“plan and drawings of the Minnesota Experimental City”
“In 1966, Spilhaus proposed building an experimental city from scratch — as one would build a prototype of a jet plane — to see if it would work. His city prototype would have included free transportation in computer-controlled “private people pods.” After all, the former dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology says, we ride free on elevators in office buildings and free on escalators in department stores, don’t we? “At what critical angle do we have to start paying a fare?”
MINNESOTA EXPERIMENTAL CITY (MXC)
Experimental City: The Sci-Fi Utopia That Never Was
by Zach Mortice / October 17, 2017
“To forestall the continuing growth of cities as “cancerous organisms,” the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) was conceived in the mid-1960s by epochal technologist Athelstan Spilhaus. A modular settlement of 250,000 people or more, the city was to be powered by clean energy and run on public transit. Experimental City would be a tabula rasa—a place to begin anew, free from the constraints and compromises of past cities, located in the remote marshlands of northern Minnesota.
Spilhaus could be gruff, but maintained a patrician air, expressed in his decades-running “Our New Age” comic strip, which confidently proclaimed science fiction to be science fact just around the corner. To advance the cause, he gathered around him a progressive cadre of experts including Buckminster Fuller and civil rights pioneer Whitney Young. The world they outlined was startlingly prescient.
Spilhaus was far ahead of the day’s consensus on climate change and the necessity of minimizing waste. (One newspaper headline: “’Recycling’ to be key to experimental city.”) The MXC predicted the rise of personal computers, video conferencing, and a proto-Internet that would allow networked remote shopping and banking. They envisioned how this technology would allow people to work from home, and extrapolated the subsequent effects on transit networks and urban development.
A “dual-mode” transit network addressed the first-mile, last-mile problem with individual vehicles that can be driven independently, but then hook into a series of cars running on a track as they near the city center. No traditional internal combustion engines would be allowed. Spilhaus envisioned an almost organic process of assembly and disassembly, in which modular components of buildings would be digested into the city sub-structure and used again. His experimental city was always a work in progress, constantly making and unmaking itself to perform better. The city’s price tag was estimated at $10 billion (in 1967 dollars), mostly to be funded by private industry. (The idea was to pay for it with the war surplus saved by ending war in Vietnam.) Completion was set, rather ominously, for 1984. The venture initially received some federal funding, but enthusiasm stalled when Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a former mayor of Minneapolis and a supporter of the plan) failed in his 1968 presidential bid.
“Illustration of dual-mode transportation options. “Mechanical Guidance” was ultimately selected for MXC’s transportation system”
Focusing their energies at the state level, backers convinced the Minnesota legislature to establish a state agency to set site criteria and find a location. They settled on 55,000 acres near the town of Swatara, Minnesota, and quickly attracted the wrath of local residents. By then it was the early 1970s, just a few years before the New York Daily News’ thunderous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline. The brand of the American city was wrecked; they were viewed as unredeemable hovels of crime, corruption, and unrest. Animated by both conservationism and NIMBY populism, the people of Swatara wanted no part in the MXC experiment, even though it sought to solve many of their ostensible concerns about dysfunctional urbanism. They marched more than 150 miles from their town to the state capital in St. Paul in a Minnesota January as protest. The MXC lost state support in 1973, effectively killing the project.
The new documentary The Experimental City by Chad Friedrichs (who directed 2011’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth) is a fantasia of mid-20th century techno-utopian fervor, depicted through the grainy imagery of tube TV. It takes us into a world of swirling cigarette smoke and stale coffee, technicians in white button-down collared shirts and horn-rimmed glasses, computers the size of small kitchens that run on reels of magnetic tape. Considering the scale of these experts’ ambition—to build a city that would solve the burgeoning crisis of urbanization from almost every angle—the technology at hand seems primitive, yet the future to them seemed close and under their control. The Experimental City illustrates a moment before the environmental movement had embraced technocracy and documents the run-up to our current political era. There is a distant parallel in President Trump’s campaign proclamations to “Make America Great Again” with ambitious investments in infrastructure. But the cast of characters that shepherded this project reminds us that the world of the film is long past.
“Top: MXC Plan – Bottom: Proposed Model of Experimental City”
One of the Experimental City’s most influential backers was Otto Silha, a progressive Republican; Silha was happy to work with Democratic Vice President Humphrey and root for his election as president because he supported the project. The ambition to build such a thing seems as wildly impossible today as it has since the early Eighties, and the failure of the MXC is an evocative symbol of this shift away from trusting in technocrats and the government striving to shape how we live. The end to central-planning ambition, and the fading expectation that the future is navigable and improvable, are hallmarks of our own political moment, exemplified by the dismissal of expertise by a large swath of the populace. As part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Freidrichs screened his film at the Chicago Cultural Center. In advance of the screening, Freidrichs took some time to chat with CityLab about the future that never was.”
>”From the end of World War II to the mid-20th-century space program, Americans had great faith in the ability of technocrats to execute hugely complex and ambitious plans. How did that spill over into the MXC?”
“You can really begin the story of the Experimental City at the end of World War II. For better or worse, that war was ended with a massive technological project—the Manhattan Project. It was a similar project that put together the best and the brightest and said, “Let’s solve this one issue.” You see that, likewise, with the missile program. Bernard Schriever, who was on the steering committee of the MXC, was in charge of getting the Minuteman missile ready to launch within 10 minutes. The idea that you could solve these things with experts, with a one-fix solution, was a very alluring idea, because it had been proven out in the past.”
“Meeting of the Minnesota Experimental City Authority”
>”This blue-ribbon panel of experts ran into political resistance from the citizens of Swatara, and they were able to kill the project. Their stance was part conservation-based, but also recognizable to anyone who has witnessed anti-development advocates in their own city. What did prominent environmental groups think of the MXC?”
“The Swatara folks were the ultimate NIMBYs because they had to be. There’s no way, when you look at it from their perspective, that it’s irrational to be a NIMBY. At the same time, there was an equally compelling conflict between the two approaches to environmentalism. Spilhaus very much believed in solving things with grand gestures and [that] it was solvable with technology. The history of environmentalism was rooted in a much more hands-off approach. Human hands corrupt nature. The Izaak Walton League, a prominent environmental group at the time, came out against the Experimental City.
“A protest against the Experimental City”
They felt that it would pollute. The last thing they needed were more cities. The last thing they needed was more urbanization. If anything, we need to spread people out, as opposed to concentrating them. In 1967, we didn’t have a lot of these groups. The point at which the MXC started to get covered more, and when opposing views on the MXC started to matter, was the early 1970s. By that point, the consensus about the right kind of environmentalism had solidified in a way that I’m not sure it had in ’65 and ’66 when this project started getting off the ground. Because these two things were on the rise—the grassroots appreciation of the little guy, as well as the mainstream environmental movement which was very suspicious of technology and perhaps even urbanism at the time—[they] made it so the MXC [was] received [by] the state agency at the wrong time in history. You get the sense that if it had been built 10 years earlier, it might have stood a better chance.”
>”Was it a canny political step for Spilhaus to refuse to explain how the MXC would look, so he wouldn’t be tied to a specific vision that might become unpopular? Or was it a blunder not to delineate a common vision early on so that everyone could unite around it?”
“I think Spilhaus wanted to keep it relatively vague. The idea was that it was going to be experimental and that it would change, so he didn’t want to be pinned down, partly because he didn’t want his city to be pinned down. I don’t think there’s guile here. From the vantage point of Otto Silha, there was a tendency to try to identify a couple of visuals, and the one that kept on coming up was the idea of the dome that would enclose the entire central core, or large parts of it. This was an era when the dome was viewed as futuristic, ecological, energy-saving; and [steering committee member Buckminster Fuller was at the peak of his popularity.
“Minnesota Experimental City Steering Committee member Buckminster Fuller presents geodesic domed enclosure to President Johnson (1967)”
When you listen to recordings of the workshops and the steering committee meetings, it comes up over and over again: the idea of a mile-wide dome as something that is not only utilitarian, but something that acts as a giant symbol for the city. A concrete image was needed, and they did locate that in the dome. By the early 1970s, the idea of the dome as something that would enclose a large area was abandoned. My guess it that it was viewed as a little too out-there. However, that stuck. Whenever you talked to residents [of Swatara], the thing that they always talked about is this dome. It became the ultimate negative symbol. The meaning of the dome changed. It was about control. It was about enclosing people. I don’t know what kind of image they could have presented that could have convinced the folks in Swatara that this was going to benefit them.”
“What the city might have looked like in cross section”
>”Spilhaus spoke of a range of technological and sociological improvements that the MXC would bring, and there was the idea that it would alter how people behaved and interacted very fundamentally. It’s not expounded upon at length in the film, but was this a particularly contentious topic, given all of the public mistrust and fear of statist social engineering?”
“They ran these workshops at the University of Minnesota from 1967 to ’68 on all manner of topics, technological as well as social. Some of these workshops were about education vis-à-vis the computer. That was viewed as something that would allow students to integrate into a school system through the computer, rather than their physical presence. In addition, [there was] the idea of the city as a kind of learning community, something that you could learn from—a kind of transparent city where students could be brought around and learn how cities actually function. The idea behind it was that this city would be so different and so unique that you wanted to make it so that people could adapt to it. They were truly thinking about people. And this is coming out at a time when technology is changing so rapidly, the idea was that society would be changing quickly anyway. In the Experimental City, they were thinking … “How can we keep people from being left behind?” That’s the optimistic read of the Experimental City. They were certainly aware that there would be concerns of what this city would actually be like. They didn’t have cynical outlooks. It was optimistic.”
“Utilidors infrastructure system proposed for the MXC”
>”Why have urbanists and policy leaders lost their ability to dream big, like with the Experimental City? And what can the MXC teach us?”
“I don’t know if urbanism is distinct from society, and I think there has been a general suspicion of this kind of project. Even amongst those who wish we could dream big, it seems foolhardy. I don’t see it being politically viable. There was a moment, in that post-World-War-II era, where we really got behind those big projects. There was a peak in this kind of project in the 1960s that made it conceivable to propose. As to why we don’t have those anymore, I would just try to identify one [factor]: A cynicism or tamping down of optimism. I asked a lot of our interviewees, “Have we kind of lost something?” The response we got was, yes, especially the ability to plan for the future. The idea of the future in the 1960s was everywhere. It was tied to this idea of progress, science, and in some senses, the idea of expertise. This wasn’t a people-power idea; this was a top-down idea that the smartest people in the world will guide us to a better future.
I did sense a kind of melancholy on the part of many interviewees who were associated with the MXC project that we have lost something very important in a kind of perceived consensus. Whether or not that consensus actually existed, or whether it just existed in the room that they happened to be in, it’s difficult to say. And perhaps that consensus just represented the people in power in the 1960s. A caveat to that is that they tried it, and they weren’t able to influence the future so much. Maybe that idea was bankrupt from the beginning. You can’t plan for the future. Humans don’t have the technical capacity, or the deep-down emotional capacity, to be able to plan for 20 years off. I can see it both ways. That’s the thing that really drew me to the project. There was something about a city that was going to improve all the other cities that was a very beautiful and noble idea, but at the same time, those counter arguments against that mentality were equally compelling, and that clash was really interesting.”
INVENTING the FUTURE
The Newest New Town / Feb 26 1973
“Minnesota’s “big north country,” with its gentle hills and thick stands of birch and pine, seems an unlikely spot for the most ambitious urban test yet conceived in the U.S. But last week 50,000 acres of Aitkin County, some 120 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, were officially chosen as the site of the Minnesota Experimental City. If all goes as planned, MXC, as the city is called for the time being, could be completed in 1985 and have a maximum population of 250,000. The experimental city is planned as a totally new town—with the accent on new. Unlike most of the nation’s other new communities, it will not be an instant suburb of another city. Instead, MXC will nestle in the wilderness as a self-contained entity, serving as a living laboratory for the most advanced ideas in urban planning, environment and technology. Planners expect that 130,000 jobs could be created in MXC, mainly in research-oriented industries like environmental technology and communications.
“Athelstan Spilhaus with his invention, the Comfortometer —
“a thing that tells you if you’re comfortable or not” (1935)
MXC will look like no other city anywhere. The whole downtown area will be roofed over so that residents can enjoy an overcoatless climate all year round. Electricity for the air conditioning might come from a municipal power plant that burns garbage in pollution-free furnaces. As for the people who live outside the city center, they will be able to shop either by cable TV from home, or else drive to automated highways that will whisk their cars to downtown parking lots that are a short, pleasant stroll from the stores. Or if people prefer to ride, there will be moving sidewalks and computer-run, driverless minibuses. Farms will be mixed with factories and homes to provide what Neil Pinney, MXC’s chief architect-planner, calls “a rural-urban balance” throughout the city.
“Conceptual drawing of MXC’s primary domed enclosure, proposed to be a mile wide in early discussions, but eventually scaled back.”
Nowhere in MXC will there be skyscrapers (“Psychologically alienating,” says Pinney, who used to work with Los Angeles City Planner William Pereira). In their place will be “megastructures” complete with their own housing units, streets and transit systems. While all this might sound like a Buck Rogers vision, the truth is that the planners have looked back as often as forward. Their stress is on old-fashioned values—”good food, good friends and a good relationship with the earth,” Pinney says. That means a return to windmills for some electrical power, to cottage industries for some employment, to a feeling of community through the intimate clustering of neighborhoods.
“We are inventing the future, not merely predicting it” –Spilly
This dream city is the brainchild of freewheeling Scientist Athelstan Spilhaus, an oceanographer, physicist and meteorologist. In the eight years since he first got the idea, MXC has drawn support from Twin Cities business leaders, the federal and state governments, and top thinkers like R. Buckminster Fuller, Economist Walter Heller and Urbanologist Harvey Perloff. Their combined efforts are aimed at starting construction by 1975. Surprisingly, the estimated cost—$8 billion to $12 billion—is not one of the prime worries of MXC’S eleven-man steering committee, which is confident that private industry will be willing to foot most of the bill.
Industrialists see MXC as a perfect test center for their new products and processes—everything from waterless toilets to people movers and charge accounts controlled instantaneously by computers. The primary financial objections so far have come from the Minnesota state legislature. Some senators wonder if the money needed to build MXC would not be better spent in helping existing cities and rural areas with their problems. But Otto Silha, publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune and a driving force behind MXC, replies tersely that everything done to date to help the sick cities has failed. MXC, on the other hand, represents a chance to stop both urban and rural decay by promoting a new and lively kind of city that is planned down to its last birch.
The people most directly affected, of course, are the present residents of Aitkin County. Some have banded together to form a “Save Our Northland” committee devoted to doing everything it can to preserve the area’s deer and quail hunting and wild, uncrowded spaces. But other residents favor having MXC as a neighbor. “What do we have to lose?” asks Housewife Barbara Hansen. Right now the county’s job opportunities are so limited that the only future for her children is “a one-way ticket to Minneapolis. With MXC we have a chance to give them a choice.” For city planners round the world, MXC’s bold concept also offers a choice in planning for the future.”
“A rendering of what this blockchain-based community might become”
In Nevada, a Utopian Vision Gets a Blockchain Twist
by Laura Bliss / March 9, 2021
“For as long as Nevada has been a state, private sector influence has been a part of public life. Lobbying by 1950s casino owners shielded the Las Vegas Strip and its billions in annual gaming revenue from municipal taxation and oversight. Decades before slot machines came along, the state constitution enshrined tax limits on the mining industry, which persist to this day. But a proposal by Blockchains LLC, a holding company based in Sparks that invests in blockchain-based software and applications, would put a 21st-century spin on the state’s special relationship — and on a perennial dream of building better cities from scratch. The firm’s CEO, Jeffrey Berns, envisions building a city that uses blockchain — the decentralized, network-based digital technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin — for business transactions and various government functions, such as personal identification and sales tax collection. In 2018, Berns purchased 70,000 acres of industrial park land outside of Reno, and in July the company released plans for “Painted Rock Smart City and Innovation Park” that describe a settlement of more than 36,000 residents, with 15,000 homes, 11 million square feet of commercial space and an economic output reaching $16 billion within 75 years of development. To pull it off, the company says that a special government entity that it calls “innovation zones” would be required.
The idea has won the endorsement of Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak. At a Feb. 26 press conference, Sisolak touted a draft bill that would authorize innovation zones as an out-of-the-box answer to the state’s longtime quest for economic diversification. Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on gaming and tourism, and Nevada is hunting for new industries. “These times call for a more urgent pace,” Sisolak said. “Confronting the reality of this pandemic, moving forward boldly in rebuilding our economy, getting people back to work: We cannot wait for economic recovery to come to us.” Under the proposal, any private sector applicant pursuing emerging technologies such as blockchain, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence would be allowed to develop a mixed-use community, so long as it clears minimum investment and greenfield land requirements.
Gradually gaining control over schools, infrastructure, utilities and other public services, the tech-backed local government would eventually have powers rivaling a county. Blockchains LLC — which has donated $60,000 to Sisolak and a PAC supporting him over the years — originated the draft bill and is primed to be its first beneficiary. (The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about those donations.) Yet Berns insists that his vision is anti-corporatist. In a city, using blockchain technologies to facilitate personal identification, taxation and other services would eliminate the need for intermediaries such as banks or government agencies, he said. “I want to create a place where blockchain is the foundation for creativity, honesty and transparency, and then build a smart city to serve the people who live there,” he said. “That’s ultimately the goal — to democratize democracy. I don’t believe we’ll have a democracy 20 years from now if we don’t do something new.”
What would a city built on blockchain look like? A handful of conceptual renderings in the company proposal shows a sci-fi suburban business park rising from the high desert. Details about the power, water and transportation infrastructure behind this futuristic oasis have not yet emerged, though Governor Sisolak has said that innovation zone developments could be carbon neutral. Berns, a former consumer protection attorney who built a fortune trading Ethereum, a blockchain-based cryptocurrency, is not the only such millionaire with utopia-building ambitions. A troupe of California expats pledged to rebuild Hurricane Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico using the powers of cryptocurrency in 2018, but the scheme has met resistance so far. In Senegal, the R&B star Akon’s $6 billion plan for “real-life Wakanda” that runs on his Akoin cryptocurrency has drawn criticism as a would-be playground for the elite. Some real-world governments are also looking at ways to incorporate blockchain into existing functions. Miami city commissioners recently voted to study moving certain municipal financial transactions to Bitcoin, allowing city workers to be paid in cryptocurrency, while residents could likewise use it to pay for city services. Estonia has been a global pioneer in using the technology to decentralize its personal identification and election systems, policies that have been credited for the country’s high levels of government trust.
But in Nevada, residents, local leaders and policy experts are questioning both the substance and the timing of the innovation zones proposal. Observers such as Hugh Jackson, the editor of the Nevada Current, a nonprofit news site, argue that Nevada’s twin public health and economic crises should command more of a direct response from their state government. “A lot of Nevadans are counting on legislators to at least pass some nice if modest advances on issues that matter,” he wrote on Feb 28. “Blockchains LLC doesn’t matter.” On March 2, commissioners in Storey County, where Blockchains hopes to build its city, voted to oppose what it called any “separatist governing control” that results from the legislation. Policy experts warn of the risks of transferring government powers to private sector actors. From the public’s point of view, “it’s almost entirely downsides,” says Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution. “You could easily lose quality control around essential infrastructure. We just saw what happens in Texas when an energy grid operator does not make necessary investments and how dangerous that can be.”
“Steinway Village, New York: An escape from labor organizers“
Past company-run towns also provide lessons, Tomer said. From Pullman, Illinois, to Steinway, New York, such late 19th- and early 20th-century settlements were full of what would now be considered safety and rights violations with little recourse for residents of the era. “It’s a huge part of why we have regulations now,” Tomer said. He also pointed to the challenges faced by more recent tech-flavored city-making projects. A bid by Sidewalk Labs to build a data-driven neighborhood on a brownfield waterfront site in Toronto is the most recent in the canon; that fell apart last summer after significant pushback by privacy advocates and downturns in the real estate market. Elsewhere, ambitious planned cities-within-cities like Songdo, South Korea or New York City’s Hudson Yards have struggled to attract residents. “Building whole neighborhoods from scratch — there’s just not a strong legacy on that,” Tomer said.
Ada Louise Huxtable comparing SOM's Hudson Yards proposals to sex toys in the WSJ in 2008 is iconic https://t.co/Pxc99L6qCA big ht to @mcmansionhell pic.twitter.com/wVAjB6HmxW
— Rebecca Baird-Remba (@thecitywanderer) March 21, 2019
In his recent remarks, Sisolak took pains to fend off comparisons to company towns of yore, stating that innovation zones would be subject to the same regulations and rules as any other city, including open meetings and ethics laws. It would be a “self-governing community, organized much like a traditional city or county, but wholly focused on the development of innovative and advanced technologies,” he said. It is unclear how that would work in practice, but an informational website cites as a comparison the Reedy Creek Improvement District in Florida, the entity set up to govern Walt Disney Company land, which includes residential communities as well as the Walt Disney World theme parks.
Another distinguishing factor written into the draft bill is that Nevada’s innovation zones would not receive the kind of tax abatements that Tesla received to build its Gigafactory in Storey County, which have saved the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Innovation zone sponsors would pay regular business taxes as well as special technology fees, and would be required to commit to a long-term investment of $1 billion and build on a minimum of 50,000 acres of land. Whether much demand exists among the private sector to invest in building a quasi-county entity is unclear. Storey County is also home to data centers owned by Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc., and Switch, among others. Clay Mitchell, a county commissioner who voted against the innovation zone proposal, said that he has not heard of another large player seeking to take on government-level of responsibility. Berns, the Blockchains CEO, explained that the draft legislation is designed to attract only “serious players with really innovative ideas that benefit the state” and would protect the public from the project’s risk of failure by phasing in governing powers over many years.
“In Blockchains’ proposed smart city, transparency is paramount: CEO”
Running a county, rather than an unincorporated community, he added, would reduce the need for public investment by the government. “But we’d still be bound by all the state laws we’d be bound by as a county,” he said. “We’re not asking for anything in terms of tax abatements or incentives. The risk is on us.” From a governance standpoint, at least one policy expert argues that the idea may hold counterintuitive merit. Christopher Stream, the director of the school of public policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that innovation zones could be seen as a healthy concession of control on the part of the state. Nevada is a Dillon’s rule state, which means that cities and counties govern only to the extent that they are specifically delegated by the state, limiting local control over a number of policy areas. That is why it was state legislators and officials — not counties or cities — that held special sessions and review panels to create tax incentives for Amazon, Tesla, the NFL and other corporate players that have recently located there. Another oft-cited result of Dillon’s rule is Nevada’s education system; under state law, the state’s 17 school districts are governed separately from the cities and counties they encompass, which can hinder them from responding to local needs.
“A rendering of pedestrians on a stroll through Blockchains’ take on pop-up urban life in the Nevada high desert.”
Nevada has seen numerous attempts going back to the 1950s to create more control for municipalities, but to little avail. A successful Blockchain-city could pave a path for existing localities to wield more governing power, Stream suggested. “If this is a way to break up that centralization, then that’s good for cities and communities who’ve also been hampered because of the state’s heavy handedness,” he said. But he also acknowledged the risks of passing that power down via private tech companies, rather than, say, via existing localities. Innovation zones could be “just a way for the governor to chase smokestacks, cut the ribbon on something, and let that be the end,” he said. The coming months will show what lawmakers make of this approach. Jon Ralston, editor of the nonprofit news site Nevada Independent and longtime political journalist, says that that the proposal may very well get a serious look, in part because of the lack of alternative ideas for bolstering the state’s economy. “I do think that the argument that Nevada should be thinking outside the box will have some resonance,” he said. “Clearly, it convinced the governor.”
A Private Tech City Opens for Business in Honduras
by Joshua Brustein / March 27, 2021
“If you’re going to work remotely, Próspera is a nice place to do it. Located on Roatán, a tropical island off the coast of Honduras, it features a series of airy offices and communal outdoor spaces with ocean views. There are other real estate developments on the island, but Próspera is the only one with its own set of laws and governing system. Próspera is the first project to gain approval from Honduras to start a privately governed charter city, under a national program started in 2013. It has its own constitution of sorts and a 3,500-page legal code with frameworks for political representation and the resolution of legal disputes, as well as minimum wage (higher than Honduras’s) and income taxes (lower in most cases). After nearly half a decade of development, the settlement will announce next week that it will begin considering applications from potential residents this summer.
“Beta Building, the first building within Próspera”
The first colonists will be e-residents. Próspera doesn’t yet have housing ready to be occupied. But even after the site is built out, most constituents will never set foot on local soil, says Erick Brimen, the chief executive officer of Honduras Próspera. Instead, Brimen expects about two-thirds of Prósperans to sign up for residency in order to incorporate businesses there or take jobs with local employers while living elsewhere. For many Central Americans, Brimen says it’ll be an attractive alternative to the meager economic opportunities afforded elsewhere in the region, whose governments he considers to be bureaucratic and corrupt. “You can have the rule of law virtually,” Brimen says.
“Phase 2 project renderings of residential complex designed by Zaha Hadid”
The idea behind charter cities, along with their predecessor seasteading, which sought to create independent nations floating in the ocean, is to compete for citizens through innovative, business-friendly governing systems. For some reason, the idea has long been linked to Honduras, an impoverished country whose governing system is classified as “partly free” by the human rights organization Freedom House. Paul Romer, an American economist who pioneered the idea of charter cities, tried to start one in the country a decade ago. It failed, but Honduras has spent much of the time since then writing a law to enable such cities, which are known in the country as Zedes, short for zonas de empleo y dessarollo económicos (employment and economic development zones).
But the prospect of creating pockets of prosperity that play by their own rules is controversial for obvious reasons. Próspera has drawn protests from local residents who see a lack of transparency and little to gain from its existence, and a group of local political leaders signed a letter of opposition in October. This month, an arm of the Technical University of Munich said it’s reevaluating its relationship with Próspera and that it generally withdraws from projects if there are indications of human rights violations. Representatives for TUM didn’t respond to requests to elaborate. A spokeswoman for Próspera says it has had a “great working relationship with TUM over the years.” After years of debate, Próspera will be the first real-world test of a divisive libertarian idea, says Beth Geglia, an anthropologist who studies charter cities. “There was a noticeable lull in the startup city movement in general until the Próspera Zede project got off the ground,” she says. “It’s ground zero.”
A 37-year old Venezuela native and U.S. citizen, Brimen presents himself as only mildly ideological. “It’s not, ‘Screw the state,’ or, ‘Let’s be libertarians,’” he says. “It’s somewhere in the middle.” He first got interested in private cities as a student at Babson College in an affluent suburb of Boston and came back to the idea after working in finance and starting several companies focused on entrepreneurship in Latin America. Brimen began looking to acquire land in Honduras in 2016. He spent the next several years writing Próspera’s charter and recruiting business partners.
One investor is Pronomos, an investment fund for charter cities backed by conservative billionaire Peter Thiel and run by Patri Friedman, the grandson of the late influential free-market economist Milton Friedman. The younger Friedman didn’t respond to a request for comment. Brimen says Pronomos holds a small stake. The idea behind Próspera as Brimen describes it is basically wage arbitrage. Honduran professionals can perform jobs for U.S. companies at far lower rates than their American counterparts, and Próspera can provide a jurisdiction that will give both workers and employers access to a more liberal and effective legal system, Brimen says. Próspera also fashions itself as an advantageous place to incorporate new businesses, a kind of tropical Delaware where paperwork moves quickly and no one asks for a bribe.
About 100 people are already working at the Próspera site. Future residents may choose to move into the development on Roatán or, eventually, to other Próspera locations. Sensitive to the idea that he’s creating a playground for rich foreigners, Brimen recently took a reporter on a Zoom tour of the development, pointing out that the paintings and furniture in the conference rooms were made by local artisans. At one point, he stopped to greet a group of attractive young professional types sitting around a picnic table. “How many of you are from Honduras?” he asks. Everyone’s hand goes up.
To design its virtual residency program late last year, Próspera hired Ott Vatter, who helped run Estonia’s e-residency program, through which the Baltic country offers a form of digital citizenship to foreigners. People who want to do business through Próspera must submit to a background check, as well as a review of whether they’ll be able to pay relevant taxes and their expected impact on Próspera’s “reputation and social harmony.” E-residents can then apply for rights to access Próspera itself through a day pass or longer-term arrangement. “We can build E-Próspera to have as many users as would possibly be interested,” says Vatter, who works from his home in Estonia but sets his background to a photo of Roatán during video calls. “The scalability is infinite.”
Venessa Cardenas Woods first met Brimen about three years ago, when she volunteered her house in Roatán as the site for one of his first meetings with locals. She’s a schoolteacher in Crawfish Rock, the village where Próspera is located, and part of the local patronato, an elected community board. She says she came away from the meeting thinking it would be a fairly standard tourist destination. It wasn’t until later that she learned about its broader ambitions under Zede law. “We’ve had many investors who came to this island, who built under normal municipal law,” she says. “They didn’t build their own state.”
The appropriation of land is a sensitive topic in Honduras, and many residents don’t trust the government to protect their property. President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been implicated in several drug trafficking cases in the U.S., and the legitimacy of his 2017 election has been widely questioned. Hernandez’s government didn’t reply to an interview request. Brimen insists he has no plans to take land from neighbors and says he doesn’t have the legal right to do so. “No one will ever, ever be able to say that because of anything we’ve done, they’re worse off,” he says. “We haven’t taken land, we don’t pollute, none of that.” Mark Lutter, who runs a research and advocacy group for charter city projects, is supportive of Próspera but says its focus on professional work may be a mismatch for the area, which would benefit more from manufacturing jobs. He also says the application process for residents uses needlessly provocative language.
As a government, Próspera is “experimenting with extremely limited and flawed representative democracy,” says Geglia, the anthropologist. She points to a rule through which landowners hold more voting power than other residents until the development matures. A spokeswoman for Próspera says the concerns are unfounded because the development will consist almost entirely of landowners as it is being established and that its charter is designed to enable the kind of representative governments that developed countries have today. But its neighbors in Honduras see flaws, too. Cardenas Woods says not enough Crawfish Rock residents were employed in construction or facilities jobs at Próspera and doubts the project will benefit her community in the long-term. But she says Brimen is just taking advantage of an opportunity with which Honduras officials presented him. “We’re going to focus more on the law than the project itself,” she says. “Our fight is with our own government.”
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