eyes on the U.S.

Mark Zuckerberg, King Abdullah And The Rise Of Private Cities

City kingmakers
City kingmakers
Benoît Georges

PARIS — First there was the campus. Next up Facebook city. The size of the "Zee town" project Mark Zuckerberg announced in February surprised many: For an estimated $200 billion, the king of social networks plans to build what will essentialy be an entire town — a 200-acre development in California's Silicon Valley featuring supermarkets, hotels, villas and even dormitories for the company's trainees.

The site will be located just a stone's throw from the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park. The campus, where the now-defunct Sun Microsystems used to be based, is already home to a few shops, restaurants and a medical clinic in a setting that is reminiscent of Disneyland or "The Village" in the TV series The Prisoner. Zuckerberg — with the help of world famous architect Frank Gehry — now wants to take things further still, by crossing the thin line between a closed village and a complete private city.

Seen from France, the idea of a private city can seem shocking given how the creation of our own towns, including those built after the war, always developed within a municipal framework. In France, only municipal governments are allowed to manage public services such as schools, roads, public transportation, water and land planning.


City privatization is less iconoclastic in the United States, where gated communities in places such as Sun City, Arizona, developed specifically for the elderly, have been sprining up over the last half-century. "Everywhere in the U.S., parts of cities have been organized as joint ownership property called common-interest development," says Julien Damon, a researcher in the urbanism department at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Old cities can't cope

The U.S. may have gotten a jump on this new kind of urban trend, but it's in the development world where private cities are really starting to make inroads, in some cases on a scale that makes Zuckerberg's plans pale in comparison.

In India, the HCC consortium began work a decade ago on a 100-square-kilometer town called Lavasa, located approximately 200 kilometers southwest of Mumbai. The project, which saw Italian-inspired buildings rise from the Indian mountains, is eventually expected to host more than 200,000 people. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah Economic City (Kaec) hopes to have 2 million residents by 2035. And Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was elected last year, has hailed the future creation of "model" private cities.

Lavasa, a planned city in India. Photo: Yoursamrut

"The real needs are in developing countries," says John Rossant, chairman of the New Cities Foundation, which recently published a report on the topic. "That's where new cities must be built because the old ones aren't capable of absorbing the rural exodus."


Often because they aren't able to finance new cities or renovate old ones, more and more states are turning to private operators that not only construct the new cities but also operate almost every service normally considered "public."

"The public sector doesn't exactly disappear because there's always an initial agreement with the public authorities on the infrastructure program or the property management," Rossant says. "On the other hand, the private sector needs guarantees that its investments will last for decades."

No taxes, just "service fees"

In the case of Kaec, the Saudi government sealed a public-private partnership with an estate development group from Dubai called Emaar Properties. The city has no mayor. Instead it has a CEO, Fahd al-Rasheed, who staunchly defends the model. "The private sector must, by definition, create value," he explains. "Therefore I must sell for more than the production costs. Politicians, in contrast, often struggle to create added value with services. They know the cost, but the price they charge citizens depends on political factors."

In Kaec, residents aren't taxed per se. Instead they pay "service fees" for security, water and waste collection, which different companies are contracted to handle. "The people pay us for a service, not to finance an administration," al-Rasheed says. "And since they are our clients, they don't hesitate to complain if they find the service is poor. In that case, the city can easily change providers."


Franck Vallerugo, urban economy chair at ESSEC Business School, believes this approach raises a real governance problem. "This is business-oriented reasoning," he says. "They expect to buy public peace with services, luxury and security. The people who live in those sorts of cities don't even ask to be voters, by the way. They couldn't care less about that."


Indeed, to guarantee a return on investment, private cities often emulate American gated communities by targeting the wealthy. Lavasa is a case in point. It offers hotels, a conference center and a campus, which all appeal to the wealthy, but it is cut off from the rest of the Indian population. To this day, the project has attracted more investors than residents.


"To exclude themselves from ancient urban areas that have become impossible to live in, wealthy populations exit the system and build themselves protected worlds," Vallerugo says. "The developments look like cities, with local services such as schools, hospitals, universities, sports and cultural centers, but there's no functional diversity whatsoever, no social bonding."

Rossant also emphasizes the importance of diversity. "To be successful, cities need different groups living together," he says. "That's what makes them dynamic, creative. If a city only targets the well-off, it cannot achieve success."

No real city without diversity? Zuckerberg might disagree.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Protests against gasoline price hikes in Lebanon

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Wai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where leaked documents show how some countries are lobbying to change a key report on climate change, Moscow announces new full lockdown and the world's first robot artist is arrested over spying allegations. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt looks at the rapprochement between two leaders currently at odds with Europe: UK's BoJo and Turkey's Erdogan.

[*Bodo - India, Nepal and Bengal]


💡  SPOTLIGHT

Bulgaria is COVID fail of the week: Our roving reporter is tired of asking "why"

With much attention now focused on rising COVID-19 cases in the UK and Moscow's new lockdown, a hidden story is in Bulgaria, which claims both Europe's highest death rate and lowest vaccination rate. By now, this reporter knows the drill

I suspected, while Google translating the Bulgarian news Wednesday morning, that I might be the last person in Sofia with an internet connection to have found out about the new COVID rules.

Following reports of 4,979 new COVID-19 cases and 214 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday, the Bulgarian government had announced that proof of vaccine or negative PCR tests will be required for access to restaurants, theaters, cinemas, gyms, clubs and shopping malls. Starting tomorrow.

I'd heard some chatter at the co-working place the night before, but after 18 months of coronavirus reporting, and pandemic living, both in my native Sweden and my former home in Paris, I wasn't up for another round on the topic.

Perhaps, that same plague fatigue was what caused me — when deciding to set up shop in Bulgaria a month ago — to miss the detail that this is both Europe's least vaccinated country and the one with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate.

I had chosen Sofia (Europe's oldest city!) on the latest stop of my now 12-year hunt for a place to sort of settle down for its cheap rent, cobblestoned city center … and its excellent nationwide WiFi. What more could you ask?

Well, vaccinations, it turned out. So here I was facing the COVID story again, after months exploring France's extra strict lockdown measures, Sweden's famous flirt with herd immunity, the mask morality police and anti-vaxx ideologues everywhere.

The world's pandemic press this week is focused on the UK, where again cases are skyrocketing, and Moscow's new lockdown. But here in a country of barely 7 million, where I didn't speak the language or know the history, what might I find? After just six weeks, I considered the social dispositions I had discerned, what political leanings I'd nosed out that might explain why 80% of the population still isn't vaccinated.

I had, for example, observed with great interest that Sofians never jaywalk. Maybe that was the angle? The striking incongruence between social conformity and vaccine refusal? Or maybe the upcoming parliamentary elections held a clue to the bad COVID management.

To answer these questions, I went where any hungry reporter would go: the burger joint on the corner.

- "So new restrictions huh? You think they might lockdown?"

- "Dunno. The usual? No chili?"

- "Right, no chili … So you think more people will get vaccinated now?"

- "We'll see. That'll be four leva."

Having spent the past 18 months among the army of finger-wagging, number-crunching armchair social scientists (both in and out of print) I had suddenly lost my hunger to "explain" why Bulgarians were the world's bad boy of the moment on the COVID front. Consider this just one roving reporter's version of pandemic fatigue.


Carl-Johan Karlsson

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Documents reveal countries lobbying against climate action: Leaked documents have revealed that some of the world's biggest fossil fuel and meat producing countries, including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia, are trying to water down a UN scientific report on climate change and pushing back on its recommendations for action, less than one month before the COP26 climate summit.

• COVID update: The city of Moscow plans to reintroduce lockdown measures next week, closing nearly all shops, bars and restaurants, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide seven-day workplace shutdown from Oct. 30 to combat the country's record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Meanwhile, India has crossed the 1 billion vaccinations milestone.

• India and Nepal floods death toll passes 180: Devastating floods in Nepal and the two Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kerala have killed at least 180 people, following record-breaking rainfall.

• Barbados elects first ever president: Governor general Dame Sandra Mason has been elected as Barbados' first president as the Caribbean island prepares to become a republic after voting to remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

• Trump to launch social media platform: After being banned from several social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would launch his own app called TRUTH Social in a bid "to fight back against Big Tech." The app is scheduled for release early next year.

• Human remains found in hunt for Gabby Petito's fiance: Suspected human remains and items belonging to Brian Laundrie were found in a Florida park, more than one month after his disappearance. Laundrie was a person of interest in the murder of his fiancee Gabby Petito, who was found dead by strangulation last month.

• Artist robot detained in Egypt over spying fear: Ai-Da, the world's ultra-realistic robot artist, was detained for 10 days by authorities in Egypt where it was due to present its latest art works, over fears the robot was part of an espionage plot. Ai-Da was eventually cleared through customs, hours before the exhibition was due to start.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Nine crimes and a tragedy," titles Brazilian daily Extra, after a report from Brazil's Senate concluded that President Jair Bolsonaro and his government had failed to act quickly to stop the deadly coronavirus pandemic, accusing them of crimes against humanity.


📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Erdogan and Boris Johnson: A new global power duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too, write Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung in German daily Die Welt.

🇹🇷🇬🇧 According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey. The country has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

⚠️ Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey. She never supported French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU. But now that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

🤝 At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense. The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life."

— David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter, following the announcement that imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's highest tribute to human rights defenders. Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, is praised for his "immense personal bravery" in fighting Putin's regime. The European Parliament called for his immediate release from jail, as Russian authorities opened a new criminal case against the activist that could see him stay in jail for another decade.

💬  LEXICON

魷魚的勝利

Chinese video platform Youku is under fire after announcing it is launching a new variety show called in Mandarin Squid's Victory (Yóuyú de shènglì) on social media, through a poster that also bears striking similarities with the visual identity of Netflix's current South Korean hit series Squid Game. Youku apologized by saying it was just a "draft" poster.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

A child stands in front of burning tires during a protest in Beirut against a new rise in fuel prices as Lebanon faces a crippling energy and economic crisis. — Photo: Marwan Naamani/dpa/ZUMA


✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Anyone want to guess Trump's first post on his upcoming social media platform...? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ