Charter Cities: Call me Skeptical

October 5, 2009

Economist Paul Romer has worked up an idea he calls “charter cities” and put up a web site about it.  Also described in this interview.  Something like an economic free-trade zone raised to the full-blown status of a city.  The main distinction is an express intent to import workers from underdeveloped parts of the world, and this based on the theory that what they need is a modern physical and social infrastructure.  As he puts it, in an optimistic present tense,”Charter cities let people move to a place with rules that provide security, economic opportunity, and improved quality of life.”

I have at least two questions off the bat.  One comes up in the interview:  what sort of political system would these cities have, and specifically how would the imported workers participate in it? Romer’s reply that “[t]he charter cities idea does not put any constraints on the local political structure” isn’t exactly satisfying, given the inequalities of power implicit in the idea – between workers on one hand and the politicians, financiers, and administrators who would actually “design” and run the city.

Another obvious question:  how is this different what has already happened due to the mobility of capital?  Cleaned up a bit and relocated but still a way to obtain cheap laborers who don’t complain too much.  And what about the cities we already have, whether new towns in China or declining cities in the Midwestern U.S.?  Each has a direct bearing on the other, and if economics isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game it isn’t a cornucopia either.  A proposal like this makes me question who in the end would benefit.

Those questions are more-or-less on the proposal’s own turf of economics, where I am far from an expert.  From what is for me the more familiar perspective of urban planning, the charter cities idea is interesting in that the physical form and social structures of the city are remarkably undefined.  The city is conceived of first and nearly entirely as economic machine.  In some ways this turns on its head Modernist planning, where architectural and urban form and Utopian social structure were associated with various economic and political projects (many, but not all, leftist).  In some cases, notably that of Le Corbusier, the associations were rather flexible and at times vague.

The charter city idea does imply a design method of a sort, basically technocratic.  The city would be built first and the people imported with the physical fabric and “rules” in place – that seems the whole point.  The track record of this approach to planning, especially at the scale of an entire city, does not inspire much confidence.

In parallel with Modernism perhaps, the argument employs a rhetoric of new-ness, even Utopianism, or in the contemporary vernacular, or “thinking outside the box.”  This obscures the continuities with the existing global economic trends (which many are critical of) as well as a more historically-informed perspective on how our present situation came about.  Thus Romer can point to Hong Kong as a model of a charter city:

Hong Kong is one obvious example in which two countries worked together to create a new city. In effect, China supplied the land and the people; Britain supplied the rules for a market-based economy together with basic rules such as sanitation, building codes, and civil codes that made the place where the market operated livable. Of course, this did not arise from a voluntary agreement between the Chinese and the British. But looking back, it turned out so well that a country wishing to follow China’s lead might well want to start by cooperating with a foreign country to build a Hong Kong.

without mentioning much historical context, like say, the Opium Wars (!)  Obviously cities are complicated phenomena, and at times you can look at one aspect somewhat independently of others.  But it ought to be done explicitly.  Hong Kong was a product of the aggressive colonialism of the 19th century, military occupation, and unequal treaties.  You could argue that isn’t relevant but I don’t see that being done here.  It sounds more like, oh it all turned out well in the end so just do what we tell you.


One Response to “Charter Cities: Call me Skeptical”

  1. […] HTR-BE encontramos el principal punto débil: el diseño tecnocrático: The charter city idea does imply a […]

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