforts to create a city in Songdo, South Korea, inside one of Korea’s Free Economic Zones. The nut:

As far as playing God (or SimCity) goes, New Songdo is the most ambitious instant city since Brasília 50 years ago. Brasília, of course, was an instant disaster: grandiose, monstrously overscale, and immediately encircled by slums. New Songdo has to be better because there’s a lot more riding on it than whether Gale can repay his loans. It has been hailed since conception as the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. A green city, it was LEED-certified from the get-go, designed to emit a third of the greenhouse gases of a typical metropolis its size (about 300,000 people during the day). It’s an “international business district” and an “aerotropolis” — a Western-oriented city more focused on the airport and China beyond than on Seoul. And it’s supposed to be a “smart city,” studded with chips talking to one another, designated as such years before IBM found its “Smarter Planet” religion.

The article introduces an important trend to the public, but unfortunately it’s plagued with statements that are either economically ignorant or biased or both. For starters, consider this false dilemma in the dek:

Are these companies creating a smarter metropolis — or just making money?

Dooooo what now?–Wait, you mean you can’t do both? Abu Dhabi seems to think you can. Or maybe, instead of the authoritarian high modernism of Brasilia, there is a closer, more relevant example, like say, I don’t know…Hong Kong, Singapore or Shenzhen or something. Next, if you prefer, consider this widely pessimistic buncombe:

“Cities are becoming unsettled,” warns Saskia Sassen, the Columbia University sociologist who’s the leading expert on cities’ collision with globalization. “They will be the sites of new wars — wars for water, for a clean environment, and not to mention room for some 700 million people displaced by climate change.” Sociologist Mike Davis prophesied in his apocalyptic Planet of Slums that “the cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel … [will be] instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood.”

The first war on drugs was fought with guns; the second will be fought with….sticks and stones!! I have nothing particular to say against these sad dog scholars, but it’s baffling that the article doesn’t include any thoughts from economists. Not one. Forget Ed Gleaser, or heck, even Paul Romer. No thoughts as to why anyone would want to live in a city. In fact, the article doesn’t mention–not once–a reason as to why people are going to move or operate a business in Songdo at all. The author doesn’t say it’s located in a Free Zone and that there are incentives meant to lure businesses, such as tariff, income and corporate tax exemptions for the first 3 years, among other encouragements. (I wonder if the Radiant City, Brasilia, offered that?) Instead, we have Pip Coburn:

“Cities are highly complex systems, and one of the elements of highly complex systems is that when you monkey around with them, their predictability goes to zero,” says Pip Coburn, a technology analyst…And when it comes to something as complex as cities, he says forget it. “If you’re trying in advance to define a future city, you’re out of your mind. You’ll spend years and money disrupting people’s lives.”

The truth, of course, is that simple rules can create complex systems. Even in the law. And the plan in Songdo, if I remember the article’s headline correctly, isn’t to change existing cities, but to create them from scratch. Intervention is fraught with unintended consequences and blunders. But that’s not what this is about. Instead, what we have sounds more like a review of Metropolis.


  1. Michael Strong permalink
    January 24, 2010 5:29 pm

    Thanks, Mike, great post. Fascinating, albeit exhausting, to see the stunning economic ignorance of journalists and sociologists displayed yet again.


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