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Impossible Cities

The billionaire’s urban fantasia

It’s been a rough few years for American cities. Rent skyrocketed to all-time highs in 2022, along with homelessness. A slight uptick in crime has propelled a hysterical, nationwide panic and subsequent brutal crackdown. Climate change is increasingly putting homes underwater, depriving them of water, or setting them on fire. Public transit is underfunded, under attack, or nonexistent. A proliferation of impersonal service apps designed to make life frictionless only serves to alienate users and subjugate precarious workers. And somehow everything looks so boring, with sterile five-over-ones and Blank Street coffee shops homogenizing the country’s urban landscape. What is to be done about this sorry state of affairs?

A number of ambitious visionaries have come forward with a bold solution: building new, high-tech cities from scratch. The idea is hardly without precedent. As Adrian Shirk writes in Heaven Is a Place on Earth, “Utopia-making emerges in force especially during times of economic and social precarity, after wars, depressions, natural disasters, sexual revolutions.” The aftermath of the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic surely qualifies. But while the sentiment is appropriately timed, the sponsors of these would-be utopias might come as a surprise. Rather than free-loving hippies or left-wing radicals seeking to resurrect experiments in collective living, these highly publicized schemes for urban paradises have been hatched, by and large, by conservative billionaires.

In March of this year, former president Donald Trump suggested constructing futuristic “Freedom Cities” on federal land; the start-up Praxis Society, known for hosting tedious salons in downtown Manhattan and backed by major Silicon Valley VC powers like Peter Thiel and the Winklevoss twins, is conspiring to create a “city-cryptostate” in the Mediterranean; and Elon Musk recently released plans for Snailbrook, a “Texas utopia” for employees of The Boring Company and SpaceX. Not to be outdone, at least one liberal billionaire has also entered the fray. Marc Lore—the founder, former Walmart executive, current Minnesota Timberwolves co-owner, and, in 2020, Mayor Pete max donor—has proposed “Telosa,” an ultra-modern green city to be built in the American Southwest, or possibly Appalachia, and governed under the invented ideology of “equitism,” a yet-to-be-explained mélange of democracy, capitalism and socialism. (If that sounds underbaked, Lore once copped to not reading books because it “takes time away from thinking.”)

In his 1972 speculative travelogue Invisible Cities, the novelist Italo Calvino writes, “With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear.” So what do these cities desire, and what do they fear? The answer, of course, lies within the feverish unconscious of their dreamers.

Castles in the Sky

Most palpable in the quixotic promotional materials for each of these projects is a yearning for scale. These are not proposals for a new waterfront skyscraper or an upzoned industrial neighborhood but an entire centrally planned ecosystem, a reclamation of infrastructural ambition not seen since the postwar period, when cities were hollowed out and suburbs swelled. This is Robert Moses, not Hudson Yards.

Moses, the master planner, reshaped the entire landscape of New York City and its surrounding areas. From a bevy of unelected perches, he imposed a unilateral vision of modernity, raising countless bridges, tunnels, parks, housing projects, and highways while razing the homes of thousands of the urban poor and restricting their ability to escape to the region’s natural splendor. Obsessively focused on choking New York with commuter highways, his decades-long career in many ways reshaped urban space toward the wants and needs of white suburbanites.

While these billionaire projects share that goal, as well as Moses’s scale of aspiration and scorn for democracy, their blank-slate settings harken back to something even earlier. Both Trump and Praxis have spoken of reopening the frontier, with Praxis citing the God-given drive of America’s and Israel’s founders (plus the Dutch East India Company) as inspiration. Meanwhile, Telosa borrows its name from the ancient Greek word for “highest purpose.” It is difficult, apparently, when proposing to build life where once there was none, not to get a little religious—at least when it comes to branding.

With the ambition to invent a new world, or take over an old one, comes appropriately lofty technological goals. Evoking The Jetsons, Trump spoke of flying cars for his Freedom Cities. Praxis founder Dryden Brown has called for “modern transportation. Modular construction. . . . Decentralized currency,” adding that “the next Apple might be a city.” Animated renderings of Telosa, courtesy of the Danish starchitect and Bolsonaro buddy Bjarke Ingels, show gleaming eco-modernist towers, a sleek elevated monorail, and a sky buzzing with drones. Curiously, the plans claim that, somehow, the desert city will be a net exporter of water.

This agglomeration of old and new is best captured in the confused aesthetic vision of each project. Trump positioned his Freedom Cities as a challenge for governors to mount a “modernization and beautification campaign,” but if his December 2020 executive order that new federal buildings be designed in classical styles is any indication, Freedom Cities will likely ban anything modern in favor of a Greco-Roman McMansion hodge-podge alongside “towering monuments to our true American heroes.” While the blueprints for Musk’s fantasy town seem to resemble a standard Levittown-lite suburban tract, the stylistically non-conservative artists Grimes and Ye have been tapped to plan Snailbrook’s look. Praxis’s artistic vision is similarly muddled; on Twitter, their countless aspirational posts about ideal urban aesthetics cover vast and sometimes contradictory ground. They seem particularly drawn to the look of fake, hollow cities; they salivate over the cheap plaster and chicken-wire pavilions temporarily thrown together for past World’s Fairs and the Walt Disney Company, the latter of which created the city of Celebration, Florida, which has failed to transcend standard urban dilemmas like a lack of high-quality housing.

From Roman aqueducts and Greek pavilions to floating solar-punk paradises to “Neoclassical hyperstructures” that recall M.C. Escher, these projects simultaneously evoke past, future, and imaginary cities, each shaped by wildly different social and economic realities. The specifics of what the cities will actually look like—suburbia or sci-fi, ancient or AI—are not the point. The point is that they will be beautiful. They will be epic. They will be better than what we have now.

American Carnage

Not only will these cities look different, their politics will be different too: each standing as the physical realization of the trad-futurist impulses of its respective founder(s). Musk’s city, the most mundane of the lot, seems focused on allowing him to evade classic right-wing bugbears like zoning laws, environmental protections, and labor regulations. Trump’s Freedom Cities represent a step up in ambition: he hopes to at once lead the fight against Chinese tech innovation, revamp urban manufacturing, incentivize higher birth rates through “baby bonuses,” and, of course, allow police to “do the job the way they have to.” For their part, Praxis has been cagey about laying out policy, and has even chastised other cities founded with a primary focus on politics and economics—a touch curious for a crypto-forward enterprise whose founder once claimed Praxis is “the only company that has a straight path to being a trillion dollar company that has no embedded technical risk in the road map.” Instead, the group claims their city will have a “spiritual basis,” an exalted purpose possibly achieved by banning seed oils, taxes, and zoning. In a now-deleted post on Praxis’s blog, Cesar Garcia mused about creating a “Pan-American empire” with “a military presence in the Western Hemisphere and East Asia” led by the Church of Latter-day Saints, supposedly the only force capable of “opposing the advance of Wokeness across the elite institutions of the country.”

These projects are part of the global trend of futuristic cities that serve as little more than geopolitical PR projects, intended to launder reputations and absorb international investment.

It is hard not to feel these that these political proposals ring a little less radical than their aesthetic missions or the rhetoric used by their would-be founders—the vanished imperial Praxis blog post notwithstanding. Yes, massive financial investment would theoretically be marshaled toward technology, developers, and the police, but what fundamental tenet of democratic society would be overturned in the process? What structural cause of current urban ills is being treated, rather than dodged? This points to a paradox at the heart of conservative techno-utopias: the problems facing existing cities are apparently so serious they must be completely seceded from, but not serious enough that the core rules of urban governance—fealty to the whims of landlords, cops, and business elites—must be significantly altered.

Historically, American utopian communities have attempted a far more revolutionary break with existing social, political, and economic life. From the boom of nineteenth-century communitarian endeavors like Oneida, which dissolved nuclear families in favor of Christian polyamory, to the collectively owned communes of the 1960s, major issues that could not possibly be altered under other forms of government were identified and addressed, however incompletely. Even the titular island in Thomas More’s 1516 political satire Utopia contained bolder ideas: no private property, six-hour workdays, and free hospitals, for example.

No matter how daring the politics, however, all utopian places are necessarily limited in geographic scope. To varying degrees, Trump, Thiel, and Musk have railed against, and supported political attacks on, cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, seeking to remake not just these urban centers but the country in the image of their own conservative fantasies. While Musk has characterized San Francisco’s liberal politics as a “self-destructive mind virus” leading to a city where you could “literally film a Walking Dead episode unedited,” Thiel has complained that “it’s the homeless people pooping all over the place, it’s the ridiculous rat-infested apartments that don’t work anymore, the woke insanities.” Trump famously placed cities at the heart of his vision of “American carnage,” calling them hell, warzones where you cannot walk down the street without being shot. Some—like Ferguson, Missouri, and Oakland, California—are among “the most dangerous places in the world.” These portrayals of squalor and sin don’t aim to help those directly suffering from homelessness, low-quality housing, lack of bathrooms, the opioid epidemic, or gun violence, but to signal to those insulated in wealthy urban enclaves or living outside of cities completely. The focus is on reacting to urban crises, not alleviating them. These new projects are distinct from that battle, replacing the fight to dominate existing urban space with the desire to abscond to a new one—not dissimilar from conservatives fleeing social media for more ideologically pure stomping grounds like Parler and Truth Social. It’s less schoolyard bully and more “taking my ball and going home.”

The limits of these billionaires’ collective imagination can be most clearly seen when it comes to their proposals for housing. Musk’s Snailbrook aims to offer affordable homes with rents starting at about $800 a month, definitely cheaper than in nearby Austin, but the units are restricted to employees, who would be evicted within thirty days of being fired or leaving the company. Praxis, ever light on specifics, once posted the slogan “a brownstones for every citizen,” though the suggestion was probably motivated more by aesthetics than politics. Trump boasted that his Freedom Cities would lower the cost of single-family homes—“and they will be beautiful homes”—though his past housing policies, including slashing affordable housing funding and preventing the construction of low-income housing in the suburbs, suggests costs will not be cut too greatly for buyers. Each project seems to neglect service infrastructure, leaving unanswered the question of where workers—garbagemen, house cleaners, and food service staff, for example—might live, or how wealthy residents would get by without the labor to which they’re accustomed.

To its credit, the right-wing cities’ liberal counterpart, Telosa, appears to lay out some slightly bolder land and housing policies. Lore’s proposal has toyed with challenging property rights, sketching out a Henry George-inspired community land trust model for the project, where the city—possibly just Lore himself—would own all the land, and residents would own the buildings on top of it. But upon closer inspection, Telosa’s actual housing proposals prove disappointingly mundane. The city’s website lists inclusionary zoning, the common model by which new market developments are required to include a certain number of subsidized units; expanding homeownership through yet unspecified means; incentivizing environmentally sustainable buildings; and “[enabling] diversity and innovation” as the tools that will unlock this paradise. These are the same basic plans that almost every major city across America has in place; why would the same technocratic models lead to different results this time?

Even if they did succeed within city limits, the claims of Telosa and many of the other projects is that they would serve as an inspiration for other cities to change their sorry ways. The assertion is a tenuous reach. Just ask, well, every utopian community to date whether their quest for perfection led to a domino effect in the rest of society.

Reality Bites

As revealing as a close examination of these proposals may be, the fact is that these cities are almost certainly never going to be built. Or at least not to the specifications of their own cyberpunk illustrations, which resemble the popular “Society if _____” meme more than anything we will ever see in reality.

The cities imagined by Trump, Thiel, Musk, and even Lore argue we cannot live fundamentally differently than we do now, except more tightly in their grip, and perhaps with some newfangled technology.

It is hard to decide whether it’s Trump’s checkered history as a businessman or as president that makes it more certain he will fail to build cities full of flying cars. Considering Lore has yet to select a region for Telosa, let alone purchase land, it is highly doubtful that his plans for a one-hundred-fifty-thousand-acre city housing fifty thousand “diverse” residents by decade’s end are on track. Praxis has raised $15 million dollars to date: no small sum, but still far short of the $500 million they once estimated would be required to construct a ten thousand-person city from scratch, especially one designed to their fantastical aesthetic specifications. Given the added difficulties of negotiating for preferential treatment with a foreign government, it is rumored that Praxis might forgo their original plans in favor of moving into some buildings on the outskirts of a major European city, perhaps Rome—an arrangement that sounds more like a study abroad program than a self-sufficient crypto-city. They would not be the first Thiel-backed urban planning project to run into difficulties. After giving $1.75 million to the Seasteading Institute, a libertarian startup run by Milton Friedman’s grandson that seeks to build autonomous floating cities, Thiel eventually distanced himself from the project, calling it “not quite feasible from an engineering perspective” and “still very far in the future” during a 2017 interview with the New York Times.

Musk, unlike the others, may actually manage to build a tract of homes for his workers; he already did so once, in the town of Boca Chica in southeastern Texas, outside a SpaceX launch site. But besides the rocket launches, the town has not exactly proven all that futuristic. Mainly, it has endangered local birds, infuriated longstanding residents, and rebranded as “Starbase.” This is par for the course for Musk, whose supposedly revolutionary underground car loop in Las Vegas ended up being more of a regular old tunnel accented with the LED lights of a teenage Twitch streamer’s gaming room.

Given the strong likelihood of their failure, it’s easy to wonder what purpose these proposals actually serve. But even in imaginary form, they organize people and capital. Elon’s scheme has brought him into contact with new policy advisors and government officials, not to mention his ex. Lore’s project is backed not only by Bjarke Ingels; it is also being facilitated by former anti-Trump prosecutor Preet Bharara. And the Telosa website brags of assembling “a diverse team of urban planners, designers, historians, community engagement experts, economists, financial managers, scientists, and engineers from a variety of backgrounds.” Praxis, explicitly seeking to construct “the citizenry before the city,” seems to spend much of their cash throwing loft parties during which they reduce the intricacies of city-building to grade school level for the edification of their wealthy tech bro guests. It’s easy to imagine the policy advocates, developers, and construction companies that Trump’s Freedom Cities might be able to unite together around ideology, the promise of future kickbacks, or both. In this way, these projects are part of the global trend of futuristic cities—including Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and NEOM, the proposed line city in the desert of Saudi Arabia—that serve as little more than geopolitical PR projects, intended to launder reputations and absorb international investment.

The social organization they enable could ultimately prove more effective than any other element of these projects. Easier than envisioning skyscrapers sprouting in the Sonoran Desert is how policy proposals could zip through the new networks developed by Musk, Thiel, Trump, et. al. and be implemented in real cities in the short term. Any one of these projects could develop a suite of zoning laws, accelerating the twin desires for deregulation in some places and single-family-home supremacy in others: perfect for politicians like New York mayor Eric Adams beholden to developers and conservative homeowners. Perhaps frameworks will be crafted to surrender sections of cities to the unbridled control of techies and billionaires, like those that enabled Google’s failed ground-up neighborhood in Toronto or Facebook’s upcoming Willow Village in Menlo Park. It’s possible that Praxis cobbles together a substantial enough group of wealthy digital nomads to pioneer new agreements for tax breaks with foreign powers, or that a similar group negotiates control of deregulated crypto-ruled tax havens in the Global South, like the locally reviled Próspera, Honduras, or El Salvador’s proposed Bond villain-esque, volcanic-powered Bitcoin City. Easiest yet to picture, the contact lists generated by these ventures could be repurposed to fund the next recall campaign against a progressive district attorney: after all, just last year Musk and Thiel buddy David Sacks led the charge to unseat San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin. Simultaneously gutting existing cities while singing paeans to imaginary ones has long been a winning strategy for American conservatives—just look at Reagan and his “shining city on a hill.”

2020 Vision

Regardless of whether or not these projects are built now or in many decades, in full or in partial form, the fact is that despite their claims to the contrary, they’re not utopian, futuristic, or any other forward-thinking adjective. We have plenty of words for these kinds of limited, exclusionary, and sequestered environs already, where the rich self-segregate from those of different races and classes, visible poverty, and democratic governance, or where workers live completely under their boss’s thumb. Utopia isn’t one of them. These are company towns; gated communities; the suburbs. They are the dream of Galt’s Gulch, the secret mountain town in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged where the world’s wealthiest industrialists “go on strike” from an ungrateful society, enjoying futuristic technology in a beautified enclave. More than sixty years after the publication of Rand’s dismal tome, this seems to be all the right can imagine.

Rebecca Solnit once wrote that “a city . . . is an argument about how to live.” The cities imagined by Trump, Thiel, Musk, and even Lore argue we cannot live fundamentally differently than we do now, except more tightly in their grip, and perhaps with some newfangled technology. Even then, these would-be urban planners make the claim that any more abundant future will only belong to a select few chosen by yet unexplained processes; it is unclear in these visions what those of us who remain in actually existing cities are supposed to do. This is, perhaps, the point: to foreclose on even the possibility of imagining another world, let alone the steps that could be taken to build it.

But alternate worlds have been imagined from below, and recently too. Just three years ago, the physical spaces of American cities were utterly transformed. Streets became immense gathering spaces. Downtowns were reoriented from pure consumption to communal action. Banks burned. New social ties were forged. Masses demanded an end to evictions, a cancellation of rent, the abolition of police. In some places, for some period of time, previously unthinkable changes were achieved.

It is not possible, nor desirable, for the left to return to the exact conditions that made these mass demands and limited victories possible. Yet it remains important to remember that they were possible, and to understand these urban schemes as part of an ongoing project to wrest back control: from the tumult of 2020, yes, but also from the genuinely utopian visions to which it gave rise. It is seductive to view utopia as an escape hatch, a perfect place away from the world, free from its conflicts. This is a delusion, however. Thomas More understood this in the sixteenth century when choosing the name for his idyllic isle: utopia, we know, means “good place” but also “no place.” All we have are the cities we live in, shaped, however unequally, by the dreams and nightmares of the people with whom we share them. True utopias are ever out of grasp, but they can illuminate new paths. In the right light, they show who is on our side, and who stands in the way.