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I looked at the plans for the new city proposed by Silicon Valley elites. They're really terrible.

Adam Rogers   

I looked at the plans for the new city proposed by Silicon Valley elites. They're really terrible.

Make no little plans," goes an often-quoted cliché in city planning. "They have no magic to stir men's blood." That's from the grandiloquent planner of Chicago, Daniel Burnham, who had a typical late-1800s propensity for wide Paris-style boulevards and white, neoclassical buildings — a prototypical think-about-the-Roman-Empire guy. Even so, Burnham had a point. In citymaking, small plans are for suckers and grifters. For proof, click through the renderings for California Forever, the recently revealed proposal to turn 55,000 acres of drought-prone Northern California hillside into a glorious city of the future. It looks like a big plan. So far, it isn't.

Right now, California Forever is just a website with some ideology and a handful of hopeful sketches with a faintly socialist-utopian flair. The money behind it, though, is real — $800 million from a conclave of tech and tech-adjacent billionaires who for years have been secretly buying rural land in Solano County, between Travis Air Force Base and the Sacramento River. And they would've gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for the meddling kids at the New York Times unmasking last month the venture capitalists Marc Andreessen, Chris Dixon, and Michael Moritz; philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs; the Stripe-founding Collison brothers; and others. They've all heaped money onto something called Flannery Associates and its leader, a Peter Thiel-quoting former Goldman high flyer named Jan Sramek. Now Sramek is making the media rounds more openly, as well as courting the political and landholding forces in Solano.

Put aside your feelings about billionaires pitching private libertarian paradises away from us hoi polloi (which: barf). What the company says it wants to build says a lot about how rich people think cities work — what cities are. They're mostly wrong.

Cities of the future of the past

The California Forever art illustrations show at a place that'll look startlingly familiar. "We think that there's so much wisdom in how we built cities and towns over the last hundreds of thousands of years in some places," Sramek said in an appearance on a Bay Area public affairs radio show earlier this week. "The plans that people put forward will be very inspired by those great old American neighborhoods that someone who was born 100 years ago will recognize."

If you were hoping that, given a chance to design a greenfield urban enclave, a bunch of secretive billionaires might cough up a zombie- and climate-proof arcology or a neon-lit anime downtown with a space elevator station, you're out of luck. California's highly aggressive species of NIMBYs share with rich would-be homeowners from Silicon Valley an affinity for traditionalism — artisanal neighborhood character, but with higher R-value on the insulation. Hence the renders: Euro-style houses on a hillside angled out over the water, a bucolic row of two- and three-story rowhouses from the 19th century on a tree-lined street full of kids playing, a verdant plaza surrounded by cafes and restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating. You know: nice.

I started out by talking about Daniel Burnham, but when it comes to a pitch like California Forever, the better big name from urban planning's deep history is Ebenezer Howard. Inspired by a utopian, socialist novel called Looking Backward, Howard in 1898 pitched a new way to build cities that would counteract the polluted, unequal, brutal places getting extruded by capitalism and the industrial revolution. His "garden city" was a self-contained town with all the amenities and light industry it'd need for economic productivity, surrounded by a "green belt" of agriculture to feed its populace, profit from the surplus, and offer natural, open space for recreation. The green belt would also constrain every city's tendency to sprawl into a Los Angeles.

A few places actually tried to build them — England and Japan had a few, and some sprung up around New York and Philadelphia. They didn't work at all. In reality, builders left too much room between houses. Industry moved to rural areas, and big-ticket jobs moved to urban downtowns. Commuter railways and then the automobile turned garden cities into bedroom communities, which then used zoning, banking, and a bunch of other sneaky tricks to make sure only rich, white people could afford to live in them. In other words: suburbs. Think of the hours-long commutes as cosmic justice.

In the 1990s, American architects and planners tried it again and made some of the same mistakes. A gloss on the nostalgic idea of small-townish homes centered on a shopping street and transit hub expressed itself in Seaside, Florida — best known for playing the role of the fake town in "The Truman Show." Point is, the garden city remains a dream honored more in the breach — in pitches like the one for California Forever. It tends to turn into something else once ground gets broken.

What's not on the map

In the images of Foreverville I see the following types of transportation: bicycles, kayaks and canoes, and a train that appears to stop next to the sidewalks of a downtown where ten- or 12-story buildings snuggle shoulder-to-shoulder.

I get that these are just renderings in a proposal, so I forgive the fact that the train arrives through some kind of tunnel and doesn't seem to have a power source — no locomotive, no overhead power lines. I'll tell you, in municipal politics, putting an electrified third rail through downtown is a real third rail. As far as I can tell the only rail track running through the land in question is a largely abandoned spur that the nearby Western Railway Museum sometimes runs restored cars on for visitors. (This is a goddamn delight, by the way.)

Anyway, you'll notice something missing from the renderings: Cars. The streets in which kids play are empty of them. The plaza has no parking. A crowded street fair amid multistory buildings shows happy people walking in the middle of the street, the sidewalks full of stalls selling…well, you can't see what they're selling. Scented candles, is my guess.

Now, it's not impossible to have a city that isn't car-based. In fact, I recommend it. After all, before about 1940, none of them were. But these days it takes some planning. Gloriously car-free or car-light places like Pontevedra in Spain also have transit and services baked into the city form; Paris' "fifteen minute city," with jobs and shops within that striking range of homes, relies on saturation by rail transit. And right now, a big residential development called Culdesac, in Tempe, doesn't allow cars or on-street parking. Of course, Culdesac is centered on a light rail station, and it only has 700 apartments — not tens of thousands.

The only thing that really connects Foreverville's footprint to the rest of the world is California State Route 12, a narrow asphalt ribbon that the locals sometimes call "Blood Alley." California Forever's plan promises to improve and widen the 12 so that the new population doesn't clog the thing up. (Spoiler: Widening a highway literally never reduces congestion.) So how will people get to and from Foreverville? How will people get around once there? How will the walkable neighborhoods connect to each other? Robot buses? The lack of cars seem like an implicit promise that Foreverville can't keep.

The walk of life

The California Forever website promises "homes, shopping, dining, and schools all within walking distance." That seems to recognize that when it comes to cities, "density" cannot simply mean "maximum people per unit space," especially when the only thing that links them all together is car infrastructure like streets and freeways. That's not walkable. That's — well, that's Los Angeles again.

No, the kind of density that makes cities walkable, lovable, and less likely to burn down the planet, requires density of use — short blocks, lots of different kinds of buildings providing lots of different kinds of service, open space, and interconnections to other uses and cities via transit. It's not clear from the renders and statement of purpose that California Forever has any of these things other than the open-space thing.

The only job anyone seems to be doing in the California Forever renders is installing solar panels, which I fully support, but I do wonder where those hard-hatted solar installers park their F-150s, or live.

More than that, it's not clear what the city will actually do. A functioning city provides a context for systems to allow people of different backgrounds and classes to mix, to enjoy recreation and each other, to earn money, and to make and move the things that let other people do the same. So what companies will rent the 8th, 9th, and 10th floor office space in the downtown towers? What commercial work will go on, besides latte art, yoga studios, and bike shops? Will the city have lawyers? Banks? Cabinetmakers? Welders? Hardware stores? Artist studios? Comic book stores? The only job anyone seems to be doing in the California Forever renders is installing solar panels, which I fully support, but I do wonder where those hard-hatted solar installers park their F-150s, or live.

California Forever isn't pitching a city. It's pitching houses. Now, look, California needs those. The state's housing shortage is egregious. But building new homes on greenfield land, far from jobs or services, is terrible, too. And while the website promises "new employers" and "thousands of permanent, good-paying local jobs," it does not specify where those things will be relative to the hillside homes or the rowhouses, or if those working-class amenities will even be in the new town at all.

Main Street Electrical Parade

When a city doesn't perform all the functions of a city — when it is merely city-esque — things get real weird, real fast. The "row house" render on the web site shows a bunch of different architectural styles, from Edwardian and Victorian to sort of arts-and-craftsy. But in real life, presumably all these houses will be built at the same time. If they're sharing walls, they're likely to be all one building.

Maybe the façade won't look variegated at all — the built version could have the shared mansards and unitary faces of Hausmannian Paris or John Nash's London. Nothing wrong with that! But one of the keys to the success of those buildings was that once developers agreed to maintain those facades, they were allowed to do pretty much what they wanted with the building behind them.

Alternatively, the builders will add old-timey fronts to make the building look like it's composed of multiple structures built at the turn of the century. It'll be a condo complex hidden in a show building, like the ride part of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. Or instead of row houses, they'll end up building townhouses with a few feet of clearance between them, as is more and more common in typical California residential developments. None of the space- and energy-efficiency of rows, with all the lack of privacy.

This is generative placemaking, the urban design equivalent of a large language model cribbing from all the existing ideas about what cities are and running them through the tautologitron. Make a city that looks like cities look like!

The same goes for the plaza. It's uncanny. If one of the cafes serves Italian or Korean food, it won't be because that part of town used to be where the Italian or Korean families lived. There was no town; it has no used-to-be. Somewhere in the presumably libertarian homeowner's agreement, the plaza is going to be listed as a Mandatory Enjoyment Zone, with rules for what kinds of signage a Starbucks is allowed to have (instead of keeping rents low enough for a local coffee entrepreneur to pull a latte). The idealized shopping districts of the mid-20th century planned communities mutated into basic malls; that's what's going on here, decades later. This is generative placemaking, the urban design equivalent of a large language model cribbing from all the existing ideas about cities and running them through the tautologitron. Make a city that looks like cities look like!

"Authenticity" has never meant much in a city, and it means even less in the post-postmodern era. But still, these renderings cross a border between architecture and Imagineering. It's not an accident that one of the most famous rich people to ever want to build a city from scratch was Walt Disney. California Forever isn't promising Main St; it's promising "Main Street."

The city and the city

The urbanists on California Forever's team certainly understand these potential shortcomings. The project's director of planning, Gabriel Metcalf, is a respected urban planner who used to run the Bay Area's pro-housing smart growth and urban advocacy group SPUR. Also on the team is BH Bronson Johnson, the planner behind Sidewalk, the abortive attempt of Google's holding company Alphabet to build a new city neighborhood in Toronto. That didn't happen, but the walkability and densified city stuff was smart.

But even if they get everything right about the plans and designs for Foreverville, it still faces heavy odds. The team is already dealing with significant local resistance and the need for a whole election's worth of new land use laws. Once they get past all that, even builders with the best of urbanist intentions often fail. Just about 60 miles southeast of the California Forever site is a residential development called Mountain House. In the planning stages, its leaders said all the right stuff — different housing forms, walkability, diverse uses, smart growth. But none of that happened. It's just a development with boulevards.

That suburban form — single-family homes set way back from wide, curving streets that lead to eight-lane, high-speed roads, freeways, and Targets — is a default. It's what plans like California Forever look like when brick starts getting laid. "There's just such a momentum and it's so much easier to deliver that," says Dan Parolek, the architect behind Culdesac. Counties don't have the expertise to lay out anything other than homes, boulevards, and Walmarts. Builders do urban infill or suburban planned housing. "Trying to get a builder or developer to build something more urban in a historically suburban or rural environment is really, really hard," he says.

A survey that California Forever sent to current Solano residents asked how they'd feel about tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue (presumably the property taxes on new homes), millions of new olive and oak trees, protection for open space, thousands of jobs, a performing arts center, minor league baseball, and other fun stuff. People like fun stuff; approvals hovered around 60% for it all. It seems like huge change. But a plan that's really just imagineered houses is actually little, in the Burnham sense. Unambitious, unsuited for the new world. Which means it's worth remembering the rest of what Burnham said, the part of the quote most people leave out: Little plans, he said, "probably will not themselves be realized." They tend not to happen at all — at least, not the way their investors pitched them.

Adam Rogers is a senior tech correspondent at Insider, covering science, technology, and our weird future. He reports on online search, how technology changes the way we live, and what technology entrepreneurs' priorities mean for society.

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