A US economist thinks he has found a way to bring prosperity and opportunity to developing countries by creating entirely new autonomous cities, run by foreign governments and based around a charter of “good rules”. The president of Honduras wants to make the idea a reality. But could they ever be good places to live?
"People don't want their country to be broken into pieces. They don't want it to be divided into sweatshops, into business corporations. That's what this will do – convert Honduras into privately-owned corporations." Fredín Fúnez, a lawyer, was speaking on the radio in November about a constitutional change he is challenging in court because he believes it could pass chunks of his country to foreign hands.
Honduran president Porfirio Lobo passed the amendment in February 2011 to allow a special development region to be established within the central American republic. The autonomous zone would be modelled on successful cities in developed countries and run by an appointed governor, with an international panel of individuals keeping him in check until elections are considered appropriate.
Lobo's inspiration was the "charter city": the brainchild of US economist Paul Romer, who hopes to solve the problems of global poverty, accelerated urbanisation and international migration all at once. The idea is simple. All you need is a piece of land and a list of rules. Those who live in the city built on this land abide by this "charter" of rules, which is enforced by an independent party – perhaps a foreign government – and if they don't like it, they can leave.
Romer has been discussing his idea publicly since 2009. Apart from an early failed attempt in Madagascar, which was derailed when the president was ousted in a coup, the Honduran proposal is the only one that has shown potential. Fúnez and his colleagues, however, claim the proposal undermines Honduran sovereignty. The supreme court's verdict is due imminently, but so far there is little indication of what it will be. "We hope the decision will be based on merit, rather than politics, but it is impossible to tell," says Brandon Fuller, director of the Charter Cities project.
The "rules" are central to Romer's theory. He argues that countries like the US are wealthy because they have "good" rules, while poor nations in Africa and Asia have bad ones. Establishing a city guided by the rules of prosperous nations, he believes, would provide aspiring migrants with the option to move to a place that has the same basis for success as western countries, while diverting the flow of incomers away from those that don't want them. A place like this, he says, could provide all residents with homes, jobs, safety, freedom and opportunity.
The charter cities idea reflects an existing – if contested – mainstream "good governance" theory that has dominated the international development agenda since the late 1990s. The argument is that strong institutions differentiate successful states from failing ones. These encompass everything from the rule of law, transparency, accountability, efficient markets and property rights, to social norms and culture. Everything else – planning, design, what the city produces – is secondary.
Meta Brunzema, a New York-based architect who has worked with Romer in the past, believes the autonomy of such a city provides grounds for success. "Governments usually change every three to four years, which makes long-term planning impossible," she says. "In this situation, you bypass that – and develop a project no matter who's in power. You can also plan systemically, building production facilities, ensuring buildings are energy positive and waste is recycled."
While Romer has given little thought to design so far, some aspects of his vision are clear. A charter city should span about 1,000km2 and have a population of up to 10 million. Ideally, it should be on the coast, to allow for a port, and have room for an airport. Masterplanning, he says, would occur however each city sees fit, but Fuller suggests the authorities could provide the basics: "They could design a system of large arterial roads, about a kilometre apart. The space in between could be left to private developers."
Fuller admits that the lifestyles of migrants, many of whom would be low-skilled, may be humble at first. "The types of jobs available will be in factory assembly lines, and apartments will be small and amenity-free," he says. He adds that formal housing and work are better options than the informal slums in which many urban low-waged families in developing countries live and the precarious work they do – and the city would get richer over time.
Christopher Benninger, an architect based in India who has written reports for the UN Commission on Human Settlements, believes a charter city could have beneficial spillover effects. "If a charter city commits to creating skills from the start, it could add a growth catalyst to a stagnant region, spawn an entrepreneur class and generate some surplus experienced workers."
However, as soon as you think about the idea in spatial terms, you encounter difficulties. Romer's idea is deeply embedded in the language of free-market capitalism. For him, good rules are those that open up markets, enable private competition and make it easier to establish businesses – this usually means low taxes, light regulation, few employment laws and a restrained state. Romer's growth plan relies heavily on attracting private foreign investment. The kind of city he envisages is therefore likely to be shaped by the demands of global capital – especially in the absence of an elected government or a physical and social plan.
Dubai is built on these principles – and it's an unsustainable blend of corporate towers, luxury housing and extravagant leisure facilities; a "cultural ghetto in the desert, with European and American packaging", in the words of Henning Rasmuss, an architect who is working on the reconstruction of war-torn provincial capitals in Angola. "Dubai is connected to nothing but money," he says. "It is an entirely invented marketing apparition."
A charter city might resemble this. And its infrastructure would probably follow suit. Dubai has little provision for pedestrians outside the downtown area. In many cities that experience a rapid inflow of foreign capital, public transport is neglected in favour of highways and airports. Such a city may even be what US management academic, John Kasarda, describes as an "aerotropolis" – an area designed entirely around an airport, in the way successful cities of the past were around ports.
It is certainly evident that such cities should not physically emulate western ones. "Our cities aren't sustainable in any way," says Robin Cross, acting chief executive of architectural charity Article 25. "The resources we consume are vastly disproportionate to those available in, for example, Honduras."
And, like Dubai, such a city is likely to be the object of speculation. "If you had this kind of thing in Haiti or Sudan it would attract so much capital that people would start rapidly building apartment blocks, which would then sit empty," says architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout. "Property prices would go through the roof, and affordable housing would be pushed outwards to the least attractive areas, defeating its very purpose."
The fact is that such cities rarely provide a better life for the poor. Earlier this month, there were mass protests in Hong Kong over inequality and the lack of democracy; Dubai is notorious for its labour camps; Shenzhen, China's first and most famous special economic zone, has nets around factories to prevent suicides. "The cities that have arisen in China chew up the world's resources with slave-like labour conditions, to make products that are then dumped on to functioning markets," Rasmuss says. While Romer emphasises ease of business, he says nothing of minimum wages, unionisation or social protection to safeguard employees. He also envisages that water, electricity and housing will be privately supplied, but this strategy has consistently failed to provide adequate, affordable facilities for the world's poor. There is no reason residential areas in a charter city would be different from present-day slums: expensive, dark, crowded and filthy.
Informal housing exists in developing countries because it is functional. In Mumbai, as property prices have risen, there have been efforts to remove slums by building homes on the outskirts for their residents. "But this always fails," Cross says. "They rent out their properties and move back to the city where the work is."
Informal settlements are, however, unlikely to be allowed in Romer's city. "I don't think there will be any real public space in a charter city," Vanstiphout says, pointing to London as an example where protesters and street performers are increasingly excluded from central areas because of a proliferation of privately managed space.
Controlling and restricting access to space like this would be the key to achieving safety – one of the central promises of charter cities. Romer hopes to achieve this by "setting" social norms. But crime is arguably a product of poverty and repression, and exists in spite of such rules. Security in a charter city would, therefore, rely on strict enforcement – perhaps cameras, curfews and networks of informants.
Elena Pascolo, a designer at Urban Projects Bureau, worries about the "totalitarian implications" of controlling space in this manner; the expression of political dissent would be near impossible. "Romer's model implies the management of conflict and dissolution of dissent – the cornerstone of what drives city formation," she says.
And in cities with a lot of crime, the rich eventually separate themselves from the chaos. "Everywhere has gated communities, but my guess is it would go much further," Vanstiphout says. "It is pretty clear this would create an incredibly unfair, unequal Hobbesian society." Rasmuss says: "I can already see it getting burnt down in a weekend of hatred-fuelled violence. It's like designing and constructing a ticking time-bomb."
The biggest failure of Romer's idea is that it deliberately ignores the fundamentally political nature of cities, with democracy replaced by technical solutions. Fuller insists elections are the goal in charter cities, when leaders are confident the process would not be co-opted by "vested interests or criminal cartels".
Until then, however, it would operate in a perpetual state of emergency, where rights are withheld and demands unheard until citizens prove themselves deserving. The functional replacement for democracy – "if you don't like it, you can leave" – merely reinforces the sense of transience, leaving what Pascolo describes as a temporary "encampment", not a city.
Romer's theory is based on the dubious contention that what separates rich and poor states is a set of rules, and not historic disadvantage or the global power imbalance. The result is an inescapably colonial project: the civilising mission repackaged for the modern day.
And western nations are likely to be wary. "I see no reason governments would get involved when you can get global service corporations to do it," Rasmuss says. "All you need is a joint venture of G4S, EDF, a UK water company, German auditors, and a central canteen run by Italians." It's easy to fathom the desire for change in Honduras, a country with the world's highest murder rate, deep poverty and rapid, unsustainable urbanisation. But plans that seek to impose and not empower may be best left on paper.