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Column: Cities on a Hill

Sunday, May 12, 2013
Almost since humankind was booted from the Garden of Eden, dreamers and visionaries have been imagining or trying to create perfect worlds, whether in Plato’s Republic or Thomas More’s Utopia, 19th-century socialist experiments or 1960s hippie enclaves. The fall of the Berlin Wall may have given grand visions of the “radiant future” a bad name and science fiction has taken a decided turn for the dystopian in recent decades, but there are still those who dream of an idealized planet — and they’re not just worshippers at the altar of techno-utopianism. From seafaring libertarians to a free-market city-state in the Detroit River, here’s a sampling of the future-perfect still pulsing in 2013.

SimCity’s Magnasanti

In the open-ended, alternately maddening and addictive world of SimCity, computer gamers create their own metropolises from scratch, designing systems for zoning, infrastructure, taxation, transportation, leisure, even sewage. But no one has quite mastered the art like Vincent Ocasla, an architecture student in the Philippines who spent nearly four years planning, building, and perfecting Magnasanti, his “optimum population” city of 6 million inhabitants, with “geometry inspired by the Buddhist wheel of life and death.” And his virtual citizens approve, sort of: With zero congestion, zero water pollution, and zero crime, “they don’t rebel or cause revolutions and social chaos,” Ocasla told Vice magazine. (He did, however, admit that “they have all been successfully dumbed down, sickened with poor health, enslaved, and mind-controlled just enough to keep this system going for thousands of years.”) A new version of Sim-City has just been released and sold more than 1 million copies in its first two weeks on the market. The game has come a long way since its Atari days in the 1980s, when its rather unassuming working title was “Micropolis.”

Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Sometimes it seems like the tiny, oil-rich United Arab Emirates has more money than sense, but with one of the world’s highest per capita carbon-emission rates, it’s planning to go green in a very big way. First announced in 2006, the government-backed Masdar eco-city, a 1-square-mile virtual postage stamp just outside the capital, Abu Dhabi, aims to be a low-carbon, low-waste oasis powered by the largest solar photovoltaic plant in the Middle East; the city itself will be raised 23 feet to capture desert breezes. Intended to house 40,000 residents and some 50,000 commuters, Masdar has faced setbacks in its scheme to become “The Global Center of Future Energy.” Officials pushed the completion date from 2016 to 2025 and slashed the original $22 billion budget by 15 percent amid the financial downturn, forcing some compromises: A plan for electric, driverless cars may be restricted to only part of the city, while sandstorms and high prices could curb the use of solar panels. Masdar’s backers aren’t abandoning their eco-sanctuary. The site already hosts an MIT-affiliated, graduate-level computer science and engineering institute and aims to be a hub for clean-tech companies. “It is easier to build the perfect city,” writes architect Norman Foster, whose firm is designing the project, “if you start with a blank canvas like the desert of Abu Dhabi and have oil money to finance it.”

Seasteading Institute, San Francisco

A group of 21st-century utopians of the libertarian persuasion wants to permanently escape the heavy hand of government (that is, taxes) through “seasteading.” The idea: floating communities, whether cruise ships or artificial islands, that lie in international waters, outside the purview of any particular country’s laws. The concept’s biggest backer, the Seasteading Institute, was co-founded in 2008 by software engineer Patri Friedman — the grandson of the Nobel Prize-winning free market economist Milton — and billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who has contributed more than $1 million to the project. The idea of finding freedom at sea isn’t new: In 1964, Ernest Hemingway’s younger brother, Leicester, launched the island nation of “New Atlantis” on an 8-by-30-foot bamboo raft off the coast of Jamaica. (It lasted a few years, until a storm destroyed it.) More successful has been the Principality of Sealand, an abandoned World War II-era sea fort 7 miles off the coast of southeastern England, declared a sovereign nation (complete with coins and passports) in 1967 by Roy Bates, a British Army major turned disk jockey.

The Citadel, Idaho

For a reminder that not everyone has the same definition of utopia, consider the proposed survivalist fortress dubbed the Citadel. “Marxists, Socialists, Liberals, and Establishment Republicans may find that living within our Citadel Community is incompatible with their existing ideology and preferred lifestyles,” its website warns. The community — which has purchased 20 acres of land in Benewah County, Idaho, and intends to expand to house as many as 7,000 families of “patriotic Americans” — has a pretty limited view of the government’s role in defending individual freedom. Construction has not yet begun, and the group, led by a convicted felon who spent 30 months in prison for extortion and illegal possession of a firearm, gives no estimated opening date. Still, the Citadel’s website claims it will boast towers and gates to protect residents, as well as a farmers’ market, post office, library and retirement facility. Applicants (the group already claims several hundred) must sign a “Patriot Agreement” requiring that every able-bodied member maintain a rifle, at least five magazines, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, as well as a stash of food and water.

Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan

A month before the state of Michigan announced earlier this year that it was sending an emergency manager to rescue financially troubled Detroit, real estate developer Rodney Lockwood Jr. published Belle Isle: Detroit’s Game Changer. Part novel, part development proposal, the book takes place 30 years in the future, imagining real-life Belle Isle Park — an uninhabited, city-owned, 983-acre island in the Detroit River — as a prosperous, self-governing city-state of 35,000 people. In Lockwood’s narrative, a group of investors plunks down $1 billion to buy the island, which attracts global entrepreneurs who develop the plot as a free market U.S. commonwealth, complete with its own laws and currency (called the “rand,” presumably in homage to Ayn). It’s not entirely ridiculous: New York University economist Paul Romer has long championed the idea of foreign-run “charter cities” like Hong Kong, though his project to found a new-economy bastion in Honduras recently ran aground. Consider Lockwood’s dream something like Michigan’s own Singapore (just with lousy weather).

Margaret Slattery is assistant managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

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