What if the latest technology was used to build cities from the ground up? Skepticism is in order.

Share story

Google’s parent wants to build a “future city” in a waterfront area beside Toronto. WiFi, driverless vehicles, green tech and millions of sensors will provide a laboratory for a new kind of urbanism, anchored by the company’s Canadian headquarters.

Former Cheezburger executive Ben Huh is leading an enterprise to start entirely new cities, informed by the expertise of the tech sector. It could fix homelessness, traffic congestion, inequality. As the New York Times reported, “What if the people who build circuits and social networks could build cities, too? Wholly new places, designed from scratch and freed from broken policies.” Similar speculation has attached to Bill Gates’ investment in land outside Phoenix (although I am skeptical).

These projects make Amazon’s HQ2 look puny in its aspirations of a mere $5 billion investment and 50,000 high-paid jobs, likely placed in or near an existing city. Or, even with the criticism over pitting places against each other for incentives, it looks more practical.

One of the markers of our age is that wealthy people who were clever, talented and lucky in one thing believe they know the answers to everything, even challenges that have evaded experts in those fields for decades. They don’t need to know history, policy, politics or custom. They know algorithms.

This isn’t unprecedented. Henry Ford was a genius of mass production — so much so that sociologists call the enormous assembly-line factories of the 20th century and the culture around them “Fordism.” He was also an antisemite and a crank, with a host of ideas that went nowhere. Most of his brilliant peers of that high-tech age, such as the Wright brothers and General Motors’ engineering giant Charles Kettering, stuck to their knitting.

Today’s know-it-alls, made dangerous by their enormous wealth, remind me of a quip by Sam Rayburn. Regaled by Lyndon Johnson with praise for the “Whiz Kids” of the Kennedy administration, the grounded House Speaker said, “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” Those Whiz Kids got us into the Vietnam War.

I’d feel a a whole lot better if Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Ben Huh — and for that matter, Jeff Bezos — had read Jane Jacobs.

From her seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, they might learn that cities are about people, not the latest fads. She starts it bluntly: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” Although she was aiming at the “planner elite,” so-called urban renewal and New York’s powerful Robert Moses, who wanted to ram an expressway through lower Manhattan, the book offers timeless lessons.

At least these self-appointed urban whiz kids want density, oppose sprawl and, in many cases, support transit. But they need to be reminded of the hubris of their predecessors. Cities are organic things that grow up over time, and they only work when they are on a human scale. Jacobs wrote about the importance of “eyes on the street” — the human eyes of residents and shop owners, not sensors — as essential to neighborhood cohesion and safety. Without this, and many other elements overlooked by the “planning elite,” cities can’t fulfill their essential function, where many strangers can live together.

Jacobs wasn’t anti-car, but she understood how car and suburban subsidies (freeways, FHA loans to white people) were destroying cities. She preached a gospel of walkability before it was “a thing.” (Her final book, Dark Age Ahead, foreshadowed the Age of Trumpism).

Toronto already has a future city — it’s called Toronto. With abundant subways, streetcars, commuter rail and quality density, it has already moved toward a post-automobile age. Toronto is smart, welcoming, diverse, a world city that is a magnet for world talent. It doesn’t need the brains of Silicon Valley to make it work better.

If the tech whiz kids are worried about inequality, look in a mirror. The gadgets that made them rich are most responsible for the elimination of middle-wage jobs, ripping out rungs in the ladder up for millions outside the tech elite. With the offshoring of scalable high-tech manufacturing, this has been a boon to millions worldwide — no small gift — but not to the average American worker. E-commerce has killed uncountable local shops.

Unlike the breakthroughs of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the digital advances have produced puny gains for advancement into the middle class.

“Cities don’t need saving,” as New York urbanist Pete Harrison wrote in a robust debunking of the new whiz kids. The maladies of today’s society are complex. Higher tax rates on the whiz kids, to be used for funding schools and building advanced infrastructure, would be a good start in repair. So might breaking up Big Tech. But that, dear readers, is a column for another day.