Can You Invent a City?


The Urban Utopia of Time in Honduras

The Urban Utopia in Honduras

I’m not talking about Monopoly here , or any other board game. This is a real-time experiment Honduras is planning to undertake for the sake of economic development. Sounds like a fiction scenario, but it isn’t.

I recently came across this article, and it made me wonder about the possibilities of such an ambitious, unapologetic social experiment in creating an urban utopia:

The Honduran initiative was inspired by Paul Romer, a New York University economist who promoted what he calls “charter cities” at a TED talk in 2011. Rather than experimenting on existing cities, which could provoke resistance, Romer proposed building new urban areas on vacant land with room for several million residents who choose to live there.

The cities would remain Honduran but would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. They would be governed through charters made up of tried-and-tested political, economic and social regulations gleaned from around the world. Partner nations would provide guidance and oversight on troublesome issues like law enforcement and the courts.

For example, the Honduran judicial system is widely viewed as slow and corrupt, a factor that concerns foreign investors. To provide legal stability, the island nation of Mauritius has agreed to allow its Supreme Court to serve as the court of appeals for a future Honduran charter city.

Another proposal is to ban physical currency in the new cities and rely on debit cards and electronic payments to reduce crime and corruption. It sounds radical, but Nigeria has already placed limits on bank withdrawals and deposits to discourage cash transactions in Lagos, Abuja and other cities….

…The plan’s many skeptics warn that Honduras could become a laboratory animal for foreign social scientists. Angel Orellana, a former lawmaker and attorney general, calls the plan 21st-century colonialism. Hondurans, he said, would be giving up a piece of national territory that would become a virtual foreign protectorate.

I can see a novel set in this city. A thriller, or a period piece, or even science fiction. As writers, we sometimes create cities from our imagination. In this case, people with the right amount of money would be building a city from scratch, and decide the political, economical, social and perhaps even cultural rules by which it would run.

Is it possible to create an ideal urban utopia? Do you think this city would become a shining example of a technologically advanced metropolis or get mired in drugs, gambling, and prostitution? Can you really invent an actual city?

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12 thoughts on “Can You Invent a City?

  1. It’s somewhat coincidental that I’ve been reading a biography of Australian Preacher John Alexander Dowie. Around 1901 he made a mega purchase of land in Illinois, which he Christened Zion City. Initial exuberance of a city free from vice soon collapsed under financial troubles. It entered receivership within 5 years. I agree that it makes an interesting story, though. Hey, I’m busy creating an entire nation in my WIP.

  2. Cities are, by definition, high-density population areas, meaning you have as many wild cards as there are people. For every person willing to go along with the Powers That Be dictating the rules for behavior in their metropolitan utopia, there’s at least one person, and more likely several, who would just as soon tell the Powers That Be to hang it in their ear. In short, I doubt seriously that you could create an “ideal urban utopia.” Now, it would be very possible to create something that LOOKED LiKE an ideal place: Witness Michigan Avenue in Chicago, which has been landscaped and cleaned up beautifully. Anyone seeing it would think, “yeah, this is where I’d like to live.” Venture a couple of blocks west, though, and you see where all of the “city” that they purged from Michigan Avenue went.

  3. John, thank you for such an insightful and detailed comment. Even a relatively ‘clean’ city like Singapore, where I live, has different faces, the one of Orchard Road, and the others of suburbia. And the powers that be do quite a bit to keep the population of migrant laborers and maids in their own areas, of their own volition, by providing incentives. I think social engineering is becoming a part of modern cities.

  4. It’s certainly possible to look at existing cities and learn from their successes and failures. Sometimes we figure out what people need — like more parks — but it’s too late because everything has been paved over and built up into the sky. I don’t think a utopia is possible, though. If there are human beings living there, they will bring problems with them. Or invent new ones.

  5. I don’t want to sound negative, but if it’s going to be a real, populated city, it’s impossible for it to be an urban utopia. This is simply because humans cannot act in the utopian way of perfect. There will be a kind of corruption even in the best of things.
    (reading through the other comments, I realise this is mostly just a paraphrase of what John Holton has said above)

  6. Indeed, lab-animal is the first image that comes to my mind.after reading this. Since I am associated with a laboratory, I get to see these animals almost everyday, and can therefore say with some authority that in-spite of having the most sanitized and managed habitat, the perfectly timed nutritious food and sufficient intercourse, these animals never stop struggling to get out of their ‘utopian’ cages. Goodness shines brilliantly only when there’s evil to contrast it against. Damayanti, being an Indian, you would know the significance of the ‘Kajal Tika’ that Hindu mothers and grandmothers apply on the foreheads of the kids. Too much perfection is almost always a certain cause of ruin. A blemish may often be a blessing.

  7. I have lost the little faith I had in humanity’s will to retain humanitarian principles. A utopia isn’t possible, I feel. Just as well, too, because it would become slightly drab without all the colours and shadows and strange corners, don’t you think?

  8. Before I heard about Paul Romer’s campaign to start charter cities in other countries, I wrote about a charter city in the United States: http://godsofruin.com/#story . I think what people here are saying is right–that people are imperfect, but a utopia is still possible if we account for this. Hong Kong is a perfect example of how a resource-less rock off the coast of China can change the world. They did it with a government that protected property rights and did very little else. I’d love for y’all to check out my work and let me know what you think.

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

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