How many of us have fantasized about getting in a policy maker’s face long enough to spout our two cents about some current issue that’s been bugging us?
Todd Durant has been thinking about just that for at least three years. A Texas-based IT professional, Durant has recently self-published a provocative book called “Build The New City!,” which proposes that constructing state-of-the-art “technopolises” for between 500,000 and 1 million people in areas less exposed to rising coastal waters is a way the United States would boost long-term employment and, perhaps more important, restore its sense of national purpose, a la the space program of the 1960s.
Durant, who chairs the planning and zoning boards in the Dallas suburb of Duncanville where he lives, doesn’t pretend to be an expert, which contributes to his book’s appeal but also its shortcomings. His book is rough around the edges, with derivative (and, at times, questionably practical) ideas, and research that is less than rigorous, as when Durant cites Wikipedia as a primary source. The book also has its share of contradictions, as when Durant claims cost of building a whole city from scratch (which he never calculates) could be met without government involvement but might be paid for through municipal bonds.
All that being said, Durant obviously has thought long and hard about the country’s problems, and his book isn’t just some predictable urbanist tract; how many city planners would go on record, as Durant does, espousing nuclear energy? And despite his strongly held convictions, Durant refreshingly admits that he doesn’t have all the answers. Throughout the book he encourages readers to go to the website www.BuildTheNewCity.com, and post their own ideas. Durant’s goal, he tells Builder, is to provide a forum that instigates a national debate on urgent challenges that Durant feels passionately the U.S. can no longer postpone or ignore.
A Grander Vision
Durant’s case is built around what he believes are incontrovertible facts. He sees the United States in a state of paralysis brought on by political polarization that is preventing the country from addressing critical problems in an urgent, rational way. One of those problems is the crumbling, antiquated infrastructure of its major cities. Another is the proximity of towns and cities to coastlines that are under increasing endangerment from rising seas. A third is an economy that’s simply not producing sufficient numbers of good-paying jobs to meet the country’s growing population.
His answer to these woes is for America to “set a goal of building a completely new, ultramodern city from the ground up—literally and figuratively—and fully populating that city within a span of 10 years.” Durant believes a project of such enormity, duplicated in several areas of the country, would create jobs and affordable housing; improve infrastructure, the educational system, and the environment; move millions of people out of harm’s way in low-lying coastal areas; and possibly stimulate a new export industry for U.S. companies.
Durant points out that smaller projects of the kind he’s talking about are already underway. The 1,500-acre, $40 billion Songdo International Business District in South Korea is expected, when completed in 2017, to include 80,000 apartments, 40 million square feet of residential space, 40 million square feet of office and retail space, and 10 million square feet of open space. All of its buildings will be LEED-certified. Another example is the 2,400-acre Tabu City in Kenya, which is expected to provide housing for 70,000 and create 115,000 permanent jobs.
In America, Durant envisions a New City of even grander proportions: one that would house at least 500,000, and create between 193,500 and 276,000 jobs. Technology—including ambient intelligence, of which Durant appears to be particularly fascinated—would drive virtually every facet of the city’s operations, including mass transit, upon which this city would rely heavily.
Along the way, Durant touches on everything from transportation to recycling, education, and something he’s dubbed the “DurantHybrid,” an urban grid notion whose features include placing heavy industry and utilities on a city’s periphery, and optimizing available parking spaces.
While Durant says relatively little about housing in his book, he goes on at length about how garbage would be disposed through an automatic vacuum waste removal system that he claims is already in use in 30 countries and on New York City’s Roosevelt Island. Durant also proposes that each New City be powered by a combination of alternative energy sources that includes a dedicated nuclear power plant. He fully anticipates opposition to this notion, given that the United States hasn’t started construction on a new nuclear plant since 1977, and hasn’t fired up a new plant since 1996.
Durant focuses a lot of his book’s attention on the dangers posed to people and property near shorelines. Over half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Durant further notes that 3.7 million people live within a few feet of high tide.
The recent damage caused by Hurricane Sandy sounded new alerts about the frequency and severity of storms attacking the Eastern Seaboard. “We fear that Hurricane Sandy gave only a modest preview of dangers to come, as we continue to power our global economy by burning fuels that pollute the air with heat-trapping gases,” wrote Benjamin Strauss of the research group Climate Central and Robert Kopp of Rutgers University, in last Sunday’s New York Times.
Durant doesn’t allow himself to get dragged into the climate change debate. But he asserts nonetheless “it has been factually proven that world sea levels are rising, consequently threatening low-lying coastal cities everywhere.” He sees the creation of a New City, located at a safe distance from the shoreline, as providing “an extremely plausible relocation option” for people in these danger areas.
Choosing a site for a New City would involve having every state submit bids for locations within its borders, just as cities submit bids to host the Olympics. Places would need to have water supplies adequate for 1 million people, and seismically stable ground for a nuclear facility. In selecting who might live in a New City, Durant proposes it would primarily be for people displaced by rising seas, but also people looking to escape older American cities that are overcrowded, beset by poverty, or lacking in good jobs and schools.
As a way to create a “national buzz” about such a project, Durant proposes that 5% to 10% of the residences in a New City be given away free of charge through a national lottery. (He’s fuzzy on how such a monumental project would be financed, although he prefers to keep taxpayer dollars our of the equation, and believes private and corporate money would flock to what could be an enticing investment opportunity.)
That buzz would be crucial for getting the nation on board with a project of such complexity and expense, says Durant. The project itself could serve as an antidote to what Durant sees as “the most insidious and disturbing problem” facing America today: a “ pervasive sense of pessimism and hopelessness about the prospects of significantly improving our situation. We seem to have simply lost our spirit and our drive to achieve something better for ourselves and our country. We seem resigned to mediocrity.”
The most valuable and long-lasting benefit of this effort, Durant contends, is that a New City “will generate an enormous boost in pride, morale and outlook of the nation.” It would be “this nation’s first great, inspirational challenge of the 21st Century. It is a project strictly by Americans, for Americans that all Americans can share. And it represents the greater good that America will ultimately share with the entire world.”