Once upon a time, cities grew organically, naturally. They developed in coastal areas, grew into hubs for trade and commerce, and served as departure points for exploration. Slowly they industrialized, inviting factories and businesses, blossoming from the added wealth of new resources and new venues for spending. While those characteristics are the fairy tale reality for some cities, others are hampered by rapid industrialization that leads the way to uneven development, slums, and inefficiency. In the developing world, cities have sprouted in places and ways not conducive to sustainable growth and development. In contrast, new proposals suggest harnessing a city’s potential for growth to increase development, innovation, and entrepreneurship—and even address humanitarian efforts at the same time.
According to prominent environmental author Bill McKibben in his book Deep Economy, if we expect developing nations to develop in the same ways as the developed countries did, we are setting ourselves up for an unsustainable project that will damage the environment and raise consumption and production levels to epic proportions. Furthermore, Mike Davis in Planet of Slums notes that rapid urbanization has caused slums to develop around megacities in the global South. The huge populations in these cities drain resources, leaving people with little means to survive.
So instead of asking whether a city is the best vehicle for industrialization, perhaps we should ask if a different city model can better allow for both industrialization and prosperity. New York University economist Paul Romer suggests building charter cities—vacant pieces of land that will allow people to move from one country to another voluntarily, in order to live with rules and laws that ensure opportunity and prosperity. He outlines:
- This legal system, possibly backed by the credibility of a partner country, will be particularly important in the early years of the cityʼs development, when private investors finance most of the required urban infrastructure.
- There are three distinct roles for participating nations: host, source, and guarantor. The host country provides the land. A source country supplies the people who move to the new city. A guarantor country ensures that the charter will be respected and enforced for decades into the future.
- Because these roles can be played by a single nation or by several countries working together as partners, there are many potential arrangements.
Romer’s proposal seeks to combine public and private investment in order to develop cities that will provide basic utilities (legal system, transportation structure, infrastructure) and social goods (job opportunities, education, healthcare) for inhabitants otherwise disenfranchised within their current living conditions.
Social entrepreneur Michael Strong also proposes a similar methodology based on free zones; entitled Free Cities, he maintains that cities would develop on previously vacant land. Once re-zoned, the land multiplies in value and the taxes/rent/dividends are used for supporting other humanitarian projects. Foreign businesses and entrepreneurs will rush to fill the gaps needed to create a politically autonomous city, attracting significant amounts of investment and providing thousands of people with the option of a new home.
While the characteristics of cities could change because of the ideas of Romer and Strong, Romer has received criticism for his idea of charter cities. Romer and Strong maintain that growth lies within the development of cities, and that cities will yield funds and rules for development and humanitarian efforts. Nevertheless, creating something new from scratch is not always the most efficient mechanism, especially if it involves international land/sovereignty negotiations and developing untouched land.
A successful city should be able to provide for its inhabitants while also achieving economic growth. Also, while the shift from rural to urban sectors is usually a sign of healthy development, agriculture is essential to the city’s survival as well. The construction of a city as a development mechanism is rooted in the Industrial Revolution. While a city is viewed as efficient because of its abundance of people, businesses, and ideas, it should not be viewed as the only way to develop and provide people with economic and social opportunities. As usual, a decision must be made: to start over (thank you, Romer and Strong), or reform what currently exists? The alternative options suggested are sure to tempt some governments, but then again, they may require too much time and effort to be given much thought.