Urbanist and YIMBY Twitter had a field day dunking on Nathan J. Robinson, whose essay in his publication Current Affairs (yesterday’s tagline: “the one thing left that isn’t disappointing”) called for building new cities in California.
The essay was a typical of the “anti-anti-NIMBY” genre: he hastens to admit that California’s really has a housing crisis. He even agrees that more homes are needed. But he dismisses the YIMBY movement with a lazy strawman argument (laughably implying that Los Angeles is a “market-built” city), and moves on to an idea with natural appeal to someone who was born in an English new town: new cities.
Like most would-be central planners, Robinson confines his thoughts almost entirely to appearance: architecture, parks, moderate density, and picture-window transit. He evinces no curiosity about the economics or demographics of a new city (where will demand come from? who will subsidize the obviously uneconomical transit?). In his previous essay in praise of garden cities, he distinguishes garden cities from “suburbs” on aesthetic grounds – but the economics are identical. His insistence on perfect design (“everything built in the ‘50s and ‘60s was ugly… contemporary architecture is almost universally unpleasant to look at”) allows him to distance himself from any modern, real-world place.
Because he doesn’t engage with the economics or demographics – the things that make a city a city – it’s hard to know what he’s really proposing. If he wants to build another Davis, California…sure, why not? If he just wants to start a new career as a neotrad architect, God bless him.
But California really could use some new cities – and we need to think about them in primarily economic terms.
Type 1: the Upgrade City
The type of new city that California most obviously needs is what I’ll call an “upgrade city” – a large, dynamic urban place that emerges from not-quite-urban previous conditions. You could call these “edge cities”, but in California’s polycentric urban geography, that’s not the most helpful term.
Think instead of San Jose: in 1950, it had 1/8 the population of San Francisco; by 1990, it had surpassed the city by the bay. Most of that was suburban-style growth, but in the process downtown San Jose grew into a true urban core, although still undersized relative to its economic muscle. Tyson’s, Virginia and Stamford, Connecticut are other good examples.
Allowing (through zoning) and encouraging (through infrastructure) serious urbanization in a handful of not-quite-urban places is part of the solution to California’s housing, commuting, and economic growth challenges. These “new cities” should be in places that, due to decades of planning, have large suburban hinterlands without a corresponding core: the Inland Empire, the San Fernando Valley, Contra Costa County, Irvine, and the Coachella Valley are all good candidates.
Transit has limited value in Upgrade Cities, given their surroundings. But they can benefit from cycling and walking due to these cities’ smaller size and California’s gentle weather.
It’s useful to recall how little land a major urban core needs. San Francisco’s core is, generously, 10 square miles. The transit-rich core of Portland, Oregon, fits inside 5 square miles.
Type 2: Suburbia
I won’t belabor this point, because it’s so obvious: California needs suburban growth. There’s no cheaper or better-proven way to add housing fast than via greenfield construction. You can call it “sprawl” if you want. But modern Southwestern suburbs are far denser than the older East Coast vintage and typically offer a variety of housing types.
Dublin is leading the way here, in terms of aesthetics as well as a high rate of growth. It has ambitious old-world architecture to go with pleasing streetscapes and curving parkways. Although Dublin checks many of Robinson’s boxes, one doubts that he would actually like the place. It’s too…real.
Type 3: Little Paradises
Morro Bay is a small piece of paradise: perfect weather, mountains and beaches within a few miles, no traffic and no hurry. Unlike any major city, Morro Bay is built around amenities rather than economics.
Places like Morro Bay attract a disproportionate number of retirees and work-from-anywhere folks. And it just so happens that those are two of the fastest-growing demographic groups in America.
If land use regulations were relaxed, Morro Bay could easily quadruple in population. That’s a good idea. But allowing new Morro Bays to form would unlock even more value. The California Coastal Commission and other regulators have been very strict, understanding (correctly) that every inch of the Central Coast would become condos if it were allowed.
A good approach would be to allow a few planned cities, built around existing small towns or new retirement villages. The new cities would take some demand pressure off existing ones, like Morro Bay and Eureka, and value capture could offset the localized environmental harm.
Little paradises are closest in spirit to Robinson’s proposal: self-contained towns, far enough from a major city that commuting is unrealistic, and pitched to people rich enough to pay for high-quality buildout. However, they’re also the least important.
Type 4: Corporate/Booster Cities
From 1870 to 1960, enthusiastic local boosters and corporate empire builders led many American cities. Corporations had a sense of civic responsibility that was matched by their civic influence. For example, George Eastman created or endowed by alma mater and many of Rochester’s other institutions. Even after Kodak’s bankruptcy, those institutions continue to enrich the culture and create jobs.
There are costs as well as benefits to allowing a big corporation to call the shots in a small city. But it may be better than the alternative: purely transactional relationships between city and absentee employer.
Like much of middle America, non-coastal California should welcome the rare ambitious CEO who wants to leave a legacy in urban design and local institutions. Perhaps it’s fanciful to think that any 21st-century executive could think far enough ahead to initiate such a relationship — but if such a leader exists in America today, Silicon Valley seems like the likeliest place to find him.
Appendix: Is YIMBY enough?
Among Robinson’s premises is that upzoning will either be insufficient to make a real dent in housing affordability or require a politically impossible (and aesthetically undesirable) amount of density. Some quick math puts the problem in context.
First, let’s define the approximate scale of the problem. There are different ways to measure a “housing deficit”; none of them is precise or satisfactory. My preference is to use a demand curve: as you add to hypothetical supply, you slide down the curve to some acceptable rent level.
According to the American Community Survey (via IPUMS), average pre-pandemic rent in California was $1,432 for a 4-room apartment. The rest of the U.S. averaged $956. How much housing supply would it take to get California rent low enough that it’s just 25% higher than the rest of the U.S. instead of 50% higher?
(All the caveats apply: California isn’t a single market, there are differences in age, quality, and amenities of apartments, rental and owned housing aren’t tightly linked, etc. This is unsaved-spreadsheet math, the kind that people used to do on the backs of envelopes).
If the price elasticity of demand is -0.67 (my go-to estimate), then it takes a 3 percent increase in the housing stock to achieve a 2 percent decrease in rent.
So to halve the gap between California rent and rest-of-the-U.S. rent, California needs a 37.5% increase in housing stock. That’s certainly achievable in many neighborhoods via moderate upzoning, and does not require skyscrapers everywhere, as Robinson seems to think. If a block of 20 single-family homes becomes a block of 17 single-family homes, two fourplexes, one duplex, and one ADU, you’ve got your 37.5%. But this type of change takes a very long time and it does not necessarily create the type of urban environment that is in such high demand.
New cities could not realistically amount to even a 10% addition to California’s housing stock. While they will never be a first-tier strategy for meeting housing demand, they can be part of the silver shotgun.