Will Texas get a new city built from scratch?

by | Sep 16, 2021 | Infrastructure, News

Former Walmart executive and billionaire Marc Lore has announced plans to build a sustainable, diverse, and equitable city from scratch, and its location might be in Texas. 

Telosa, which derives its name from the Ancient Greek word for “highest purpose,” is an ambitious project to say the least. The proposal calls for the city to reach a population of 5 million within four decades, with the first residents arriving as soon as 2030. Of course, building an entirely new metropolis won’t be cheap, with the total cost expected to be $400 billion. As wealthy as Marc Lore is, he can’t fund Telosa by himself although he plans to tap private investors, philanthropists and government grants.

Lore’s vision for Telosa reads like utopian science fiction. The plan calls for the city to be high-tech and green, incorporating aeroponic farming, renewable energy, eco-friendly buildings, and driverless electric vehicles (cars that use fossil fuels will be banned). Telosa will also have a “15-minute city” design, meaning residents will be able to meet most of their needs with just a quarter-hour walk or bike ride. Yet perhaps the most interesting part of the Telosa proposal is not its design or technology, but rather how land ownership will work.

In Telosa, anyone will be able to build, buy, or sell homes, buildings and other structures, but the city will retain ownership of the land underneath. The income from the land will be reinvested into healthcare, education, and other programs to benefit the community. Lore’s vision for communal land ownership is based on the ideas of Henry George, who wrote Progress and Poverty in 1879. George essentially argued that the wealth derived from land should belong to the public. In his view, private landowners were becoming rich not from individual effort (they didn‘t create the land) but rather the activities of society (land is worthless without people around it). George advocated for a tax on the value of land, but Lore’s solution of communal ownership is more in line with what Singapore does. 

In short, Telosa isn’t just a proposed city with new technology, but a new model for society. 

Speaking of land, Lore will need a lot of it to make Telosa happen. About 200,000 acres in fact. This is why Texas is being explored as a possible location for Telosa, as the state has a lot of cheap land. Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and the Appalachian region are also being considered. 

Telosa sounds great in theory, but could it really work? Building new cities from scratch is all the rage these days. First, more and more of the world’s population is flocking to urban areas in search of opportunity. Second, an entirely new city allows one to do things that are difficult if not impossible with an existing city. Just look at all the disruption that occurs whenever there’s road work at a busy intersection, now imagine trying to do that for an entire metropolis. Not to mention the hurdles that come with local politics; try getting Lore’s public land ownership idea through the city council of any major urban area in America. Starting with a clean slate creates exciting possibilities. 

A lot of the enthusiasm around creating new metropolises comes from the Chinese city of Shenzhen. In the early 1980s, when the government designated the area a Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen was a rural collection of small towns and villages. Now it’s a major city that’s home to over ten million people. A number of other projects are trying to recapture the “Shenzhen effect” from NEOM in Saudi Arabia to Khorgos in Kazakhstan.

So can Telosa become Texas’ Shenzhen? There’s reason to be skeptical. First, building a city from scratch doesn’t always work. There are plenty of examples of such endeavors ending up as expensive failures, such as Lavasa in India, Songdo in South Korea, and Brasilia in Brazil.

In order for cities-from-scratch to work, they have to be located somewhere that makes sense. You can’t just plop a bunch of buildings and technology anywhere and expect a thriving metropolis to form. In the case of Shenzhen, its proximity to the major trade and economic hub of Hong Kong played a big role in its success. If Telosa is simply going to be built in a place where there’s lots of inexpensive land, then it probably won’t be built in a place where it makes sense to build a new city. After all, if the location has a lot of economic potential then the land probably isn’t going to be cheap.  

Furthermore, new cities often need a lot of help from the government. Shenzhen’s transformation was part of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms as China transitioned from communism to capitalism. Indeed, a lot of cities-from-scratch projects occur in authoritarian countries, where long-term support is assured as long as the leader wants to stroke their ego with their own metropolis. And even with significant effort from the state, failures still happen. It remains to be seen whether Telosa could receive the political backing from the state and federal government that would almost certainly be needed. Frankly, a project like Telosa may simply be impossible in the current state of American politics. If getting an infrastructure bill through Congress is so hard, what’s the chances a new $400 billion city in the middle of nowhere will receive significant political backing? 

So while Telosa has some very interesting ideas, it will likely be a pipe dream at best and a white elephant at worst. Perhaps it’s better to find ways to implement Marc Lore’s Georgist vision in existing cities rather than trying to build one from scratch.

Photo: Bjarke Ingels Group and Bucharest studio

Washington Correspondent | + posts

William serves as the Washington Correspondent for the Texas Signal, where he primarily writes about Congress and other federal issues that affect Texas. A graduate of Colorado College, William has worked on Democratic campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and North Carolina. He is an internet meme expert.

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