February 28, 2024

I met Gabriel Metcalf, the urban planner hired to design a new California city backed by tech billionaires, while we were mincing garlic and herbs at Burning Man. The New York Times had just blown open the mystery of who was secretly buying up more than 50,000 acres of farmland in Solano county, about 50 miles north-east of San Francisco.

The buyers turned out to include a who’s who of Silicon Valley investors who had thrown their weight behind an ambitious plan for a new “California dream” city with walkable neighborhoods, climate-friendly infrastructure, green energy jobs and affordable homes.

Many are deeply suspicious of tech elites throwing their money around, thinking they can solve everything. And the way in which California Forever, the investor-backed corporation, went about it – by quietly buying up nearly $1bn worth of land without the knowledge of local residents and officials – hasn’t warmed people to the project either. In the months since the project’s announcement, residents, officials and environmentalists have raised serious questions about the feasibility of turning a rural land into a bustling city.

I followed up with Metcalf to see if what sounded like a bold vision when shared in a pop-up city in the Nevada desert could actually make sense in the real world. Metcalf, who comes across as more of a pragmatic urban design nerd than a Silicon Valley tech bro, admits he can see where the skeptics are coming from.

“This has not been done before, at least not in this way or at this scale. We have a lot of explaining to do to get people on board and help people understand the vision,” he said over coffee in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood. “We’re not proposing a utopia. We’re just proposing a city. I’m not arguing this can solve every problem. But I would argue that this is another tool, and it could help.”

overhead view of flat open land, mostly brown, with a small building on it
Farmland in rural Solano county, California, the county where California Forever hopes to build. Photograph: Godofredo A Vásquez/AP

California is facing daunting housing problems, challenges that Metcalf, a respected urban planner, believes can only be addressed with bold action.

Metcalf spent a decade and a half running Spur, a San Francisco-based urban planning thinktank, where he advocated for building more public housing, public transit and raising the minimum wage as ways to tackle the region’s housing crisis.

San Francisco’s Byzantine approvals process has long been a maze of red tape, surprise fees and high construction costs that only the wealthiest project developers seem able to stomach. The city also granted citizens generous leeway to object to new housing – a situation the city only just began reforming, under threat of losing funds and local control from the state.

The problems are similar across California. Today, it is home to 30% of the nation’s unhoused population and consistently ranks as one of the least affordable places to live. The most comprehensive survey of homelessness in nearly 30 years said that increasing the supply of affordable housing was the top solution to this crisis. The seed of a new idea began to take shape in Metcalf’s mind: what if instead of trying to change an existing city bit by bit, we build a whole new one?

California has unintentionally undermined its own highest ideals by deciding to give power to current homeowners to stop physical change in their neighborhoods,” he said. “We should absolutely continue to work to make it easier to add development within existing communities … But it would help take some of the pressure off if we also were able to expand the places that offer walkable urbanism.”

‘People instead of cars’

Walkable urbanism. It’s a concept Metcalf hammers.

He argues it’s not just more housing that will be vital, but creating communities that prioritize streets as places for both movement and shared public life, rather than mere infrastructure for private vehicles. “When it comes to California cities, the biggest problem was that we did not have enough housing in places that were walkable and have good access to jobs,” Metcalf said. One way to define walkability is this very humble idea that people should be able to walk to local shopping streets.”

shops, trees and a walkable area
A walkable Main Street is shown in a rendering of the proposed city. Photograph: AP/California Forever

That might be a tough sell in a region where car culture is the norm and public transit is struggling. But Metcalf argues this shortage of “walkable urbanism” leads to high demand for places that have it, causing everything to be so expensive, leading to homelessness, income inequality and people being pushed out of California.

Metcalf, who founded a car-sharing non-profit in the 90s, has a particular gripe with car dependency. His ideal transportation network for the city would be a mix of public transit, car sharing, bikes and scooters, which he argues would also be more affordable for people. “Car-oriented city design is so pervasive in America today that sometimes people don’t even notice until they go to another country and are reminded what a joy city life can be when spaces are planned around people, instead of cars.”

Metcalf believes the US is due for a city planning revival with lots of experimentation and sharing of best practices, from government-sponsored new cities, to cities backed by non-profits, to business-led models like California Forever.

A map showing the site of the planned city.
A map showing the site of the planned city. Photograph: AP/California Forever

In that sense, Metcalf sees the project as reviving a long tradition of city planning – an art he argues the US has lost. “We are taking our inspiration from 19th-century neighborhoods that exist in cities all over America and all over the world. They have low car ownership and have stood the test of time as places people love to live through many social, technological and political changes,” he explained.

“Up through the 1920s, there was an unbroken tradition of city building that stretched back to the ancients,” Metcalf said. But, in his telling, the mass adoption of the automobile followed by the depression and the second world war is where city planning broke down. When building kicked off again in the 1940s, everything was planned around driving to suburbs, shopping malls, office parks.

“We’ve really never recovered from that mistake.”

Facing the voters

California Forever launched last year with a slick website pitching it in the tradition of a timeless Mediterranean town, with AI-assisted renderings of streets bustling with pedestrians, public transit and children cycling, along with the tagline “bring back the California dream”.

But before California Forever can break ground, it will have to win over voters. This week, the company announced it had submitted a ballot initiative for the 2024 elections asking voters to clear the way for the project.

Alongside the ballot measure, it released more detailed plans. The new city would span 18,600 acres, with 20% of that set aside for green space. It aims to be “one of the most sustainable communities in the world”.

people stand outside building. one holds sign saying 'not invited'
Kathleen Threlfall, left, and Bill Mortimore, longtime Solano county and Rio Vista residents, protest outside a press conference unveiling California Forever’s plan. Photograph: Jessica Christian/AP

The company plans to build tens of thousands of new homes, from townhouses to apartments and ADUs, and hopes to one day accommodate as many as 400,000 residents. It has committed to creating a minimum of 15,000 jobs by the time the population reaches 50,000 – jobs that Metcalf envisions spanning everything from construction technology and renewable energy to agricultural tech or military roles connected to the nearby Travis air force base. Current Solano county residents would be eligible for $400m in down-payment assistance, and there would be a $200m investment into revitalizing the downtowns of neighboring communities, among other incentives.

But building the city will require more than just pretty renderings. And if the whole project doesn’t crash and burn, it will have to overcome major challenges, like how to build homes that are actually affordable, how to attract employers and residents to a place without an established culture or history, and how to find residents open to possibly leaving their vehicles parked at the edge of the community.

They’ll need to source water, build infrastructure and develop an urban plan that accounts for a hotter future with heightened threats from drought, fires and deluges.

Last week’s plans tried to assuage the financial fears of nearby residents – the city vowed to pay for itself and not rely on taxes from the rest of the county. But it still had to start on a water resource study.

On the question of climate, Metcalf is focused on design-driven strategies for cooling the city, such as minimizing paved surfaces that absorb heat, maximizing light colored roofs that reflect sunlight, and ensuring abundant tree canopy and “narrower streets that provide some shade protection”.

“Right now there are very few trees on the site,” he said. “So, we are working on a tree plan, actually, to figure out which species will work best for the soils and for the climate and for the future climate.”

As we reached the end of our coffees, I asked Metcalf how he’d like to change society. After all, he wrote a whole book, Democratic By Design, on how progressive activists can change society through co-ops, community land trusts and other alternative institutions. His eyes lit up.

I think cities are perhaps humanity’s greatest inventions,” he said. “They provide a way to live with the smallest ecological footprint and a public life where lots of different kinds of people spend time together and mostly get along. Cities foster economic innovation and enable ideas to germinate. Giving more people the chance to live in a city is one way to make progress on the social, ecological and economical problems we face.”

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