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How Do You Build a New City? Eight Steps to Realizing a Sustainable Metropolis

So you've got some land and want to build a new city? Or maybe you just know you want to build a city, but you don't have the land yet. Here is a starter guide for how to build a new city.

Step 1: Approach with caution

Building a new city is a really, really, really big investment. It's tremendously expensive and will take a lot of time. Cities are not projects. They require organic momentum and continuous investment from tons and tons of people. They need to have a really specific reason for existing, and they need to be bolstered by a really thoughtful economic engine that's going to drive their growth and make people want to live there. They will probably require a tremendous commitment of up-front investment from both public and private sector forces. Be prepared...building an entire new city is not for the faint of heart. Most new city projects fail, and the ones that don't are often far, far more expensive than anyone at first realized.

Step 2: Figure out what you're doing and why

If you're pretty sure you want to build a new city, here are some suggested next steps to get your ducks in a row before you do anything else.

Establish some principles: The first phase of development behind your new city needs to establish principles for the city and grapple with the big substantive and ideological questions that will shape the thinking around the new city. High-level principles and goals should be decided, and preliminary thinking on possible sites should be established. Why would the city want to be in one location as opposed to another? What's the potential reason for a new city existing? Why might people want to live there? What' the economy going to be, and why would anybody want to have a business there? This phase also needs to grow an understanding of the relationship between various urban development strategies and the accompanying aspirational outcomes. In particular, it should identify potential strategies that are unique to new city development that are unemployable in existing cities. In concert with thinking about high-level principles, the initial research phase should discern and document the most important development variables for achieving desired outcomes.

Unfortunately, most of the considerations necessary for achieving a physical plan are contingent on site and market-specific considerations. Thus, unless you have a site already selected, this phase is going to be messy, non-physical, and still aspirational. However it will yield needed revelations, discern the key variables, and narrow the approach for an urban development formula. Here are some of the big questions you should address before doing anything else:

  • What are the aspirational principles of the new city?

  • What kinds of urban development strategies are most effective for realizing those principles?

  • What are the features that the city must incorporate?

  • What are the likely and appropriate sites for new cities?

  • How will the New Cities be different from existing cities?

  • How can they build on what has historically failed or succeeded?

  • How much am I prepared to spend on this thing?

Step 3: Do your homework

Understand the Marketplace for Cities Understand emerging trends in urban development. Pinpoint why people are migrating to cities. Identify shifts in taste and preferences with respect to how people aspire to live.

Evaluate past successes and failures. Where have past cities succeeded and where have they failed, and why? How have planned cities differed from cities that have grown organically? How do cities grow? Identify recurring problems in existing and traditionally planned cities. What are existing cities not offering? What can be uniquely offered by new city development?

Pinpoint New City opportunities: Understand major geopolitical opportunities. Establish an understanding of where major geopolitical forces have created unique shifts in the urban development landscape around the globe (i.e. robust African population growth, the Syrian refugee crisis, the expansion of the Panama canal, the diversification of global energy sources, shifts in global shipping trends, and shifts in territorial power) that can be harnessed as seminal forces creating the need for a new city

Identify unmet demands. Where is there unrealized demand for urban migration and where is there the political will to support it? Who are the constituencies who are not being adequately served by existing cities, as these people are potential

Understand the landscape of political and financial will. Identify governments willing to finance this kind of investment outright. Or, who will otherwise front or provide hard costs, most importantly land and access to existing utility networks. Identify sources of grants and major international, organization, or institutional funding, such as World Bank, UN, EU. Identify sources of large-scale private financing, including those who will gain a financial advantage as clients of the city, and those who are willing to commit as equity investors.

Target possible sites. Evaluate available and desirable sites, including the business environment, health, safety, labor, and investment laws, political hurdles, etc. Importantly, your analysis should assess environmental and utility considerations, such as whether or not the land is connected to any existing utility grids, and whether the land is even buildable. Establish high-level criteria for site selection.

Establish Guiding Principles that Will Define Success for the New City. To what should our city apsire? What problems are we trying to address? How will the first new city be different from other existing and planned new cities? What kind of places do we want to create? Establish principles for defining success. These should be transcendent beyond demographics or preferences. They should give clairvoyance to the question of why we build cities - illuminating the opportunities that cities fundamentally offer to the benefit of mankind. Among them: key metrics for assessing quality of life, housing affordability, job accessibility, and mobility.

Establish a foundational backbone for how we aspire the city to function. What are our aspirational population levels to create, first, a viable, and, over time, the best possible city – over 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 years? What should our selected governance and land ownership regimes seek to accomplish? What are our financial targets – do we in fact aspire to create a privatized, for-profit city? How much cash would we like to see circulated through the city up front, and then in annual expenditures, and to what annual revenues should we aspire?

Decide on a target market. Who are we most trying to serve? Conduct extensive high-level market research. Consider enlisting an experienced urban economist capable of evaluating multiple sites simultaneously.

Envision Potential Strategies: Model a range of physical frameworks for transportation and land use. Outline various ownership and governance structures and compare their ability to respond to aspirational objectives. Generate a range of physical and structural variables that can be evaluated performatively against aspirational principles.

Matrix new technologies offering yet-to-be tested alternatives.

Document the relationship between urban development strategies and urban outcomes. Conduct an analysis of a select group of historical models, including forgotten models, and evaluate the range of possible solutions to specific urban development challenges. Evaluate relationships between urban outcomes and the planned characteristics of each city, including streets, other transportation modes, development intensity, scale, density, governance structure, and other factors. Begin to grow an understanding of what input strategies can most significantly and cost-effectively set particular cities apart.

Get creative. Document realistic ways in which this city could function differently.

Step 4: Start Fundraising

Set a budget. As part of your homework, you'll need to quickly get a sense for some of the high-level answers that are going to drive the cost of a new city. You'll need to figure out a financing strategy quickly, so set a budget now: how much are you going to spend on this whole thing, and who's going to be responsible for paying for it? How will you ensure the money keeps flowing for years to come?

Develop a process for generating capital: As you do your homework, develop a plan of long-term financial commitments and start getting some money together. You're going to need a lot of it. You've selected a site and you know you're going to do something. Start assembling public and private dollars, even if you don't yet know what you're going to do.

Step 5: Land Acquisition:

(If you already have your land, skip this step)

Site Selection: In the past phase, you should have spent some time analyzing possible sites. Once you have a few sites, you need to vet the possibility of acquiring each one, or of assembling land enough for an entire city in such a location. You'll need to engage officials at the highest levels of government at this point, as any plan to acquire a particular site for the purpose of building a new city will likely be in violation of existing national-level plan or policy. Selecting a site is aspirational, yes, but your site selection needs to be based on the practical realities of acquiring and paying for a site in a cost-efficient way. Whatever site you choose, you need to have a solid plan for how infrastructure is going to be provisioned and how the site is going to connect into the larger national grid.

Site Control: This one will vary greatly by country, and based on who's developing the new city. How you actually acquire the site needs to be decided in a tailored fashion. Be sure as you do this that what you're getting is free and clear of other policy hurdles, or that the protocols for addressing future policy is well-established; Also be sure there's a clear understanding of who really has control of the land, and, most importantly, don't overpay. Even if you get the land for free, building a city is still expensive.

Step 6: Pre-Development

Start fundraising: If you haven't already, now is the time to start hardcore fundraising. You've selected a site and you know you're going to do something. Start assembling public and private dollars, even if you don't yet know what you're going to do.

Select the Appropriate Models for the Site: Determine the most viable physical framework strategy for the city. Select the most viable framework options for a network of streets, parking, public transport, etc. that is applicable to the target site and population. Identify the ideal city form.

Determine the most viable civic and regulatory framework. Identify a viable strategy for how to handle property ownership in this city, in particular with respect to ambitions about housing affordability, etc. What is public and what is private? Will property be freely owned? Will the city be privately owned and managed? Will it continue to be a profit-seeking endeavor over its life? How should land use and land development be governed?

Establish principles for a realistic zoning and land use-regimen. Establish principles for governance, including citizen representation, provision of city services, construction of new infrastructure, etc. Identify principles for what infrastructure should be public and what will be privately developed, including how fine-grained new publicly provided infrastructure investment will be.

Determine the most viable revenue model for the city. Identify the system through which the project will make money: Land sales, land leases, utility network charges, management, development exactions, rental income, site maintenance charges, etc. Will developers be enlisted to manage large portions of the city? Shape an appropriate strategy for an ongoing relationship between spending and investment.

Determine short- and long-term economic programming. Develop a site-specific strategy to leverage the site’s position with regard to trade, shipping, and global economic factors to determine its most viable, saleable, highest and best economic use in the short-term. (i.e. What will attract people and companies to move here tomorrow?). Identify demands specific to the target demographic of this site: If a city for millenials, what does it need to attract them; if a city for families, what will it need to attract them? This will influence the city’s decision-making on the front-end (jobs) and the back-end (housing and mobility).

Determine the City’s High-Level Planning Strategies Establish a set of physical priorities on the site. Understand topographic constraints. Establish a strategy for positioning early new development on the most buildable (thus, affordbale) areas. Identify easy, natural strategies for cost-effectively mitigating large stormwater flows. Identify unique natural and existing resources that will provide identity and cultural capital for the city, and decide what to preserve. Identify physical and infrastructural links that will tie the city physically and informationally to the rest of the world.

Determine where the first “big moves” in the city should be located. Develop a strategy for connecting to regional infrastructure. Establish connective strategies for physical infrastructure (roads, transport, public transport): How will this city link physically to the outside world?

Determine how the city will link to existing water resources (potable, non-potable water, sewer): Will it be reliant on existing networks? Determine the strategy for connecting to existing energy resources. How much energy will the city use, from where will the city get its energy, and how much will be produced on-site?

The same for IT and Telecom. Understand needed jurisdictional agreements to ensure any access to existing grids and any rights to output stormwater or sewage waste into public waterways.

Plan the first set of big investments. Identify how extensively infrastructural networks will need to be built within the city’s first few years. Establish the first nodes, and determine the early “low hanging fruit” big up-front investments that will yield a significant ROI. Prepare a Concept Plan. Hire a consultant to prepare a plan for the city that incorporates all of the above strategic decision-making.

Promote and sell the city. Brand the city. Conduct a marketing, PR Blitz: Back-end salesmanship to couple with front-end market understanding. Present a consolidated vision to generate public enthusiasm, spur conversation, elicit market feedback, etc. Hire a visulatization specialist to prepare 21st-century representation material. Develop and distribute promotional sales materials for the city. Provide easy outlets for initial investment in response to initial materials. Revise in response to market feedback.

Pursue private equity investment. Secure investment in major social infrastructure elements, document pipeline projects

Step 7: Development Launch

Develop a detailed design and building strategy. Develop a protocol for managing detailed design and construction. And hire a consultant to prepare zoning and land use documents.

Implement regulatory tools for attracting investment. Understand appropriate regulatory, taxation, and other incentive tools for attracting initial economic investment.

Start running the City's Pro Forma in Real Time. Identify initial funding. Pinpoint equity investment, public investment in the city, grants, land, etc. Select developers, and establish a process for selecting future developers. Secure land, political will, and conduct a peer review of the city’s pro forma.

Implement legal protocols. Establish a legal process for implementing the plan. Identify the jurisdictional terms to legally incorporate the boundary to the City. Establish a policy governing expansion, annexation be handled, and the provision of utilities and infrastructure as the city expands.

Establish a process, timeline, and understanding for establishing the government for the new city. Develop a timeline for addressing issues of political representation, taxation, and public services (police, fire, trash pickup, city maintenance, etc.). Confirm protocols for accruing sign-off from national authorities on any national standards for emergency services, social infrastructure provision, etc. Establish or negotiate with existing development or utility authorities for provision and management of city utilities.

Implement a program for maintenance and management of the city’s capital budget.

Establish Land Acquisition and Residency Conditions. Develop plot development requirements, including bulk regulations, utilities, grading, stormwater, parking, architecture, building systems, and the like. Including deciding on an administrative structure for enforcement. Identify and formalize processes for establishing residency, opening a business, etc. Begin securing tenants and investors.

Step 8. Construction of Major Public Infrastructure

Building the City - First Year:

  • Lobby for delivery of as much external land, infrastructure, etc. from existing sources as possible

  • Remove old infrastructure, cleanse the site

  • Begin grading work on the site, including any cut-and-fill operations

  • Conduct land surveys and borehole testing

  • Test groundwater at various locations to inform a planting survey

  • Identify existing assets: Build initial development out from them – these should become the hubs of new development

  • Develop key roadways into and out of the city

  • Create construction access routes, develop strategy and policies to regulate and consturction activity

  • Establish development or utility authorities, or negotiate with existing ones

  • Detail primary infrastructure design

  • Deliver first-phase sewage, potable and non-potable water networks

  • Build sewage plants, identify whether other short-term infrastructure plants are needed

  • Secure connections to existing power grid or determine power sources

  • Establish stormwater runoff basins, including legal jurisdiction to deposit runoff in waterways

  • Establish open space protections and development boundaries including long-term policies

  • Simultaneously, conduct detailed development design of initial developments, and market them

  • Begin land sales based on established ownership or leasing structure

  • Create strategy, financing, and consultant database for ongoing construction of infrastructure and utilities

  • Create implementation mechanism to ensure development and residency protocols and codes are adhered

  • Establish matrix of pipeline projects with projected delivery timetables to inform infrastructure expansion Building the City.

Years 1-5

  • Initiate infrastructure construction scaled for 5-10 year development horizon. Implement strategies for constructing local roads, local utilities, substations, etc. to accommodate early phase development

  • Initiate construction of all vital social infrastructure scaled for the 5-10 year development horizon. This shall include retail, grocery, open space, and community facilities.

  • Construct any regional transportation links

  • Continue aggressive branding, land sales

  • Begin permitting new development and investment. Continue to grow process for regulating and monitoring this development.

  • Begin construction of localized stormwater system

  • Based on initial demand estimates, implement or expand short-term zoning.

  • Prepare guidelines for new public infrastructure in response to demand, including palette of materials, street furniture, etc.

  • Create a maintenance plan

  • Begin growing a reserve fund for future improvements to now-built infrastructure Building the City

Years 5-10

  • Monitor growth, strategically decide when to begin process (Year 0) on a second major city node

  • Create a citywide plan for public open spaces

  • Create a citywide plan for social infrastructure

  • Create a plan for ensuring development of or re-obtaining committed and sold undeveloped parcels

  • Construct major linking boulevards

  • Implement early-phase public transit or car-sharing, if applicable

  • Extend existing utilities, conduct review every 3 years to assess the urgency to build the next round of major plants

  • Implement plan to save and preserve key spaces for larger long-term social and physical infrastructure

  • Continue monitoring performance against metrics for affordability, mobility, etc. Prepare policy for remedial intervention where necessary

  • Begin 10-20-year investments in social and physical infrastructure, including upgraded streetscapes, successional zoning for the Year 1 zone.

  • Review performance of major city utility infrastructure. Prepare plans for upgrades if necessary.

  • When the city reaches critical mass, begin to transfer to self-governance. Building the City

Years 10-20

  • Ensure viable policies exist for annexation and the fair provision of new infrastructure alongside new development.

  • Establish policy for exactions if necessary.

  • Begin to target white-collar and cultural institutions once initial economy is viable with assurance of continued growth.

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