How new city can change how
California envisions its future:
Edward Ring | September 29, 2023
Building a new city from scratch on 50,000 acres of cattle ranches is an audacious goal, even for the coterie of Silicon Valley billionaires who have been identified as behind the project. The regulatory environment in California is openly hostile to housing built outside the footprint of existing cities, as well as to construction of detached single family homes with private yards. According to the ideologues running California today, suburban “sprawl” is an abomination.
Consequently, as explored in part one of this report, winning approval for this project may take decades, if it goes forward at all. And if so, we may hope the new city is a glittering new urban environment, generating an inviting and authentic sense of place. Given the elite pedigree and lofty aspirations of its proponents, that is possible. But what of the details? The planned population density? The logistics of transportation, energy, water, and waste management? How will the land be allocated between new urban spaces vs. areas left to nature?
Putting a fine point on the numbers
Reports on the proposed development reference “thousands of homes.” Let’s assume 20,000 homes, plus another 20,000 apartment/condo units of various density. Starting with the homes: Will they have any sort of yard? Research reported by the Urban Reform Institute in a 2022 study found the clear preference of families, seniors, Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans and the foreign born is to live in single-family detached homes, located in suburbs and exurbs.
With over 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles to work with, there’s enough land to give people what they want. If half the area were left as open space, there would still be 25,000 acres for the urban footprint. That would be enough room for 20,000 single-family homes on quarter acre lots, occupying 5,000 acres, only 10 percent of the area, which at four persons per household would support a population of 80,000 people. Add to that another 20,000 apartments, condominiums and townhomes, at three persons per unit, occupying a generous one-eighth of an acre per unit, and you have another 60,000 people consuming only 2,500 acres, or 5 percent of the land.
This leaves a lot of flexibility for the rest of the urbanized portion of this project – an improbable 3,500 acres for roads and other transit corridors and hubs, 5,000 acres for retail and commercial development, and 10,000 acres for parks, wind farms and whatnot.
It is possible, of course, to squeeze even more people into even less space. But most people don’t want to have “less space.” They want more space. And the first question we should be asking is why, in a state with 25,000 square miles of cattle ranches, is it necessary to set aside as permanent open space any more than 50 percent of developable land, when that land is in close proximity to a megapolis that suffers from an acute housing shortage?
Meeting infrastructure challenges
The challenges of energy, water and transportation are equally daunting, mostly because of the straightjackets that have been intentionally donned by virtually every influential decision maker and investor in the state. We can start with the whole “net zero” fiasco. California has locked itself into a future of EVs and mass transit, with “road diets” and an explicit goal of getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, scooters and bleak buses and trains. Even if this new city has robocops and other decisive innovations that yield effective law enforcement, they’re not going to move people voluntarily into mass transit. People like their cars. They like them. That should matter.
This speaks to the coercive essence of what passes for an enlightened conventional wisdom in California today. Live in apartments. Get rid of your car. But most people don’t want to live that way. More to the point, it isn’t necessary. There’s plenty of land. What about energy? What about synthetic fuels, just around the corner, that will deliver liquid hydrocarbon, combustible fuels made from nothing more than electrolyzed hydrogen combined with CO2 taken from the atmosphere?
We’re willing to put our faith in battery technology evolving to the point where EVs no longer require 10 times the resources of conventional vehicles, are affordable, replaceable and recyclable, can be fully recharged in five minutes, and can reliably tolerate fires and floods. But we don’t believe synthetic fuel can be commercialized? Really? Silicon Valley investors, living in the heartland of global innovation, can’t imagine synthetic fuel? Or safe nuclear power? Or energy-efficient desalination?
Powering the new city
A truly cutting edge future city would design an infrastructure that sets an example the world is willing to follow. Deploy modular nuclear reactors that generate 50 megawatts each and can be swapped for new ones every 50 years. Build a cutting edge natural gas fueled power plant with an advanced combined cycle design that converts 80 percent or more of the embodied energy in the natural gas fuel into electricity. If every fossil fuel power plant in the world were retrofitted to this emerging technology, it might not achieve “net zero.” But the ratio of CO2 emissions to gigawatt-hours produced would drop by a factor of four. That’s a technology the world will buy. That’s an aspiration worth fighting for, because unlike wind and solar, it’s practical, scalable, sustainable, environmentally responsible and cost-effective.
As for water, it would be a welcome assist if these billionaire investors can commit to building a futuristic city that delivers its households and businesses abundance. Will this city adhere to the planned 42 gallons per person per day limit on indoor water use that is roaring down the legislative tracks in the Capitol like a freight train? Nobody wants to live this way, and why should they, when 80 percent (or more) of the water that goes down the drain in homes and businesses can and should be recycled and reused? When it comes to lawns and other supposed abominations, why not just ban fertilizers and pesticides, and allow lawns to suddenly become productive permeable surfaces, able to filter and percolate runoff?
Investing in infrastructure to create water abundance in California is a statewide challenge, but there are local sources. Construct state-of-the-art runoff capture and wastewater recycling facilities. Contract for water from the Sites Reservoir – maybe then the agency directors and state bureaucrats will finally decide that instead of having a job-for-life “planning” the reservoir, they’ll actually build it. Follow Antioch’s example and purify brackish water – there’s plenty of that in the surrounding estuaries. Spend extra to ensure environmental impact is minimal, but do it all the same. Maybe, gasp, even push for raising the Shasta Dam a mere 18 feet, which would create another 600,000 acre feet of storage, ensuring more low-temperature downstream flows to benefit salmon habitat and supply new cities.
Pointing to California’s future
How this new city takes shape, should it ever be built, will say a lot about what sort of future is in store for Californians. Will this city use the many new tools now available to monitor behavior to enforce lives of managed scarcity, or will that be less of a priority because instead we have made up our minds to achieve sustainable abundance? What ostensibly public spaces will be privatized, and how will that affect the rights of citizens and the texture of law enforcement? How will they manage low income housing? Will they develop covenants that aim to maximize the percentage of owner occupied homes and businesses, or will they sell entire neighborhoods to Blackrock?
The people who want to build a new city in Solano County are thinking big. It could be the biggest completely new city the state has seen in decades. And California needs new cities. But the implications are bigger than the project. They can create a dystopia as easily as they can create a utopia. And they are among the few with the resources to make that decision, knowing full well how it may be a defining example, altering our destiny for better or for worse.
Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and the author of “The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California.”