The Problem With Building a New City From Scratch

City skyline at night

California needs to ease its housing crunch, but establishing brand-new cities isn’t the best way to do it, says urban planner Alain Bertaud.

May 10, 2022
Nolan Gray - Bloomberg

From California to Miami and points in between, housing costs in the U.S. are skyrocketing, bringing bidding wars in hot markets and fears of a fresh surge in homelessness as renters scramble for an affordable place to live.

The deepening housing crunch — and the intractable resistance that residents often put up when the prospect of new housing emerges nearby — has led some observers to ask: Why don’t we just make new cities?

“When China needs new places for people to live, they just build a new city,” Nathan J. Robinson recently wrote in Current Affairs, contemplating all the undeveloped land in between California’s costly major urban areas. “They’ve built 600 of them since 1949.”

At first blush, it might seem obvious. But history is full of failed, unfinished or underperforming scratch-built city projects, in California and elsewhere, and more are in the pipeline.

To learn more about how we might best approach building new cities, CityLab talked to a person who’s had a hand in planning a few of them: Alain Bertaud, a fellow at the Marron Institute for Urban Management and a globetrotting former city planner at the World Bank. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.



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