ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno
Over the past few years, some Silicon Valley elites have quietly bought up more than 200 square kilometres of arid farmland in Solano County, just over an hour from San Francisco in Northern California. Now they have unveiled their plan: to create a sustainable city from scratch, powered by renewable energy and designed to promote public transport and water efficiency. "[The project] is sort of shrouded in mystery, there's a lot of speculation out there," said Solano County District 5 Supervisor Mitch Mashburn a few months ago.
A project shrouded in mystery
The mystery has generated interest, concern and speculation, as the promoters of the project, called California Forever, themselves acknowledge. It is led by former Goldman Sachs trader Jan Sramek, and its investors include several Silicon Valley figures: Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist; Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn; Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of the philanthropic group Emerson Collective and wife of Steve Jobs; Patrick and John Collison, the brothers who co-founded the payment processor Stripe; and tech entrepreneurs Daniel Gross and Nat Friedman.
Its creators say they surveyed 1,400 residents of Solano County, located in Northern California between Sacramento, the Delta, San Francisco and Napa Valley. "Only 21% feel the county is currently on the right track and 81% of parents believe their children will not be able to afford to live in their current neighbourhood when they grow up," they say. "Instead of watching our kids leave, we have the opportunity to build a new community that attracts new employers, creates good paying local jobs, builds homes in walkable neighbourhoods, leads in environmental stewardship, and fuels a growing tax base to serve the county at large," tout the project’s promoters.
The project’s backers have released some drawings of the proposed new city. Credit: KRON 4
Lots of promises, little data
At the moment, all that is publicly on the table is a series of promises: the main one is to build a sustainable city with solar farms and a focus on agriculture and habitat conservation, which Solano's current residents (and potential future neighbours of the proposed city) will have to weigh in on. The website of California Forever vaguely explains the goals of the project and includes AI-generated drawings of a green and sunny city by the bay. "A vague website attempts to justify the construction of a new city near San Francisco with pretty pictures and promises of a better life," says tech website The Verge.
The project has received plenty of criticism from sceptics. "While we don't know how California Forever has been pitched to investors, it is a fair assumption it is also shaped by the profit motive: buying cheaper agricultural land, rezoning for housing and development, drawing in state funding for infrastructure, and seeing the land rise in value," Iain White, professor of environmental planning at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, told The Conversation. There are also those who suspect that the group's real purpose is to "create a city for the elite" under the guise of more housing.
The purported aim of the project is to build a sustainable city with solar farms. Credit: California Forever
A tendency to seek escape?
That may not be the only problem. "While the images appear sustainable, long-distance commuting may be a problem given the nature of the labour market in California, as might expectations of genuine community involvement in the project," says White. The expert points out that utopian schemes have long been criticised for their tendency towards authoritarianism, "a charge not unfamiliar to the tech sector in recent times."
Moreover, says White, there is a recurring utopian tendency in the tech sector to seek "escape" (be it to lunar colonies or new cities) rather than devote resources to tackling current urban problems. "Shouldn’t we seek to improve existing cities rather than abandon and start anew, possibly to create a gentrified enclave?" he muses.
California Forever maintains that this is not just another technological utopia. "Our vision for walkable neighbourhoods, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, good jobs and a healthy environment is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather going back to the basics that were once the norm across America, and learning from best practices to create the neighbourhoods of tomorrow." We'll have to wait and see if it gets built to answer White's question: "Is California Forever a utopian dream or just smart business?"
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