Do not feel bad if you have never visited Broadacre City, it does not exist. Broadacre City is the brainchild of Frank Lloyd Wright, first unveiled in 1932. Wright was the colorful, often cantankerous, architect of such fame that his personal struggles with life seemed to pale into relative obscurity. Only the mass murders at his home, Taliesin, seemed to weigh on his reputation over the years. He truly lived on the “razor’s edge.”
Wright had been toying with the idea of something like Broadacre City for more than a decade. In his world view, architects and their architecture were at the pinnacle of the world order. We do not ascribe to that notion about architects, but with Broadacre City Wright might just have been on to something. In Wright’s mind there was an ideal size for cities, a balance between enough people to function effectively and efficiently, but not so many that the failings of mankind took over. Many of the issues in our major cities are now difficult to ignore. Was Wright’s concept self-serving romanticism, or a visionary look into the issues of population growth?
If you have worked in the private sector, you know that to be both effective and efficient you must determine if there is a functional size where economies of scale become outweighed by management overhead. These same issues exist when a city grows to a population where the infrastructure and human interactions become so complex that costs grow out of control, and conflict not cooperation becomes the norm. In municipalities bureaucracy replaces management, except that the bureaucrats have no personal stake in efficiency and effectiveness, only the power that comes with office.
Wright saw this problem and that is at least partly responsible for the Broadacre City concept. In Wright’s Day the technology did not exist to make his concept a reality, but much has changed in the last ninety years. Technology and connectivity have advanced so much in the last ninety years that creating geographically disbursed, but interconnected cities are not just a dream. These two things can be used to create more livable, safe, and ecologically sound population centers. Three things are blocking us from using Wright’s concept to build a better and more civil society.
First, we lack corporate management with the vision and willingness to change their concepts of physical structure. As a friend of mine likes to say for the first time in history we have “companies that are bigger than countries.” These companies are easily identified because we all invest in them, and all buy their products. Companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Tesla, and Walmart are all innovative, but often within existing structures. Amazon, Tesla, and Walmart “get it” and have relocated operations into lower cost, more manageable, disbursed geographies. Our technology giants do not get it and yet are in the best position to take advantage of the opportunity. They think nothing of sending jobs overseas for efficiencies and ignore the obvious opportunities here in America. From what I can see, only Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk “get it” and can rethink their business models as needed for success.
Second, the restructuring of the physical corporate landscape will challenge the perceived self-worth of politicians and could shift the balance of political power in unforeseen ways. There is nothing a politician hates more than a loss of power and job security. But that is the remaking of America that we are yearning for today, where citizens have a greater say in local issues. Geographically disbursing our cities into more manageable sizes will create more politicians, but less powerful ones. It does not take a genius to realize that the solution to fixing the issues in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles is not repeating more of everything, but rethinking the concept of “city.”
And third, as citizens we must be willing to embrace newer technologies and be willing to abandon larger cities in search of a better life. Commuting for hours, living in overpriced cramped spaces, suffering with high crime, and sending our children to bad schools is not the American dream. Shifting our population into smaller, geographically disbursed centers has great advantages, can be done, and the COVID pandemic may have just shown us the way. Disbursed population centers create business and job opportunities for associated businesses also. These opportunities are in safer, lower cost areas, and will spark an entrepreneurial rebirth.
What did Wright propose as a part of Broadacre City? Nothing difficult, only common sense. Families would build on no less than one-acre plots of land, with very few apartment dwellers. A buildout of technologies such as TV, telephone, and electrical interconnectivity. And more standard production with machine technology and scientific discovery at the core. These were a challenge in 1932, but none are today. Not all of Wright’s concepts are sound today, but the core concept of smaller cities has a lot of appeal.
Intel recently announced that they plan to invest $20 billion in the greater Columbus, Ohio area that will employ about 3,000 people. This is a great move, with greater opportunities for them and their employees. But Intel may have missed the opportunity to really be effective. By moving to an existing population center they inherit the issues of an urban center and must work within existing inefficient governmental systems.
The real opportunity is to go to a “greenfield” and do what Walt Disney did and build their own city. The opportunity to build new infrastructures tuned specifically to their needs and the needs of their employees is preferable to retrofitting old infrastructure of a major city. Employees will follow for opportunity and quality of life, so the base of existing workers is irrelevant. The opportunity is to build Intel City, not fit Intel City into Cleveland.
Our populations are bunched up on the east and west coasts, in sprawling, dirty, unsafe, and aging cities. Wright was wrong about many things in his life, but his vision for the ideal city may have some concepts that need to be explored with our newer technologies. Time will tell!