Urban Planting

The view on Znamenskya church on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg. 19th century photochrome print by unknown artist.

The dream of urban cosmopolitan prosperity has a long history... of failure

Several years ago, an economist named Paul Romer put forward a bold new idea about how to raise the standard of living and expedite economic growth in poor countries. His vision was to create charter cities—semi-autonomous city-states within economically underdeveloped countries—and import first-world laws and best practices to these zones. Third parties, like foreign governments or multinational corporations, would oversee the management of the zones, acting as sponsors, or charterers. The idea was that with the right infrastructure, free trade and development would thrive. Lured by low tax rates and labor costs, a stable government within a government, and reliable business-friendly rules, companies would set up shop.

If the first world has maxed out on its growth, and the so-called emerging economies are thwarted by third-world problems, then charter cities would provide the best of both worlds: a sanitized environment, grafted onto high-growth, low-cost territories, ruled by technocrats with deep pockets.

Romer’s charter city idea is the latest iteration of the “future city,” an idea that has been around for almost as long as there have been cities at all and is the subject of journalist Daniel Brook’s new book. As Brook writes in A History of Future Cities, four of the world’s cultural and business capitals—Shanghai, St. Petersburg, Dubai, and Mumbai—all gained prominence thanks to their willingness to think of themselves as cosmopolitan hubs, with their leaders importing foreign (usually Western) ideas, sometimes forcibly, to overcome national identity and reputation. Not unlike Romer’s hypothetical charter cities, the future cities of the past built architecture and infrastructure to mimic and ultimately attract foreign investment. They welcomed selected outsiders with open arms, offering them tax breaks, concessions, and preferential treatment, and they neutralized their otherness with a determined cosmopolitanism. The cities proclaimed cultural, political, legal, or even regulatory independence from their governing state. But more often than not, their ambitions were thwarted by conservatism, nationalism, and war—as well as an attachment to territorial and cultural values.

Brook’s narrative begins in Russia at the dawn of the 18th century, when Russia’s young tsar, who would come to be known as Peter the Great, embarked on an undercover voyage to learn from his European neighbors, traveling around the continent and even working as a shipyard intern for the Dutch East India company in Amsterdam. He claimed to have wanted to live like common people and to do what common people did, but came home with an epiphany of Bloombergian proportions: People, it turned out, were really just like machines!

“Like machines, people were composed of a series of complex but ultimately rational systems,” writes Brook of Peter’s conversion, “and as in any machine, changing the inputs would change the outcomes ... if human society was a rational system, then social change was just an engineering problem.” The emperor vowed to use his knowledge and the world’s technologies to change Russia’s feudal populace into a cosmopolitan and productive society. The logic was identical to that of Romer’s charter cities: If Peter the Great could imported favorable Dutch stimuli—architecture, technology, and experts—wouldn’t his people act more Dutch?

When building St. Petersburg in Amsterdam’s image, Peter imported everything: wheelbarrows, boat paddles, and people, thousands of them. In fact, there were so many imported people that visitors couldn’t tell where in the world they even were. Brook cites a pair of Irish sisters who remarked that Petersburg “was overrun with French as with locusts.”

With these new residents came new buildings, new ideas, and new ways of doing things, but it wasn’t always the best use of the city’s resources. As Brook puts it, “the best Western minds had indeed been brought to the new Russian capital, but they were being tasked with the most decadent and inane assignments, which they dutifully took up with complete scientific rigor.” This pattern continued under Peter’s successor, Catherine, who vowed to turn St. Petersburg into the art capital of the world. The resounding success of her project is visible still throughout the city, but at the time, as Brook writes, “Russia’s greatest art collection contained virtually no Russian art, just as Russia’s greatest city all around it had virtually no Russian buildings.”

Such ambitious plans came back to haunt the city when the French Revolution broke out and Russian citizens and foreign visitors alike grew excited by the prospects of revolution. Catherine became a reactionary, banning books, suppressing free speech, and reversing much of the cultural openness that her predecessor had pioneered. And despite some key changes in the country’s social structure—notably, the end of feudalism—Russia’s subsequent rulers continued to turn inward. Tsar Nicholas I restricted railroad travel to prevent people from opening their minds too much. In a last-ditch attempt at keeping St. Petersburg Russian, Alexander III built the Cathedral of Spilled Blood, a gaudy, swirling structure that’s so intensely Russian it looks like a psychedelic Fabergé egg.

Russia continued to attract foreign investment— as it so happens, newly freed serfs in an autocracy make for cheap, servile laborers—and the presence of multinationals expedited the country’s industrialization. But with industrialization came a massive disparity in wealth and living conditions, and the cosmopolitanism that Peter the Great sought for so long manifested primarily in the lavish boutiques along Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg’s Fifth Avenue.

The backlash continued during the Soviet era. St. Petersburg—renamed Leningrad—had become known as something of a rebel city and was marginalized culturally and politically for its openness. “The purge of Leningrad’s revolutionaries was also a purging of the revolutionary values of Russia’s gateway—the love of the new and the foreign in architecture, the arts, literature, and politics,” writes Brook. In the Soviet era, there was no room left for cosmopolitanism. Even the Internationale was axed in favor of a more nationalistic song.

Despite the utopian communist ideal of a united, international proletariat, Communism precipitated the decline of another great “future city”: Shanghai. Brook introduces his reader to Shanghai in the early 20th century when, after the Opium Wars, China signed “unequal treaties” with foreign powers. These commercial deals forced Shanghai and other cities to establish special extraterritorial zones where foreigners could live, work, and be taxed and tried by an external set of rules. In many ways, these were the original charter cities, but the concessions were organized by nationality.

As Brooks tells it, Shanghai’s concessions were a haven in every sense of the word. Jews, Parsis, and other displaced persons from all over the world came to live, work, play, and shop in the only place on earth that did not require an entry visa. (Later, Brook notes, the government began requiring a special visa to enter Shanghai at all.) But as Shanghai fever spread, discontent escalated throughout the rest of the country, leading to the overthrow of China’s imperial leaders. “With each new stunning skyscraper and luxurious nightclub, the metropolis on the Huangpu became more estranged from the rest of China,” Brook writes, adding that as it grew, “China’s greatest city would always be dwarfed by the countryside’s hundreds of millions of peasants, many of whom were now armed under Mao Zedong with China’s capitalist heart in their crosshairs ... Shanghai was in China, after all.”

In Future Cities, Brook tells the story of each city through an appraisal of its architectural evolution. Sequestered zones, foreign quarters, and Art Deco illustrate the influence of expats in Shanghai; canals and European-style houses yield to Orthodox cathedrals as reactionary sentiment grows in Petersburg; and East-meets-West hybrid buildings in Bombay symbolize the “eclectic mix of Indian village market and London high street” atmosphere that arose as the British developed the area into their idea of a model city.

As per Brook’s account, Bombay’s metamorphosis into India’s main metropolis and trading hub was largely thanks to Sir Bartle Frere, the governor of Bombay in the mid 1800s. Frere managed his city under the premise that “even Indians could be properly civilized through exposure to Western culture and education.” So, like Peter the Great, he tried to create Anglicized Indians through osmosis, importing British architects, ruling with a European administrative style, and installing British schools. If this sounds a lot like Romer’s plan, that’s because charter cities are practically colonial re-enactments, only with corporate gods in the place of monarchs. When India achieved independence under Gandhi, Brook writes, it did so “by disavowing Bombay by breaking the spell the city had cast over the subcontinent.”

Brook’s final city, Dubai, has yet to go through the cultural rags-to-riches cycle—mostly because it sprung from the desert sand relatively recently. Dubai never had any pretensions: It was built for astoundingly wealthy foreigners by astoundingly poor foreigners, with a tiny number of Emirate natives calling the shots. The only thing that both classes of foreigners have in common is a highly precarious existence: Visas can be revoked with a day’s notice. It has elevated being business-friendly to a raison d’être. And despite the UAE’s highly conservative environment, it has also redefined a certain type of freedom. Unlike most free economic zones in the world, where factories and companies are granted special tax privileges, “in Dubai, there were no corporate income taxes to begin with,” writes Brook. “The government was funded largely with the profits of state-owned enterprises, oil revenues, and sin taxes on alcohol,” leaving corporations to do as they pleased, with no responsibility toward the city, country, or world in which they operate.

Dubai also figured out a novel way for conservative Islam to coexist with the freewheeling Western consumerism that the city thrives on enabling. Like in concession-era Shanhgai and in Romer’s hypothetical charter cities, separate laws crafted specifically for businesses govern certain regions, like the McKinsey-designed Dubai International Financial Centre. “Carving Dubai into free zones was more than just an economic development strategy,” writes Brook. “While in the foreign concessions of Shanghai, different people were bound by different legal codes based on their nationality, in Dubai, the same people would be governed by different legal codes depending on where they were in the city. In Shanghai, extraterritoriality meant that you were in a legal sense, always back home; in Dubai, the free zones made traveling from neighborhood to neighborhood, in a legal sense, like moving from country to country.”

Dubai’s advantage over the rest of the world was its willingness to accept the total irrelevance but cosmetic necessity of countries. It could be every country, no country, and its own very particular kind of country, all at once.


A project as ambitious as Future Cities runs the risk of glossing over crucial historical facts, and it does—but not to the detriment of its greater mission. Brook contains the madness of revolutionary Russia, the decadence of extraterritorial Shanghai, and the heady days of early Dubai into a neat narrative arc while zooming in on each city’s architecture to add depth to the story and contribute his own considerable expertise. The thesis of Future Cities is almost Hegelian: Sleepy, provincial towns get fast-tracked into corporate cosmopolitanism by an ambitious leader until their global ambitions are suppressed by nationalist discontent. They undergo a period of stagnation until finally, they lead their nation into the new global economy we live in today. All of these changes come at the expense of the very poor.

Future Cities comes out at a time when cities are being extolled across the board as the shining economic future, or as the NGO circuit prefers to dub them, “engines of growth.” Economists make such pronouncements in good faith and with apparently good reason—a recent paper from the Brookings Institution estimated that the world’s 300 largest metro economies account for 48 percent of world GDP, while housing only 19 percent of the global population.

But cities aren’t all brick and mortar. They’ve become a metonym for free trade and a light regulatory hand, symbolizing automation, innovation, “new” economics. Every emerging economy must have its trademark metropolis—a commodity of sorts to mark its ascent.

The current state of the places Brook profiles speaks to this urban ideology. In 2013, St. Petersburg’s Nesvky Prospect has more than moved on from the Soviet era; it is, once again, comparable to Oxford Street, the Champs-Elysées, or Fifth Avenue—only now, its post-Soviet oligarchs are leaving Russia to mingle with the global elite rather than importing them. India dealt with bloated and antiquated bureaucratic operations for decades; it wasn’t until the country adopted a market-driven approach and began to follow the recommendations of the IMF and the World Bank that “the spiritual India of Gandhi and the socialist India of Nehru was razed and rebuilt in Bombay’s image: energetic, acquisitive, worldly.” Bombay—now Mumbai—and Shanghai are home to a range of multinational corporations. And though the glamorous abandonment of recession-era Dubai has become its own genre of disaster porn, the city continues to import the best of the West: Harvards, Googles, and Goldman Sachses. These cities learned to accommodate global capitalism by adopting a Jekyll and Hyde identity: becoming at once cities of the rich and cities of the poor.

The problem isn’t that these cities are, or hope to be cosmopolitan—it’s that the current face of cosmopolitanism is a superficial one. When the perpetrators of this new kind of melting pot come primarily from the investor class, one winds up with a bland cosmopolitan monoculture that crystallizes the world’s inequities into a snowglobe of Louis Vuitton luggage and Tiffany jewelry, mingling over pan-Asian cuisine cooked by a Frenchman, served on plates made in China, by Mexicans in an anonymous downtown high-rise made of glass and steel. Describing Peter the Great’s clusterfuck of foreign professionals, Brook writes that “with so little shared experience, a culture of lowest-common-denominator kitsch can arise itself.” He was talking about Russia—today’s kitsch capital—but he could have been describing the lobby of any given Ritz in any given city on earth today.

Pakistani architect Arif Hasan has a name for urban centers like the ones in Brook’s book. He calls them World-Class Cities:

According to the World-Class City agenda, the city ...should be an international event city (Olympics, sports fairs, etc)... It should have high-rise apartments as opposed to upgraded settlements and low-rise neighbourhoods. It should cater to tourism (often at the expense of local commerce). It should have malls as opposed to traditional markets... The most important repercussions of this agenda are that the requirements of global capital—and not local requirements—increasingly determine the physical and social form of the city.

Brook’s future cities arose more organically than Hasan’s somewhat mercenary portrayal, and for all their faults, the rulers of those cities had a grander, less cynical vision. Still, the direction in which they’re heading today—one that prioritizes multinational corporate culture over people—is troubling. Hasan’s thesis is particularly relevant when reading Brook’s descriptions of Bombay, where slums sit mere miles away from airports, hotels, and glittering skyscrapers. (Katherine Boo’s treatment of the subject, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, also comes to mind.)

Charter cities, if they succeed, will push this blandness further. They will be urban McMansions—McMetropolises, if you will. It’s not hard to imagine St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Shanghai, and also London, Geneva, New York, and Lagos culminating in a Dubaisian dystopia—“a cosmopolitan city where most people are not cosmopolitans,” where, per Brook, “the Indians really are Indian, the Egyptians really are Egyptian,” and fewer and fewer people have any sorts of rights at all.

Yet Dubai seems downright folksy compared to some of its newer offshoots. South Korea, for instance, has bought into the future-city mentality in name and in spirit alike. In 2010, I visited a suburb called Incheon near the Seoul airport, with a commercial area aptly named Tomorrow City and a free economic zone called Songdo. I was struck by how sterile the area was—it looked more like a prototype of a city than an actual city. Later, I looked it up online and read the following description:

Tomorrow City in Songdo is a futuristic city equipped with all the latest gadgets and technologies. Encompassing a space of over 47,000 m2, it is a six-story building consisting of the U-Transit Center, U-City Vision Center, U-Mall, and U-Square (all named to reflect the overarching theme of ‘ubiquitous city’). The U-Transit Center has a tourism information desk and a city tour stop ... The U-City Vision Center admits visitors every 30 minutes starting from 10 a.m. While they wait, visitors are entertained by a robot waiting at the entryway. Once inside, people can watch an exciting movie in the 3D Interactive Theater on the fourth floor or experience futuristic living on the fifth floor. Concluding a 70-minute tour, visitors will have the perfect photo opportunity to take pictures in the Vision Hall on the sixth floor. Tomorrow City is connected with the University of Incheon Station (Incheon Subway Line No. 1). The area right behind the station is Songdo Central Park, modeled after the famed Central Park in New York. Visitors can walk along a waterway supplied with sea water using seawater (the first of its kind in Korea!) or take a look at the Compact & Smart City and Incheon Global Fair Memorial.

At the time, Incheon was developing blocks upon blocks of hotels and office towers, presumably in the hope that a particular breed of global businessman would gravitate there—a sort of call of the wild for investment bankers and management consultants, stranded between airports and five-star hotels. It even launched an initiative called “Smile with English,” which provided language classes to make itself as Anglo-friendly as Hong Kong or Singapore.

But the great migration hadn’t happened yet; the only people listening to the K-pop blaring through telephone poles and lampposts were construction workers. One small drag of restaurants entertained hotel guests, and one grocery store remained open at all times. Near the hotel where I stayed, I saw a brand new office building with a massive hole at its center. It seemed empty, and the middle was omitted intentionally—as if to say: The city is so ready for the future that you could fly a plane through it.


Paul Romer's charter cities don’t exist yet, but there’s good reason to suspect that if they are built, they could well endure the same dialectical shifts as the cities Brook describes in Future Cities have seen. In a profile in the Atlantic, economist Sebastian Mallaby wrote that Romer had some potential takers in African countries at the time. That didn’t work out, so a couple of years ago Romer moved on to Honduras, and convinced its government to pass a constitutional amendment allowing certain zones function under different rules and regulations. Some members of the government were enthusiastic about the plan, and Romer was appointed to a so-called Transparency Commission, which would ensure a safe and honest transition to isolate a free-trade zone in one of the most dangerous countries on earth.

In theory, Romer’s plans had their own internal logic—he’d have made a great technocrat. But in practice, they proved much harder than anticipated. The very values he sought to promote through his charter city idea were busted before takeoff, when the Honduran government failed to live up to the Transparency Commission’s levels of, well, transparency. Romer quit the project last fall, and barely a month later, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled these zones unconstitutional.

Then, in February, the cities all of a sudden became legal again, through some political maneuvering and dismissals in the high court. It’s probably too early to say if the plans will come to fruition, but it won’t be surprising if a version of Romer’s charter cities becomes a reality in the next decade. If there’s ever been a time for a corporate-colonial throwback, ours is as good as any. If Brook’s Future Citieshas a moral, it’s that building a city on an imported, prefabricated idea of development is a design for discontent.