The first thing that catches your eye is the paradox between the declared environmental friendliness and the very idea
of building a city from scratch, even in the middle of the desert.
In September, 50-year-old billionaire Mark
Laurie, founder of Diapers.com and Jet.com, announced the construction of a
futuristic metropolis called Telos. The city will be the size of Chicago, with
In the billionaire’s fantasies, the
metropolis will be distinguished by ecological architecture, energy
sustainability, and the water supply system will be protected from droughts.
The location has not yet been determined, but Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona,
Texas, or the Appalachian Mountains are being considered. Smart Cities Dive
reflects on how (anti) utopian the idea is.
This is not the first time a rich man dreams of building a new city from scratch. In 2017, Bill Gates discussed the possibility of establishing a smart city in Arizona. In 2018, rapper Aicon said he would build a smart city in Senegal. This year, Toyota Corporation began construction of a futuristic city in Japan. Elon Musk voiced the idea of founding the Star Base city in Texas, although it could have been just a joke.
The first thing that catches your eye is
the paradox between the declared environmental friendliness and the very idea
of building a city from scratch, even in the middle of the desert. In fact,
the desert is very hot and has very little water. Not surprisingly,
historically, people founded settlements near water sources.
Jihua Wang, a professor at the School of
Sustainable Design at the University of Arizona, is convinced that sooner or
later such a city will face the same problems as the city of Phoenix today. He
notes that many resources will have to be transported from afar, which will
increase their cost, not to mention the environmental aspect.
His colleague Sharon Megdal draws
attention to the importance of water availability and respect for the right to
water. Some Arizona communities use groundwater, but it is an unreliable source
because it runs out over time. Some desert cities near the ocean can rely on
salt water, because technology allows desalination. For example, as UAE do in
Dubai. But it’s a process with a significant carbon footprint, and there’s a
problem with salt disposal.
At the same time, scientists agree that
upgrading and adjusting systems in old cities is much more difficult than
creating sustainable architecture and infrastructure at once.
For example, Rongfeng Jiao of the Austin
School of Architecture at the University of Texas complains that the United
States is lagging behind in modernizing cities and creating a smart city;
American infrastructure is so outdated that “it’s a shame against other
developed countries.” He compares the idea of Telos with Dubai, which is
a relatively new metropolis in the desert.
Megdal does not share this optimism and
suggests starting an experiment within the existing city and on a much smaller
Starting with an existing city means contending with physical barriers. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, for example, shut down its smart city project in Toronto in 2020. Jiao, who focuses his research on smart cities, said the project failed because Sidewalk Labs planned to build within an existing city.
He said Telosa is a positive move forward for the U.S., which is falling behind the rest of the globe in the smart city movement.
“We’re living in a country where the infrastructure puts us to shame compared to other developed countries,” Jiao said. “We have to face it. We have aging bridges, aging tunnels. We have aging everything.”
Building a smart city like Telosa is possible in a desert, he said. After all, Dubai is a relatively new desert city. Jiao posed the question: If Dubai can do it, why can’t the U.S.?
The 40-year plan is for Telosa to reach 5 million people. Megdal said a smaller development in the thousands, rather than the millions, could be a better way to showcase Telosa’s new ideas to existing cities.
Then again, building within an existing city instead of a separate space could help ensure that Telosa’s ideas are truly adopted elsewhere.
“Retrofitting is hard, but actually if you want to contribute to sustainability, working on retrofitting existing communities would be a very good thing,” Megdal said. “We already have so many people who do not necessarily have the opportunity to be sustainable because of the design of their homes and how their communities are developed.”
Either way, if Telosa isn’t done correctly, it won’t be an example for other cities, she said. It would be a tourist attraction.