Two totally new cities have risen out of the ground from scratch in the United States over the past decade. They just weren’t created where and how you might expect.
YCombinator made waves this summer by announcing a research project on building new cities. Similarly, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs has been rumored to be getting into the city-creation business. Building new cities is sexy business in Silicon Valley today.
Both of these Valley initiatives are presented as if the construction of new cities in the United States were a totally wild, unprecedented event in the 21st century. But it’s not — we’re building new cities in the United States right now. They’re just not happening in the way many of us would’ve imagined. But the reality of how these new cities are coming together is a critical lesson for anyone hoping to break ground on a new metropolis.
Those two new cities? They’re both on the east coast, they’re both on land, and they’re both about as far as you can get from the technocratic utopia of Sam Altman’s dreams. They are The Villages, Florida and Kiryas Joel, New York.
The Villages, Florida
In 2000, only 8,000 people lived in these Central Florida flatlands. By 2015, the population had exploded to 157,000, a city larger than Charleston, South Carolina or Kansas City, Kansas. Of those, 100,000 had joined the community since 2010.
The Villages has taken the concept of an age-restricted retirement home to an industrial scale. As a community, it is organized into 32 Neighborhood Centers, 17 Village Centers, and eight Regional Centers. It also operates 39 golf courses, its own television news channel, and a robust events calendar (51 events happening on the day I write this).
While the developer first began working on the project in the 1960s — and handed over control to his son in the 80s — growth didn’t take off until the early 2000s. By then, the Villages had gotten some critical mass, new amenities had opened, and a large population of retiring Boomers were looking for just this kind of community.
The Villages is perhaps best known for the Chinese menu-like process in which prospective residents choose homes. Pick from one of a few preset floorplans, choose the theme of your finishes, then decide whether to add in one of several plug-and-play upgrades: a golf car garage, a “summer kitchen”, a pool bath, Corian countertops. The process exists to optimize resale value and prevent the buyer from doing anything too rash.
The Villages is not a diverse place. The community is 98.4% white with a median age of 71. People under the age of 19 are not permitted to reside within The Villages, and by law over 80% of homes must be inhabited by someone over the age of 55.
Kiryas Joel, New York
The poorest zip code in the United States isn’t in rural West Virginia or Chicago’s South Side. It’s nestled in the northern suburbs of New York City: 10950, or the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel.
While The Villages is one of the oldest communities in the United States, KJ is the youngest — its median resident is 13 years old. Kiryas Joel is unique in that much of its growth comes not from immigration, but from the fecundity of its residents; the median household has six children. One resident was able to name 2,000 living descendants when she passed away at 93.
Poverty is endemic in Kiryas Joel. More than 40% of the community is on food stamps, and 62% of all families in KJ live below the poverty line, many on various forms of government assistance. The community’s isolation is deep-rooted: most residents speak Yiddish at home, and 46% speak English “not well” or “not at all”.
While Kiryas Joel has doubled in size over the past 15 years to over 22,000 people, its political domination of the surrounding area is the bigger story. Voting as a bloc, the residents of Kiryas Joel have supported the growth of their community through annexations and upzonings, often despite the concerns of the surrounding (suburban) communities in Orange County, New York. Conflicts over elections, utilities, and culture are common, and a dispute over the local school district’s boundaries reached the Supreme Court.
So what do these new cities have in common, and what lessons might a modern city-builder take from their development?
1. They each focus on a very specific audience.
Both KJ and The Villages are very explicit in their target audiences. While the Villages can get away with doing so legally, KJ must rely on a tightly-held real estate market and an environment unwelcoming of outsiders to maintain its homogeneity. But both get their desired outcomes: KJ is dominated by the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, and the Villages is almost entirely old and white.
2. They are practical, not utopian.
Cities exist because people need a place to live, work, and play, and an urban center is the most efficient way of making all of that happen. While there is a vision behind both Kiryas Joel and The Villages, they exist to serve practical needs; Utopianism takes a backseat. While KJ’s density could’ve allowed for a much more walkable city, it was nonetheless built for cars (specifically, Ford Windstar minivans) because they are the most practical choice to ferry around large Hasidic families.
The Villages was designed for nostalgia and comfort; it is an attempt to evoke a way we used to live rather than a Utopian concept of the way we should live. It’s the Cracker Barrel of living. But Cracker Barrel grew to a $4B market cap while the Valley was futzing around with Soylent.
3. They’re both from the right side of the aisle.
In the tech community, new city development often has a libertarian bent: Seasteading colonies with loose hierarchies, repurposed cruise ships filled with foreign worker flouting immigration rules, and Burning Man-inspired communes.
Kiryas Joel and The Villages are anything but libertarian utopias. Donald Trump won Sumter County, Florida — primarily composed of The Villages — with 68% of the vote. And the Hasidic residents of KJ also came out big for Trump this year, helping him win a majority of votes in Orange County. In addition to aligning with Republican candidates nationally, KJ has strict gender roles and deeply conservative social norms.
4. Local political domination was an early goal with social cohesion and low employment as weapons.
Both communities dominated local politics early. Unlike Kiryas Joel, the Villages were able to execute a takeover of local politics with relative ease and simplicity. Sumter County was already older and Republican-leaning, The Villages’ rapid growth only made it more so.
But the projects both used similar weapons in their efforts. One, the homogeneity and social cohesion of both The Villages and KJ meant that they (effectively) voted as blocs, granting them immense political power. Even when politicians noticed the growing communities early in their development, they were loathe to take positions against the tightly-aligned voting blocs that could swing local elections.
Two, Satmar Hasids and retirees share one thing in common: they generally don’t work full-time. The time and flexibility afforded by their schedules enabled them to show up to local elections, community gatherings, and school board meetings, giving them each a voice beyond their mere voter rolls.
5. They moved fast and didn’t over-engineer it.
Neither KJ nor The Villages were created with a lot of preciousness. They built simple, inexpensive residences using tried-and-true templates. Neither will win any architectural awards, nor will they draw designers and architects from far and wide to study their vision of utopian living like Arcosanti. But unlike Arcosanti, KJ and The Villages worked, accomplishing the founders’ goals and establishing strong, rapidly-growing cities on American soil from scratch.
There’s a lot of talk right now about building new cities. But there’s surprisingly little attention or respect paid to the people who are actually doing it. The city-builders among you may not agree with the visions, the politics, or the methodologies of KJ or The Villages, but that’s kinda the point: people are complicated, building for humans is messy business, and the designs that work are often not the designs we want to work.
But it’s worth studying and paying homage to the people who are making it happen today before deciding to reinvent the wheel.