Master-planned cities are all the rage in the developing world. Reality may get in the way of their ambitions.
More stories by Monte ReelNovember 2, 2018, 9:00 AM GMT
Embedded in the cerebral folds of every city planner who’s ever lived, there’s a cluster of neurons that lights up like Las Vegas when confronted with the possibility of a blank slate. It started with Hippodamus, the man Aristotle claimed was the father of urban planning. When the Persians destroyed his hometown of Miletus, Hippodamus discovered a bright side to catastrophe: The attackers had erased all the regrettable improvisations that, over the centuries, had made a mess of the place. Tasked with rebuilding, he seized his chance to impose order upon chaos. And so the concept of the urban grid was born.
Ever since, the dream of carte blanche has proved an all-but-irresistible seduction. Leonardo da Vinci drafted detailed sketches of an “ideal city” after the plague ravaged Milan, and a few hundred years later, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a metropolis that solved the problem of vehicular congestion via a network of helicopter taxis. Every so often, this urge in city planners breaks out into a full-scale epidemic, such as the one that spread throughout Europe and North America in the early 1900s. Known as the “garden city movement,” it aimed to counter the indignities of the Industrial Revolution by creating planned communities with plenty of green space. Suddenly, scores of new towns began sprawling just beyond the edges of the old ones.
Today, it seems, we’re in the middle of another outbreak. This one is centered in the developing world, often in countries where population growth and rapid urbanization have wholly overwhelmed existing infrastructure, sometimes to the point where spending time and money trying to fix the broken metropolises seems futile.
Here’s a taste of what’s going on, and it’s by no means comprehensive. In Lagos, Nigeria—the most populous city in Africa—developers have dredged the Atlantic Ocean to create an island called Eko Atlantic, which they envision as a Manhattan-style financial hub for the continent. Forest City, a $100 billion luxury development with room for 700,000 people, has sprouted in Malaysia. Ghana has Hope City (future home of the tallest building in Africa), and Rwanda is promoting Vision City (free Wi-Fi and solar-powered streetlights are sketched into the plans).