California Forever... Forever

Shining City on a Hill or Ghost City?

I. California Forever Forever

The team behind California Forever—more on that in a minute—is doggedly checking boxes through a very public process to build a new community from relatively thin air. Acquire land. Check. Release Good Urbanist principles. Check. Assemble talent. Check. Sell this idea to absolutely anyone who will listen. Check. Check. Check. 

The plan to build a brand new, self-contained place that’s affordable, walkable, accessible, productive, and creative (really any adjective works here) has now gone through several iterations of the required ballot measure to allow these Billionaires (including an Andreesen and a Jobs) within Solano County, California, which they’ve tellingly called, the “East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative,” because they hope that the eventual place, as outlined below, will build new homes, create new jobs, and foster clean energy. All of these ideas are good and should be unimpeachable (thankfully no one’s tried to sell this project as “utopia” in any shape or form). The development’s website offers a fairly comprehensive FAQ and “Debunking Myths” section to help answer any questions you might have about this development. 

Despite the good intentions, lots of people including State Senator Bill Dodd and a group calling itself Solano Together, oppose this project. What gives?

The entire development process—from land acquisition through community engagement—is so carefully manicured that its leaders are checking these boxes with the deliberate intention of a group of Monorail salesmen seeking to slink the worst idea you’ve ever heard through public consciousness without anyone noticing they’ve been had. I don’t think this is the case and I think these investors and all the staff who’ve dedicated their time to making it happen genuinely want to build something sustainable and beneficial; I’m simply saying the idea of cutting a new place from whole cloth has been tried before to varying levels of success, depending on who you ask, and what you mean by success. If given the green light to proceed, California Forever’s team hopes that a new place, very much built on modern Smart Growth principles and populated with a diverse subset of residents who embody these principles, can be a model for similar future developments. Everybody wins! After all, we have several, converging, serious crises on our hands. Yes, the one you’re thinking of is one of them.

This essay is not going to debate the relative merits of building a whole sandbox town on top of farmland on the close side of nowhere. It’s been debated to death since the first iteration of “city” and it’s not interesting. There are positives to master planning and negatives to prescribing place to the last detail. The right alchemy of “build” is somewhere in the amorphous middle and it’s often unknowable and iterates a billion times before new york becomes New York. I am confident that the team behind California Forever and its eventual City will embody aspects of both that drive debate forever. Forever. 

Instead, I want to examine the conversation around California Forever and answer two specific questions: does California Forever have hope at all and is there a metanarrative that equals essentially a “temperature” of the project?

II. Whole-Cloth Urbanism Rarely “Works”

The first time I read All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, I felt a constricting exasperation and breathlessness while sprinting through Marshall Berman’s prose. If, in the classics, cities were built as monuments to God(s), the Modernist planner eschews this idea and attempts to build places as controlled extensions of science and progress. Here’s his point: progress for progress’ sake is a fool’s errand and mortgaging the future based on good intention can and has led to disastrous consequences (auto-centric transport planning, the entirety of the history of zoning, etc.). Most of the time, however, the idea that forward progress in and of itself means development means redevelopment simply flails around and peters out. Hello, suburban sprawl.

Religious traditionalists at once rejected Modernism as an affront to the divine; in the future, postmodernists reject it as an oversimplification of the different needs and desires that necessarily compete for limited space with one another but must also exist simultaneously.

California Forever is the postmodern vision of what Modernist planners had envisioned when they laid out Canberra, Australia, Chandigarh, India, and Brasilia, Brazil. There’s this big vision with big ideas, but its founder, billionaire tech entrepreneur, Jan Sramek, is clever enough not to think (out loud, at least) that his vision is correct as a matter of fact. He’s so committed to getting out the way that he’s listed humbly (?) alphabetically on the team page and has seemingly committed to moving in as soon as possible. 

I’m not sure whether I believe Sramek’s awwshucksness proletarianism in practice. Even suggesting that you have any “solution” to the urbanization “problem” is so unbelievably arrogant that it’s hard to believe that this proposal is even taken seriously at all. Is this not an exercise in vanity, no matter how much this billionaire landhoover thinks he’s the hero he wants to be? (People are mad—to be fair people were going to be mad whether the investors were buying land quietly or loudly. That’s American land use politics in a nutshell.) 

Wouldn’t it be simpler, more quietly authentic, and a better investment to organize and fight for more of what’s already good—and campaign for more housing and concurrent infrastructure in the Bay Area? Why must we grind up the strong bones we have and rebuild the same bones from the ashes, just over there

Sure, fighting a YIMBY battle in notoriously underbuilt San Fransicso has thus far been a fight with a stubborn and somehow vicious sea anemone, but shouldn’t we demand that the richest and most influential among us fight the battles we need rather than the battles they want? 

III. The Metanarrative: Taking the Temperature on an Idea

After pouring over dozens of reported pieces and essays, it’s relatively safe to say that the Thinkers are sold on the idea of a California Forever project but skeptical of the level of success any planned town will achieve for a host of reasons—integration into the region so that it’s not just plopped onto a greenfield and left to function as a satellite town, very real water access and wildfire concerns, skepticism on whether it can create economic and jobs diversity out of thin air based on theory alone. The tone across the four main essays I surveyed oscillates between optimistic and bullish. Curiously, maybe, I didn’t read a nonpartisan essay that flat-out rejects this idea, which to me, implies that, despite any misgivings and hedges, people want California Forever to succeed in some way or another. These authors collectively do, however, write from the exact position of a nine-year-old on her birthday who’s just about to open a baseball-bat-shaped present only to pour out three stacked metal cans of baked beans. Ready for the bottom to fall out.

Right on cue, Ed Glaeser and Carlo Ratti, wrote “Billionaire-Built Cities Would Be Better Than Nothing,” which is provocative but certainly not true prima facie.

“As more details emerge about the ugly tactics used against local landowners, the project appears increasingly likely to drown in its creators’ hubris. But beneath Flannery Associates’ accumulating mistakes remains an important idea: The Bay Area needs a lot more housing, and we may need privately built cities to get there.”

Let’s not fall for monkey-paw-urbanism and “big ideas” wrapped in progressive rhetoric. Sure, as Glaeser and Ratti point out, privately developed, “corporate” cities are not new. But they’re not the norm and likely won’t ever be: these authors in all of their accolades give three examples of corpocities, compared to the tens of thousands publicly built over time that exist in the US. If we get out of our own myopia, the temperature here is pretty hot. This is a bullish piece.

Economist Noah Smith, in summary, weighed in, in “The California Forever project is a great idea:” 

“So anyway, I think that if California Forever’s planners can win their referendum and solve the water issue, they’re well-positioned to overcome the other big hurdles to building a startup city. I still think that the task is extremely daunting, but the project has impressed me on the upside so far. I think they have a chance of creating something truly special that will serve as an example of how towns across America can lift themselves out of the stasis they’ve been mired in since the 70s.”

The idea that California Forever can be an exemplar for other industrial individuals—or even cities themselves—is Good. I worry that real people will inadvertently be the test subjects as the city finds its footing. Upside: unlimited. Downside: failure and collapse. The natural skeptic in me wants to limit the downside more than hammer the upside by slowing this whole thing down. I’ll hold my tongue for now. The temperature here is cautiously optimistic. 

Author and urbanist Diana Lind echos my main point above, but says it with more gusto in ​​”The Case For and Against California Forever:

“To say that zoning reform is not working in California cities is to throw in the towel at precisely the wrong time. Fighting a better fight for existing communities rather than starting anew is the way forward. The burn-it-down ethos that has pervaded everything in American life this century so far, from technology to politics, has shown itself to be counterproductive; it’s more efficient to improve what exists than to start from scratch.”

California’s politicians are so far, far more skeptical of the project: According to Politico, Governor Newsom is lukewarm on the project

“‘I’ll be candid with you. They started a little behind in my book because of the fact that they let so much intrigue and so many questions so there’s a lot more doubt now and a lot less trust,” he said.”

State Senator Bill Dodd, who represents Solano County and will gain thousands of new constituents should California Forever fulfill its ambitions is not pulling punches, either: 

“‘They’ve certainly put plenty of money and time into their proposal but there are still huge, unresolved issues like traffic, and I’m not sold,” Sen. Dodd said. “If the measure qualifies, Solano County voters will get to weigh in on whether they think it’s a good idea. I hope decisions are based on facts, not slogans, misdirection and massive campaign spending. We shouldn’t gloss over very important public policy considerations that will have generational impacts.’”

The temperature here is far cooler. A balanced 98.6.

Finally, journalist Benjamin Schneider zooms out and makes a salient point about new problems in “The real problem with California Forever:”

“The city (or company or political campaign) this week published a blog post called “The Urbanist Case for a New Community in Solano County.” From an urbanist perspective, there’s a lot of good stuff in the post and in the accompanying ballot measure text that Solano County voters will likely consider in November. It’s clear that the urban designers working on California Forever, including former SPUR director Gabe Metcalf, have been given a long leash to practice their craft.

Unfortunately, there’s a glaring hole in these plans: a complete lack of regional transit planning. This is California Forever’s fatal flaw that no amount of bike lanes, affordable housing, or carbon-neutral architecture can redeem. At the end of the day, California Forever will still be a sprawl development that will be accessible primarily by car. That’s not an urbanism innovation. It’s a blast from the past.”  

To Schneider’s last point: he’s right, but that’s not just California Forever’s problem. If successful—meaning if the project attracts the residential and commercial diversity it desires and is built to its fullest potential—there will still be no excuse why California can’t get its ambitious rail projects built. There will, however, be an even bigger reason to push even harder for them. Temperature? Indecisive.

What do you think? Be sure to add your perspective below and link me to other essays and opinions you may have seen! California Forever, forever. ✌🏼

Sam Sklar is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Sam is a transportation planner and writer. He's worked on projects all over the world that focus on safety, dignity, economic development, and environmental sustainability. For this publication his focus is on transportation and infrastructure policy. Sam graduated with a Master's in City and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design and a Bachelor's from Boston University's Questrom School of Business. He also runs the Exasperated Infrastructures blog. You can follow him on Twitter, Threads, and LinkedIn.

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