Scoffing Is Easy, Building Is Harder
When, last summer, the news broke that a “mysterious company” linked to the “Silicon Valley elite” had been buying up land in California to build an entirely new city, the response was almost near-universal derision. Following a clumsy launch, critics piled on to gleefully point out all of the problems with “California Forever,” its leaders, its investors, with the very audacity of doing something outside the lines and—cardinal sin!—without asking for permission from anyone at Solano County or, God forbid, The New York Times.
Such reactions are run-of-the-mill these days. After all, America’s new favorite pastime is shitposting on tech billionaires on Twitter from an iPhone in an Uber on the way to an Airbnb—and if there’s anybody in American society more universally reviled than tech billionaires, it’s the greedy developers who built that Airbnb.
To the too-online American mind, there is something almost apotheotic in a group of tech titans becoming real estate developers. In an era in which nothing is sacred, there is nothing more profane than mere mortals grasping at the superhuman power to reshape God’s green earth in their image. And these tech demigods want to do something that has not been seen in a century, to “create a new community that has density, mixed use, public life, and scale”—-for up to 400,000 people.
What temerity, what chutzpah!
To praise such a project and its leaders would itself be an act of audacity, spitting back in the face of the spiteful zeitgeist.
For a country with an estimated shortage of 3.2 million homes, a plan to, you know, actually build housing to match the scope of the problem seems like a pretty decent idea. The chance to build a new city on urbanist principles should have YIMBYs champing at the bit. Sure, the plan is audacious. Sure, the road ahead is paved with many political and technological obstacles. But surely we ought to welcome an attempt to solve at scale perhaps the most intractable social problem in America?
So God bless.
Smith unabashedly heralds the California Forever project as a “great idea.” He notes that the project’s conception of ”a city largely focused on ‘missing middle’ housing…”
…sounds exactly like the urbanist dream that YIMBYs have been fighting for for over a decade now. Except instead of trying to nudge existing cities into redeveloping themselves in this direction — a good project, but one that will take many decades to come to fruition — California Forever wants to simply build the YIMBYtopia from scratch.
It’s such an ambitious dream that even some YIMBYs themselves are having trouble imagining it.
Smith suggests that the “instantaneously dismissive reaction” of many YIMBYs “shows how entrenched the mindset of stasis has become in the Golden State.” As Smith says,
The fact that even a YIMBY activist finds it hard to imagine someone in California building something new and different shows how much the past half century has shriveled our collective imaginations.
Such NIMBYism of the soul afflicts not only the Golden State; we see it everywhere. Perhaps California Forever is a dream too big, too optimistic for an era of small minds and hollow men. It’s not that the project shouldn’t be scrutinized—it has flaws, for sure. Smith himself offers a constructive look at some of the potential pitfalls.wrote another measured take early on. But other YIMBY criticism strikes me as curiously off the mark. Around when the story first broke, one of my favorite urbanist writers, Jerusalem Demsas, described California Forever as tackling the wrong problem:
Solving the housing crisis doesn’t require inventing new places for people to go; it requires big cities to embrace growth, as they did in the past, and smaller cities to accept change. [...]
What America needs isn’t proof that it can build new cities, but that it can fix its existing ones.
I spend a lot of my time focused on the problem of fixing our existing cities and am sympathetic to that argument. But she also argued, if cities are “failing to build, it’s not because they lack inspiration.” Rather,
They’re failing because the politics are genuinely thorny. Many people oppose new development on ideological grounds, or because they think it’s a nuisance, or because they deny the existence of a housing shortage at all, or even because they believe it interferes with other priorities.
Valid points. But why are the politics thorny? Why is NIMBYism the default orientation of our age? Why do people deny even the existence of problems? And why is our collective instinct, when confronted with a vision novel and inspiring, to criticize first and ask questions later—or never?
In part, it’s because it’s much easier to throw stones at glass houses than to build them.
To wit, a number of American cities are undertaking much-needed reforms to address their housing shortages, but no city has (yet) embraced reforms that attempt to address the problem at scale. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has called for a “moonshot” goal of building half a million new homes over the next decade. That’s a laudable goal, one that requires the city to make substantial cuts to red tape and major reforms to zoning laws—monumental feats, to say nothing of building that much new housing.
If the much ballyhooed phrase “urban doom loop” is overused, there’s a reason it occupies so much real estate in the urban imagination: we sense that our cities, our city leaders, possibly even ourselves lack the vision—and perhaps the ability to execute—that the task of city-building requires. I’ve argued that New York should undertake these reforms, but why should the rest of the country wait around for ten years to see if it succeeds?
So, I think Demsas has got it somewhat wrong. If America needs proof that we can fix our problems, America first needs to have the confidence, self-esteem, or sense of agency to believe that we are capable of fixing them in the first place. Without that, no proof will ever be forthcoming.
And therein lies the rub. Our instinctual rush to criticize is itself symptomatic of our cultural malaise, that feeling of futility or lack of control in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. California Forever—with its outrageously bold ambitions, its self-assured rejection of fatalism—strikes at the heart of that malaise. That Silicon Valley spirit is staggering to many, triggering to others.
A society that leaps to find fault is one that fails to see that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. We lack more than inspiration; we lack imagination, the capacity to see ourselves as agentic individuals with the power to change our destinies and fulfill our dreams.
California Forever intends to build on a scale that nobody alive today in America has ever seen and seldom dreamed. It is animated by the same spirit that led the Dutch to build New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island and, when that early city teemed at its northern bound, that inspired New Yorkers to plot the now-familiar grid of the future metropolis. Would that all city leaders could dream so big. Our cities and our society desperately need dreamers and builders, people who are willing to color outside the lines—especially those drawn too fast by past planners and present pencil-pushers. More, we need to recapture the sense that it is worth dreaming big dreams, that it is possible to build that which nobody has dared to build before—and we need a collective spirit that views all this with admiration, not scorn.
Is California Forever perfect? No. Nor will it be a panacea for all our urban or national woes. But we should welcome such an experiment in city-building without letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Then, perhaps, if we approach the project not with our usual lazy criticism but with newfound curiosity and encouragement, it could become something else, something more fundamental to the problems we face: proof that we can fix, not only the faults in our cities, but those in ourselves.