Our cities have so many problems these days, yet more and more people are moving to them; by 2050 it is estimated that two out of every three people will be living in them. So much is changing; climate, technology, the way we work. What should the future city look like?
Over at Y Combinator, A Silicon Valley fund which normally provides seed money for new startups, Partners Adora Cheung and Sam Altman are doing a cities startup, a YC research project where they want to study building new, better cities.
They note that “It’s more important than ever to think about how to do this.” And while smart people are already working on existing cities, “We also think it’s possible to do amazing things given a blank slate. Our goal is to design the best possible city given the constraints of existing laws.” And just to get it out of the way, they note also that “We want to build cities for all humans - for tech and non-tech people. We’re not interested in building “crazy libertarian utopias for techies.”
Reading their high level and tactical questions, it is hard to tell whether this is incredibly important or laughably naive. High level questions like:
- What should a city optimize for?
- How should we measure the effectiveness of a city (what are its KPIs [key performance indictors])?
- What values should (or should not) be embedded in a city's culture?
Those certainly are high level! Some of the more "tactical" questions:
- How can we make and keep housing affordable? This is critical to us; the cost of housing affects everything else in a city.
- How can we lay out the public and private spaces (and roads) to make a great place to live? Can we figure out better zoning laws?
- What is the right role for vehicles in a city? Should we have human-driven cars at all?
- How can we have affordable high-speed transit to and from other cities?
They are staffing up, looking for “people with strong interests and bold ideas in architecture, ecology, economics, politics, technology, urban planning, and much more.”
These are some of the biggest questions of our time, that thousands of people have been working on and writing about for centuries; it must be that Silicon Valley air that gives them the confidence to think that they can do this and come up with something that will make a difference.
And I worry about their statement “Our goal is to design the best possible city given the constraints of existing laws.” Why have such limited vision? In many cases, existing laws, from the second amendment to the takings clause of the fifth amendment to property rights are part of the problems in our cities. Why not start with fixing the constitution, written before cities were the dominant way of living?
Reading the whole thing at Y Combinator, I really don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or polish my resumé.