Michael Eliason has a great piece (hosted at David Roberts’ substack) describing the kind of experiments with the urban built environment that are common in parts of Europe but unheard of the in United States. Eliason writes:

It should be noted that these developments are largely the result of urban planning competitions. This is in stark contrast to the US, where we incorporate little to no urban planning and essentially let the market drive development, with no forethought to livability, open space, schools, walkability, and so forth.

Citizen participation is also a major component of these projects. Unlike in the US, this participation isn’t a wasteful exercise whereby local homeowners get to block new homes and preserve the status quo. Rather, these processes allow residents to have a say in what their new district can look like, where things should be located, and what kinds of open space or car-free areas it will have. It is true democratic planning, facilitated by spatial planning policies that are both top-down and bottom-up. We should probably take note.

Eliason describes the development of whole districts, while in the United States we are caught in trench warfare over piecemeal infill, waging a conflict that has foolishly polarized into “YIMBYs vs NIMBYs”. It’s great that progress has been made towards legalizing ADUs and polyplexes among the single-family homes. Not everything has been futility. But ultimately activism framed in terms of righteous conflict against greedy homeowners is a political mistake. The characterization is not accurate, and even if it were, car and parking dependent homeowners in the contemporary United States are too large and well enfranchised an interest to be simply defeated. They have to be coopted. Their support, or at least acquiescence, has to be won somehow.

Otherwise, the pace of any progress will remain dangerously detached from the urgency of the problems that derive from insufficient housing. With abundant housing in quality communities, we would have much less homelessness, despair, madness, and crime. Even if the politics were better, creating infill housing quickly is hard, physically and in terms of social equities. Infill is retrofit, limiting the scope of “forethought to livability, open space, schools, walkability, and so forth”. To address housing scarcity deliberately and at scale, the unit of work should not be individual buildings, but neighborhoods, districts, quarters, “new towns“.

But in the United States, don’t new towns just become Levittown or Columbia, Maryland — car-centric, shopping-mall centered, suburban sprawl? By default, yes they do. If you let the market do its thing, the national homebuilders will build out tracts of cul-de-sacs and detached homes in their sleep, hardly even noticing what they’ve done. The “market” is a local optimizer, a risk-averse creature of habit. Even under the best of circumstances the market would build too little, given the asymmetry of social costs of housing scarcity versus overabundance. We want more experimentation than the market would provide, and as Eliason points out, we want planning during which future residents exercise a meaningful franchise. The United States used to be a site of utopian experiments. It ought to be again. We’ll need activist government, some form of social housing, in order to make that happen. But what form should that take?

“Social housing” codes left, and trading NIMBY/YIMBY gridlock for left-right culture-war gridlock sounds unhelpful. Would it be possible to design some form of social housing that would accommodate concerns of the cultural right while providing bulk, credibly non-dystopian housing in the form of walkable, transit-connected, mixed-use development? Yes, I think so.

The basic idea would be this: What if the government committed to financing “microcities”. These would be high density exurban developments, subject to constraints including a minimum population size and, importantly, a requirement that the entire city be built within walking distance of a central transit station. There would be just a single glorified bus stop, for an area roughly one and a half square miles, housing between thirty and eighty thousand people.

In the United States, microcities would be located where the good lord intended us to live: along interstate highways. However, there would be almost no automative access within the microcity (with exceptions for commercial deliveries and disabled service). The microcity itself would be pedestrianized. Frequent express bus service would connect each microcity to traditional cities nearby, key employers, and to other microcities. An interface to private automobiles would sit only at the edge (or perhaps beneath) the microcity. Residents who wish to own cars could, but at a walk away. However, given the sociable convenience of pedestrian commerce and the existence of online discount stores, residents would not need private cars for everyday living. For nearish outings, transit and ridesharing would suffice. For infrequent longer trips, car rental could replace car ownership.

If the microcities are designed well, parking would be used less by residents than by neighboring exurbanites, for whom new microcities would be an amenity. It is already the case that developers build “main streets” or “town centers” with restaurants, retail, and entertainment in America’s exurbs. What if instead of faking it, we built what actually are main streets, designed to support fine-grained street-level urbanism, with a residential clientele large enough to support that? Microcities transform exurbs into near suburbs of new, thoughtfully designed urban centers, without upsetting the character of the exurbs themselves or threatening existing residents.

Microcities complement, rather than seeking to alter, displace, or shame, the approach to comfortable living that has predominated in the United States since the muscle car and the GI bill. They also compete with that approach, not by damning segregated suburbanites and forcing them to change, but by offering as options ways of living that are more appealing and at least as affordable, but also more integrated and sustainable. Microcities don’t ask anyone to eat their vegetables. They don’t demand existing neighborhoods acquiesce to changes to which residents don’t consent in the name of a greater good. Microcities are things that we can just build, at will, a bit more thoughtfully, a bit more carefully, but as ultimately as readily as another tract of cul-de-sacs. We should build them like we built shopping malls in the 1980s.

Microcities also compete with “superstar cities”, whose price and exclusiveness have soared for lack of elastically supplied alternate suppliers of employer-proximal urban amenity. San Francisco’s homeowners — which is to say, San Francisco’s political class — won’t consent to disruptive change in the name of undercutting their own home values. They’ll resist risking the stability of neighborhoods they love in order to make room outsiders clamoring to live there. [*] What might drive greater tolerance of development in superstar cities is not higher home values (current values are way more than high enough to entice developers, absent regulatory barriers), but the threat of lower home values, if living there came to seem not so special any more. A San Francisco whose high home values depended on quality rather than scarcity of urban amenities would build more rather than less. That San Francisco’s Pacific beachfront is developed with nothing more appealing than a four-lane highway is a reflection of the same forces Lily Tomlin mocked about the phone company in 1976. “We don’t care, we don’t have to.”

But would microcities work? I mean, in the United States, “social housing” is a nice name for “public housing” whose other name is “the projects” whose other name is hell. Traditional public housing in the US had two characteristics. One is it was extremely dense, as an economic efficiency. The other is it was reserved almost entirely for the poor. That was and would still be a toxic combination. However much or little it is the fault of the poor themselves, social pathology often correlates with poverty in liberal, unequal societies. Urban density can be a force magnifier. It can turn what might otherwise have been nice neighborhoods into vibrant, creative centers, or what might otherwise have been stagnant neighborhoods into sites of crime and violence. Microcities should be mixed income housing, and include attractive upscale options as well as inexpensive apartments. In order for microcities to do any good for anyone, they must first and foremost succeed as urban communities that deliver desirable housing at scale and so reduce pressure on home prices throughout their region. Building de novo cities is a capital-intensive risky business, which is why the private sector on its own won’t deliver them. A wise public sector will use the tools at its disposal to rig outcomes, to skew the landscape towards Red Vienna, away from Cabrini-Green.

But the state’s reputation for wisdom is pretty spotty. It’s one thing to talk about artful urban planning, top-down design of prerequisites for what, in its details, must succeed or fail via chaotic bottom-up processes. It’s hard to imagine the self-dealing to-and-fro of state and Federal legislative processes actually delivering smart urbanism.

However, among things government can do are set goals, define constraints, and write checks. Microcities should be a Federal initiative, balancing funds availability across the states as necessary to win political support. It should then rely upon local formations of people who commit to become long-term residents to manage the process through milestones from conception through construction. The model would be urban cohousing or baugruppen, but at a larger scale. Each microcity would begin as a nonprofit development company whose employees include professionals with competences relevant to city building, whose compensation would consist of cash salaries augmented with free, perpetual tenancy or outright ownership (depending on the economic model adopted) of an apartment in the finished city, conditioned on completing a multiyear residency. Besides employed professionals, the development company would also convene a larger group of future residents willing to pay a bond and participate in the planning process, who would also earn discounted ownership or rent conditional on residency for a period of years. Planning processes should favor diversity, experimentation, innovation. Construction quality in the United States is abysmal, compared to the state-of-the-art in Europe and Asia. As Eliason suggests, microcity founders should solicit competitive visions from urban architects and dreamers globally. They should import best practices, and push boundaries of passive, carbon-absorbing, sustainable habitation. Each microcity should be an aspiration, a dream made imperfectly real, a cathedral to the possible improbable, a sketch of that shining city on the hill that we’ve lost in recent times to some tsunami of cynicism.

What about the NIMBYs? Every plot of earth has some stakeholder who demands it stays exactly the way it is, whether due to fear of parking competition or real concern for the local ecosystem. But the square miles adjacent to our interstates are not unspoiled wilderness, NIMBY concerns decay with each mile and highway interchange, and the county-level balance between “homevoters” and the “growth machine” when the scale of growth proposed goes from several million dollars to several billion dollars. Microcity entrepreneurs would have to find sites whose local and state governments would welcome them and help. I don’t think that will be so hard.

But if you build it, would they come? Who would live in these new microcities? The founders, the people who participated in the city’s design and committed to live there, would. But they would be only a fraction of the city’s desired population. Leaving things to the market, potential residents might fear failure, vacancy and blight, and that fear could become self-fulfilling.

So, don’t leave things to the market. In addition to founders, once the city is built the state should offer heavily subsidized ownership or tenure in the new city until a critical degree of occupancy is achieved. This might take the form of Singapore-style housing assistance for younger people on the cusp of household formation, or regional lotteries to encourage a more representative and age-diverse population for the new city. The subsidies should be sufficiently generous that, in combination with the amenities of the appealingly designed new cities and proximity by transit to important elsewheres, many people find the offer difficult to refuse.

Would microcities be affordable? Yes, despite the sticker shock of billions of Federal expenditure, which, after subsidies, would be only partially or very slowly recouped from sales or rents of residences and commercial space. Microcities look very expensive as standalone initiatives. But consider the social costs of housing scarcity, from delayed household formation to mass homelessness, crime, overdose, and incarceration. The financial costs associated with failing to address these problems, for government at every level, are not small. Now compare the cost of adding housing for 30,000 people as a microcity versus the cost of doing so via infill housing in prosperous urban cores, taking into account the resources that will inevitably be lost to permitting squabbles and lawsuits, and the need for expensive retrofits of existing infrastructure. Greenfield development is a cheaper, faster, surer way of adding housing to metro areas than building new housing where market actors would on their own strive to place it.

To be sure, this lower overall price tag would hit the public purse, while the higher price tag of grinding infill through the opposition of neighborhoods falls upon developers and the residents that they battle. In a narrow way, the state saves money by letting private parties engage in their war of attrition. But the state’s interest should be in accomplishing the task at the lowest real resource cost, not in avoiding visible expenditures on public balance sheets. And the state’s interest very definitely lies in actually accomplishing the task of housing humans in a (much better than) functional built environment, quickly and surely.

Microcities are also arguably better urbanism for the age of the automobile than traditional contiguous cities. A great city is a collection of great neighborhoods, and neighborhood greatness emerges at pedestrian scale. But one cannot pedestrianize a whole metropolis. Everything about automotive convenience, from expressways to parking, is destructive of urban quality of life. The typical American city includes a few lovely “microcities” isolated in a sea of ugly car-centered quasicity, bound by a mix of expressways and commercial “arteries” cluttered with parking lots and strip malls.

With microcities, we reimagine the contemporary city as an archipelago of almost arcologies in an exurban sea, with point-to-point transit connections between. Like The City & The City, the urban core and traditional exurb coexist in the same space, with well-defined interfaces between. Mixed-use pedestrian density and leafy, car-centered suburbs each have their appeal, but the neither/nor compromise that now constitutes much of the American cityscape satisfies no one.

Macro-level pathologies — economic precarity, housing scarcity regionally and nationally, pervasive availability of opiates and methamphetamine, pervasive availability of firearms — push local government towards negative-sum, tacitly brutal, competition to establish and sustain themselves as islands of segregation from the prevailing dystopia. Small communities usually fail but sometimes succeed. Large cities cannot simply insulate themselves from macro-level pathology. Citizens demand “solutions” to problems that a municipality simply cannot solve on its own. The predictable result is within-city segregation (sustained by authoritarian policing) that renders life materially tolerable for the affluent and well enfranchised, combined with a performative politics whose function is to render the affluent and well enfranchised tolerable to themselves. Housing issues in this kind of city are existential, as the affluent threaten to displace (“gentrify”) communities tacitly ghettoized, or ghettoized communities threaten to break the segregation and strip the affluent of their insulation. Urban politics becomes neurotic in the strict psychoanalytic sense. The id knows what it needs, the superego insists this is wrong, politicians’ role as ego is to repress and paper over the conflict.

Microcities would face the same macro pathologies as other cities, but a Federally coordinated, actually effective, initiative to make housing abundant nationwide is our only hope of remedying those pathologies. By virtue of compact geographies, within-city segregation would be off the table for microcities, demanding an actually functional politics, rather than the mere performance of virtue, to protect the material interests of even affluent residents. Microcities would enfranchise citizens into manageable units for which the trade-offs faced by municipal government might be less cacophonous and more tractable than those plaguing larger cities.

Individually, each microcity might be utopian, but in aggregate networked microcities constitute a pragmatic counter to contemporary dystopia, a solution tailored to augment and improve rather than rage against the existing built environment, with the constraints, political as well as physical, that our past choices do impose.

[*] The current best hope for more dynamism in San Francisco’s built environment are the human catastrophes of homelessness, drug abuse, and crime. Finally the city faces problems that code to incumbent homeowners as, well, problems. But if incumbent homeowners can “resolve” those problems by replacing Chesa Boudin with Robocop, they’ll very cheerfully revert to rainbow-flag-inclusive eco-NIMBYism.

8 Responses to “Microcities”

  1. Steve Roth writes:

    > an area roughly one and a half square miles, housing between thirty and eighty thousand people

    So multistory apartments/condos only?

  2. Steve Randy Waldman writes:

    Leafy suburbs can be nearby, even contiguously adjacent, but you need a critical mass of people to get a lively commercial streetscape and to justify sufficient transit to make automobile ownership optional. So within the ~2/3 mile radius of that central transit station, I think you want any single-family-home style development to be minimal, not because it’s bad or unlovely, but because it dilutes and so damages the prospect of a desirable, sustainable, fully pedestrianized urban core.

  3. Marcos Costa Santos Carreira writes:

    Very interesting and thoughtful. I’ve lived in apartments and gated condominiums, so I understand the problems and attractions of both. The text also reminded me the historical European cities (like Obidos os other walled cities) where you need to park you car outside. I’m assuming commerce would occupy ground level around town?

  4. Detroit Dan writes:

    This at first seems utopian and politically impossible, but as I read on I began to think just maybe people are desperate for constructive, non-partisan ideas like this.

  5. Adam Eran writes:

    This is not that new a proposal. Peter Calthorpe, among others (e.g. Paolo Soleri) suggested these be strung like pearls along transit lines. Sadly, the U.S. has been sabotaging such developments with zoning and financing restrictions. Calthorpe’s Laguna West development couldn’t finance its higher density development, so local commerce and transit suffered from a lack of customers. Now, Laguna West is just more sprawl.

    Another item essential to the success of denser development is a robust public realm–everything from parks to libraries, to the sidewalks. Sidewalks next to fast-flowing traffic discourage pedestrians (by design) in sprawl. Worse still, the foundations of U.S. development include private ownership of just about everything. Even Biden’s vaunted infrastructure legislation enables privatizing, or public-private partnerships. The tendency here is to make that public realm into a series of toll booths, impoverishing the population and enriching the plutocrats. In other words, more of the same.

    Public housing has similarly been sabotaged from its inception. The New Deal actually proposed the feds build housing. Among other things, Nixon put a moratorium on that, and Reagan cut HUD’s affordable housing budget 75%, even as he reduced taxes on the wealthy by roughly half (and between him and his successor increased payroll taxes eightfold).

    Anyway, this is one of those “nice ideas” that’s been continually rejected by America’s ruling class.

  6. Sean M Hartnett writes:

    A very good place to explore this theory would be on the US-Mexican border, call it a border mall.
    Not only does it test the veracity of the above claims but would have the added benefits of integrating otherwise seperable entities.
    Thoughtful piece.

  7. Brick writes:

    I can see echoes of the architect Christopher Alexanders ideas about pattern languages and the Oregon experiment. Criticisms of that include lack of flexibility for local differences and by not pandering to aesthetics.

    Maybe you are thinking along the lines of Masdar City or Chris Precht’s the farmhouse. Perhaps it is just the supporting mechanisms like FutureBuilt in Oslo. Ultimately I guess you are suggesting something like Chengdu future city.

    When ever I see these visions of the future it seems like nobody can leave things half done. It must be complete and nothing left for future generations to put their own mark on things. The results tend to lack variety and end up not being that attractive environments.

    Modern buildings generally don’t have the same life expectancy as older buildings and eco credentials soon disappear when this is taken into account. So I would question whether new microcities are the way forward. I think I prefer to look at the regulatory framework that does not support transit orientated design and to look at spatial innovation to provide flexible usage building although perhaps not quite to the extent of Stefano Andreani’s synaptic City.

    Sorry but I think you are coming at this from a social experiment point of view rather than a real sustainability point of view. I do like the idea of putting people first in urban environment planning though.

  8. Altandmain writes:

    There is one distinct challenge with this. Concentrating poverty can have a significant negative impact on the residents who live there.


    The risk is that a higher percentage of lower income residents can quickly reduce the reputation of the neighbourhood. There would have to be incentives for the middle or even PMC to move into the neighbourhood.