In Forefront this week, author Greg Lindsay takes a critical look at the idea, introduced and championed by economist Paul Romer, that “charter cities” — built from scratch with an emphasis on rules and infrastructure — can revive a struggling national economy. Here, Lindsay gives his own thoughts on the feasibility of Romer’s experiment, and why such radical takes on urbanization have become so popular.
Next American City: You’ve written a book about the Aerotropolis and written many articles about the rise of instant cities. Now you’ve covered charter cities. Why do you think these new forms of urbanization have great appeal right now?
Greg Lindsay: Paul Romer is right when he says, “we will do more urbanization in this century than we’ve done in all of history.” The world’s urban population is set to double from 3.5 to 7 billion people by 2050, while urban land cover (as measured by NYU’s Solly Angel, who is Romer’s urban planning consigliere) is expected to triple. We’re arguably in the midst of the final build-out of human history (because one way or another, global population will decline after this century), which means many leaders are reaching the same conclusion as Romer: “Whatever we do will establish the pattern that will last forever.” The mad scramble to build the global cities of this century is the biggest story out there, I think.
NAC: Romer suggests that the real needs for cities are good rules and infrastructure. But in the past, cities succeeded or failed due to geographic advantages or the growth/decline of a local industry. Do these things matter in the globalized, “flat” world that these new cities are a part of?
Lindsay: One of the most interesting things about Romer is that his early groundbreaking work in the production of new ideas and economic growth was really a mathematical proof of questions first raised by Jane Jacobs in The Economy of Cities. In that book, she argued geography has little to do with a city’s success and accurately predicted Detroit’s stagnation because of its reliance on the auto industry. The cities that succeed, she wrote, are the ones in which thousands of entrepreneurs are constantly creating “new work” by adding ideas to the work they do now. I think Romer is right that we need to reverse-engineer the rules and institutions (legal, regulatory and economic) that helped these cities to succeed and apply the same ideas to struggling cities in the developing world. But can it be done in practice? That’s another story — in fact, that’s the story of charter cities.
NAC: While places like Songdo, South Korea, are heavily planned, places like the charter cities in Honduras are intended to have limited regulation. Why do you think these cities are gravitating to these poles in terms of urban planning and regulation?
Lindsay: Songdo and Romer’s charter cities actually have a lot in common. (In fact, I introduced Romer at his request to the city’s American developers.) Songdo is the centerpiece of the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), a free trade zone in which English is the official language. While Songdo is heavily planned from an urban perspective (with a price tag of $35 billion), its success still hinges on being able to offer foreign investors a “competitive” place to do business. I find it interesting that whether you’re trying to build the smartest, greenest, most expensive privately developed project in the world, or a city for the world’s poorest, both want to be laissez-faire entrepôts.
NAC: Part of the controversy about charter cities is linked to their locations — often failed states. Do you think that a history of failed government will doom a project like this, even if it is well-intentioned?
Lindsay: To call Honduras a failed state or a failing one doesn’t do the country justice, but one of the most fascinating components of Romer’s project is that he’s trying to convince some of the world’s most dysfunctional governments to subvert themselves from within. He wants them to surrender their chokeholds on their countries’ economics in exchange for a level playing field that will potentially elevate the nation overall — at their expense. Critics of both Romer’s idea and Honduran politics are skeptical that the country’s entrenched elites will willingly rescind their power, and as the events of the 2009 coup demonstrate, they have every reason to be skeptical.