Re-Engineering Magic in Cities

Written by Tamara Winter

In 1966, Walt Disney introduced the world to EPCOT—the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. It was intended to be not just a new kind of amusement park, but a new kind of city altogether. Walt died three months after unveiling this vision, so today Disney World looks less like the city of the future and more like Anytown, USA. Still, Disney’s vision of Epcot lives on in the minds of planners and dreamers everywhere—if not for the execution then for the idea.

Walt understood that cities are giant, serendipitous magic factories. As Ed Glaeser, urban economist and author of Triumph of the City notes, cities make us healthier, wealthier, even happier. They’re a testament to human ingenuity, feats of complex coordination, and our greatest and most reliable source of productivity and progress, economically and otherwise. Given what an outsize role they play in spurring progress and innovation, cities — and the study of how they rise, decline, and evolve over time — are underrated.

We should be interested in cities not just for what they’ve given us in the past, but for the role they’re going to play in our increasingly urban future. Today, the UN estimates that 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 that figure will be closer to 70%. To illustrate this a different way, each year cities add more than 70 million new residents — that’s the equivalent of 10 Hong Kongs. Importantly, most of this growth isn’t concentrated in superstar cities like London and New York but in a new class of megacities in emerging economies. Cities like Lagos—where I was born — and Lusaka.

Even though growth is an opportunity — it means an influx of new minds, new dreams, new visions of how to improve the world — the cities experiencing the most growth are precisely those that aren’t fully equipped to make the most of it. Which means it’s not enough to simply accommodate new residents in existing cities. We have to build new ones altogether.

Yes, this isn’t really how cities work. They’re complex, emergent phenomena, the product of human action but usually not of human design. Yet history is littered with examples of cities built from scratch.

Admittedly, the results are decidedly mixed. For every Shenzhen there’s a Brasilia. For every Dubai, an Abuja. But contained within the stories of these instant cities, which rise and fall on accelerated timelines, are lessons, if we’re paying attention, about why cities work…or don’t.

The question is, can we reengineer this magic to create the cities of the future?

This is the focus of my work at the Charter Cities Institute—among other things, I’m our in-house historian. In this first essay installment, I’ll do my best to distill what I think are the three key lessons for the city entrepreneurs of the future.

Cities are more than the sum total of their buildings.

A few months ago while reading about various instant cities I kept coming back to one idea in particular: that many cities fail because they study other successful cities and promptly make assumptions that the most visible policy choices were also the most important ones. In other until someone on Twitter (see, it’s not all bad) helpfully pointed out that there’s already a name words, they learn the wrong lessons from others’ success. I was calling it mimetic misdirection for this phenomenon: isomorphic mimicry.

Around the world cities are constantly announcing plans to build the “next New York,” but if you look closely, all that actually means in practice is PR campaigns that conflate over-planned cities (but with tall buildings!) and development. Except that isn’t how New York — the real thing — grew.

The New York Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 delineated rights of way and placed Manhattan on a grid, but beyond that did very little planning, at least as planning is conceived of in the modern sense. The drafters of the plan deserve credit for their agnosticism about what buildings should go where — the chief concern of too many planners today. That initial modesty allowed New York to evolve into arguably the greatest city in the world. In New York, office buildings sit next to apartments, with shops and restaurants co-mingled with both. Often what is currently an apartment used to be a church, or a factory, or any number of other things given second life in a city always willing to reinvent itself to suit the needs of the current population.

The task of urban planners then, as captured brilliantly by Alain Bertaud in Order without Design, isn’t to design full cities, but to create the conditions for cities to evolve over time.

Long-term thinking and competence beat ideology.

Governments, both in their capacity to deliver public goods and in their institution and execution of the laws which govern their city, can either encourage or constrain growth.

Early in his tenure in the 1960s, Sheikh Rashid set for himself the task of launching Dubai in to the 20th Century. The advances made in Dubai during under him reflect the ultimate marriage of grand vision and consistent execution. Most of Dubai’s iconic buildings would come after him, the product of his son Sheikh Mohammed’s taste for luxury; Sheikh Rashid instead concerned himself with the fundamentals. Before Dubai could be home to the tallest building in the world, its citizens first needed clean water. Electricity. Reliable roads by which they could reach all corners of the city. All of which they got—before Dubai discovered a single drop of oil.

Unlike his many of his modern-day counterparts in emerging economies, Sheikh Rashid focused on the fundamentals, laying the foundation for a well-functioning city. Today Sheikh Rashid isn’t a household name but Dubai is, largely because of his long-term vision.

Today, too many would-be architects of new cities, rather than prioritizing the fundamentals, optimize for PR and flashy announcements. Sub-Saharan Africa has hundreds — literally hundreds — of special economic zones that do very little to produce growth. During my last visit to Lusaka I met the brilliant CEO of a food company. She wanted to locate her factory in the Lusaka East Special Economic Zone but couldn’t. Why? This SEZ, which featured minimal taxes, special regulations, and more…also featured no electricity. Similarly, Nigerian entrepreneurs report their biggest challenges aren’t taxes or regulations, but the lack of consistent power and access to credit.

For cities just starting out, reliable infrastructure is much more important for growth than half-finished special economic zones.

Cities need core industries to survive.

A city without an internal economy can’t be a city for very long.

Let’s get this out of the way: in the initial phase of building a city a lot of luck is involved. Some cities possess natural advantages like proximity to strategic ports or a wealth of natural resources. That said, history is littered with example of cities that were great in one century and old news by the next.

When building a city from scratch, perhaps the most important decision charter city entrepreneurs face is whether to pursue an anchor tenant, court particular industries, or something else altogether.

For his new city Nkwashi, a satellite city of Lusaka, Mwiya Musokotwane chose to pursue services. Why? Zambia is primarily a copper economy, and isn’t very diversified. On the other hand, the demand for global services is growing at the same time remote work is also exploding. The centerpiece of Nkwashi is its university, Explorer Academy, which will initially offer only a handful of majors: computer engineering and computer design chief among them. Students will get their degrees and then telecommute to other parts of Africa and to Europe, as so many others around the world are already doing.

In Abia State, Nigeria, the developers of Enyimba Economic City are focusing primarily on manufacturing—the golden goose in economic development, because it allows cities to move rapidly up the value chain in producing goods and, because of international trade, facilitates knowledge transfers.

But getting initial industries right is only half the battle. Central planning may work for a short time but in the long-run, as they grow it’s unstable.City governments can often achieve static efficiency during a given period of time, but struggle to plan for dynamic efficiency, which requires a level of flexibility and innovation that markets are generally better suited for. Hence why the Soviet Union could send a man to orbit in the height of the space race but couldn’t feed its population just a few decades later. Or why Detroit declined severely after the downtown of the auto industry. Unwillingness to diversify can make even a city with extreme natural advantages a middling, legacy city.

But creating a great city isn’t just about constructing an economic powerhouse. We love and remember cities not just for their economic capacity, but for their cultural output. When Walt Disney set out to build Disneyland, the predecessor to EPCOT, his aim wasn’t simply to build a successful mini-city. Walt wanted to build the happiest place on earth.

On the surface cities are, as Bertaud puts it, giant labor markets. But they’re also havens of serendipity, where people come to work, to learn, to fall in love, and do any number of other things. Cities that succeed in facilitating these disparate aims are something close to magic.

Athens, a city whose legacy has outlasted most, is significant not for its economic output, but because it created a cultural conversation thousands of years ago that continues to this day. Athens’ gifts to us were its contributions to academia, literature, art, math, philosophy, democracy, and so much more. That’s the magic of Athens, and it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Economically cities rise and decline. Cultural legacies endure past boom and bust cycles. And those legacies, unlike economic success, are difficult — if not impossible — to engineer.

About the Write of Passage Fellowship

This article was written by Tamara Winter as part of the Write of Passage Fellowship. It’s a short version of a 10,000-word essay I’ll be writing on this topic in the next few months.

We’d love to hear from you. If you have feedback, you can find the author on Twitter.

Here is the list of essays we’re writing as a group: