7 Lessons in City Building for 2023
Jackson Steger
0xb361
January 3rd, 2023

Happy new year!

In 2022, we had the pleasure of interviewing 30+ pioneers on our podcast, Campfire. This article is about some of the themes I’ve observed since we adopted the following editorial framework:

Campfire is a podcast that seeks to understand how to build new cities. Each week, we are joined by experts and practitioners from different startup cities, network states, and intentional living organizations.

Spotify | Apple

1. New cities should be built through a hyperlocal global citizenry.

Below, one can imagine a series of concentric circles that inform a framework for healthy regional planning:

h/t @BrentToderian on Twitter
h/t @BrentToderian on Twitter

The idea of the “15-minute city” is to build everything one needs within a short walk or bike ride. It’s a concept that comes from “New Urbanism” - a movement that prioritizes human-scale urban design. From a development perspective, this consists of building walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces (markets, parks, art/music venues etc.).

Strong micro-mobility options also help to expand the radius that one is willing to travel in their neighborhood
Strong micro-mobility options also help to expand the radius that one is willing to travel in their neighborhood

These neighborhoods can also deprioritize cars through clever design tricks. Here is an example from Barcelona:

Cars can still exist, they just don’t need to be the dominant species in a neighborhood. When we prioritize cars, these are the concrete chasms we effectively create for humans’ urban mobility:

I’d rather live where my movement is not so rigidly constrained. Also it’s good for our health and the planet’s when we use our bodies to get from A to B.

But these idyllic neighborhoods our guests describe can’t exist in vacuums - they are meant to be a part of larger regional and global puzzles. Because the ways we can work have evolved (thanks to a combo of COVID, Zoom, Starlink and more), we should expect that more people are able to live in more places for shorter amounts of time. The ways we make friends have also evolved and we should expect distributed networks of people to have a recurring desire to travel between linked neighborhoods at higher rates.

Therefore, town centers need to be clustered to benefit from access to larger-scale resources like hospitals, airports, and regional public transit.

Joel Anderson, a developer who is building a new downtown in Northern Alabama, shared with us how the ideal new US neighborhood is probably 20-30 minutes outside of a mid-sized city.

Putting Joel’s words into practice, Phil Levin shared in his episode how Culdesac was able to create a car-free neighborhood in Arizona on Tempe’s lightrail.

Culdesac, Arizona is the first car-free neighborhood in the US
Culdesac, Arizona is the first car-free neighborhood in the US

Financing something that has never been done before (like Culdesac) is always tricky. What made it possible for them to raise a $200 million round was an acute understanding of the different risk/reward profiles that real estate and traditional tech investors seek. Tech investors want to see the possibility of getting many multiples of their money back, but understand that there’s a high chance their investment fails. Real estate investors typically want a more reliable return, even if it means a lower ceiling on what they can make.

Culdesac understood this and was able to convince a range of tech & real estate stakeholders of a middleground vision.

Residents will move in to Culdesac in 2023 when construction completes.
Residents will move in to Culdesac in 2023 when construction completes.

2. Intentional living communities can enable one to excel across each domain of flourishing.

If we take that above concentric circle chart and add an additional layer, we can help build places that anchor one’s sense of belonging in an area. Folks who feel safe and supported by a community in their home will be less lonely and more committed to their local region.

For the rest of this section, I’ll specifically be referring to three different episodes that each feature a different coliving community.

  1. Radish: A coliving community organized around the idea that we are happiest surrounded by people we love and admire. I stayed there in parts of November and December 2022.

  2. Haven: A wellness-focused coliving community in Venice Beach. I lived there for for January and February of 2022.

  3. The Co-Creation Castle: A creativity-focused coliving experience that I participated in during January, February, and May of 2021.

What each of these places do well is that they organize around a specific intention. Haven’s wellness community has yoga studios and a gym for its health-oriented members. The Co-Creation Castle had daily programming and accountability for members’ creative projects. When you design physical layouts and programming for a certain person, your community inevitably attracts that kind of person.

When you have people living in a place for the same particular purpose, you then start to benefit from both economies of scale and heightened scores across flourishing domains. In plain English, this means that people are happier.

Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program measures six different domains that inform an individual’s ability to flourish and be happy. The CCC tracked five of those:

  1. Mental and physical health

  2. Financial and material stability

  3. Meaning and purpose

  4. Character and virtue

  5. Close social relationships

The CCC was able to prove that intentional communities boost members’ scores across domains.

It makes sense. Behavioral economic research shows that our behavior is largely dictated by our surroundings. A thoughtfully-designed layout and role model housemates can help influence others to have better habits and healthier lifestyles. If your housemates are working out, you’re more likely to join them. You’re also more likely to form close social relationships as a function of the time you spend with other like-minded people. Radish had a cute story about “other significant others” appear in the NYT’s Modern Love column.

The sixth flourishing domain is “happiness.” Radish is organized by the principle that we are happiest surrounded by people we love and admire. As Phil and his partner Kristen like to say, “make it easy.” We spend so much of our time traveling long distances to see our friends. Why not just live on the property with them? You can still have your own space (see lesson #5).

3. The building of new neighborhoods can leverage pre-fab to be a tech-driven and iterative process.

Not every neighborhood needs to be centrally planned and prepared for every detail of development for the next 20 years. Younger neighborhoods can utilize pre-fabricated technology to solve immediate problems while they embrace emergent strategy over the long-term.

For those who are unfamiliar, “pre-fab” structures refer to modular, standardized structures manufactured off-site.

Cabin bought a customized 4BR pre-fab shipping container two years ago that served as the foundation of its Neighborhood Zero. Given how well that has worked, we sought to learn more from folks working on pre-fab projects full time.

The CEOs of Astreia and Jupe shared that, in addition to the benefits of convenience and speed, pre-fab also offers the potential to “Tesla-fy” the home. They argued that the user experience of an integrated smart home outperforms buying IOT devices for a house in the same way that a Tesla outperforms sticking a dashcam on a Camry. Tesla made the “computer on wheels” possible. Now some pre-fab homes come already outfitted with smart devices and integrated machine learning algorithms that allow a house to understand its residents’ behavior patterns and adjust “home settings” accordingly. Very sci-fi, I know.

It’s early for the pre-fab space and new players are joining regularly. Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia recently announced “Backyard” - a spinout of Airbnb’s R&D Lab that makes prefab additional dwelling units. These ADUs, like much of the rest of prefab, have been criticized for their high pricetags. The reality is that even if you make home assembly cheaper, it’s still very expensive to move heavy things from one place to another.

Cabin has come across a way to reduce the cost of pre-fab housing units. We were able to build a 1BR tiny cabin this fall for about $25,000 by buying a pre-fab shed and by providing free housing to a “Builder-in-residence” to spend a few months at Neighborhood Zero outfitting the shed to be livable unit.

Charlie Frise (the aforementioned builder-in-residence) is also a past podcast guest and did an incredible job documenting his build experience in this video.

My gut is that folks building new cities ought to use pre-fab for experiments to understand their development needs, and then they should double down on the stuff that works. It’s up to you if you want to shell out a few extra grand for your house to also be a full-time computer 🤷‍♂️.

4. Seasteads could be a genuine solution to migration & housing crises if we can figure out the underlying technology

This was probably the episode that surprised me the most. Seasteads are floating, eco-restorative, politically autonomous communities in the middle of the ocean.

This image is a rendering, but there ARE a few early-stage seasteads out there
This image is a rendering, but there ARE a few early-stage seasteads out there

While the idea of seasteads reminded many podcast listeners of the 90s movie WaterWorld, I was struck by how some modular designs looked like an aquatic version of Settlers of Catan. An aquatic city comprised of hexagonal tiles (each with its own structure) enables seasteaders to rearrange plots of land with a high degree of composability, which is pretty cool. Ocean residents could be clustered around shared interests (Kind of like mini “Product Cities” - see lesson #7). Don't like your neighbors? Just move your single-family home’s tile.

Seasteading has a ways to go on the technical side, but can be a desirable option for humanity if we can figure out the fundamentals of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). OTEC systems use a temperature difference (between surface water and deep water) to power a turbine to produce electricity. Apparently, this can also desalinate water! OTEC could enable sustainability of a seasteading city's operations, but the technology isn’t all the way there yet.

The theory of how OTEC could power a seastead
The theory of how OTEC could power a seastead

If we do figure out how to enable seasteading at scale, this of course opens up huge amounts of territory that were previously not suitable enough habitats for humans.

5. Coliving hubs should be engineered for both serendipity and privacy

I’ve found coliving to be fun, fulfilling, and congenial. But not every coliving experience is created equal. There are certain design choices one can make to improve the experience.

  • Embrace the architectural pattern of caves & commons. This means that you should have a combination of useful shared/social spaces and private spaces. Introverts can retreat to their caves when they want to avoid the extroverts prowling in the commons (guilty as charged).

  • Be wary of the tradeoff between density and privacy. Haven benefits from very high-density. I had 90 housemates and it was a blast meeting new friends every time I went to the kitchen. But it also meant I shared a room with seven others which meant my sleep suffered. Radish had the best balance of privacy for me. Everyone got their own room (some even had their own apartment units) but there was still always stuff happening in common areas.

  • Build an industrial-sized kitchen. Large meals require more counter space, fridge real estate, and dishwashers.

  • Don’t put all the amenities on a roof or tucked away in a basement. Engineer serendipity by making people have to walk through common spaces often. A ton of organic social connection can happen this way. Also, I can’t tell you how many beautiful buildings I have stayed in where the amenities never get used because people are irrational and often don’t achieve the escape velocity needed to go somewhere else.

6. Network states can provide the social graphs for values-aligned people to crowdfund their own neighborhoods.

The idea of the “15-minute city” is to build everything one needs within a short walk or bike ride. It’s a concept that comes from “New urbanism” - a movement that prioritizes human-scale urban design. From a development perspective, this consists of building walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces (markets, parks, art/music venues etc.).

it has been illuminating to speak with leaders of Cabin, Afropolitan, and Kift to understand their roadmaps for how they intend to be cloud-first, land last.

While each network state’s roadmap differs, there is general consensus that at least the following steps are necessary (the order is debatable).

  1. Create and iterate on a vision.

  2. Make many people aware of that vision.

  3. Develop coordination mechanisms for enabling those many people to row in the same direction towards that vision.

  4. Articulate what citizenship/netizenship with your network state entails and begin issuing citizenship to aligned early members (this may be viewed as a subset of step 3).

  5. Raise funds.

  6. Acquire land.

I anticipate that collective ownership of large chunks of land (per Joel Anderson’s Commonwealth City idea) is bound to happen in one way or another. There seems to be societal thirst for liquid, democratized ownership of real assets. Network states can serve a helpful function by organizing people online by the kind of land & place they’re hoping to transform.

7. Startup cities come in many different flavors, but one helpful distinction is the difference between Product Cities and Platform Cities.

Zach Caceres has been working on new kinds of cities since I was in middle school. He has all kinds of great frameworks on his own newsletter, which we discuss in great detail in the episode.

One that I found very helpful: Platform Cities vs. Product Cities.

Platforms are enablers. They provide tools that enable their customers to do many numbers of different things. Think Facebook.

Products are journeys. They’re structured experiences and workflows. Think Hubspot or any SaaS tool.

Therefore a Platform City would be something like Próspera (which provides rules and tools for various kinds of economic development) and a Product City would be something like Kift or a future-state Afropolitan (with concrete onboarding steps and flows).

There are other ways to classify the many projects in the broader “Future of Living” space. I will do my best to uncover that language and provide that categorization in 2023.

Other worthwhile episodes

There are plenty of great episodes that I didn’t get to cover in this post (and a whole season that focused on DAOs instead of citybuilding), but I’ve linked a few episodes based on topics below.

  • The Long Now is a foundation that encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization (meaning the last 10,000 and the next 10,000 years). This was one of my absolute favorite episodes, but the takeaways were too disparate for me to distill into a single lesson in this post. I highly recommend listening.

  • Próspera and the Catawba Digital Economic Zone are both pioneering new legal frameworks for digital-first entities. Próspera is especially well-known in the startup cities space.

  • Patrick Lydon shared a vision for regenerative cities that stems from his passion for natural farming projects that he has helped steward in South Korea and Japan.

  • Angelo Alessio is anticipating a need for network states to have underlying protocols and infrastructure.

In 2023, Cabin invites more people to play our IRL RPG (in-real-life role-playing-game).

We’ll have more Campfire episodes in 2023 when appropriate. In the meantime, you can learn about Cabin’s plans to implement some of these lessons (among many others) in 2023 here.

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