The future evolution of proprietary cities

We live in the era of urbanization.  Currently 54% of the World’s population lives in cities, up from 34% in 1960.  Such urbanization combined with political decentralization has led to the increasing importance of cities.  Cities have been inserting themselves into conversations which earlier only included nation states.

With that in mind I would like to examine the potential growth path of proprietary cities, cities where the land on which the city is built is owned by a single proprietor.  Such cities offer two advantages.  The first is better administration.  Many developing countries are riddled with corruption.  New cities can start with a blank slate in such areas as education and public safety, escaping often dysfunctional government bureaucracies.  The second is institutional change.  Proprietary cities can offer an island where there exists rule of law and property rights protections in countries that sorely need them.

So, why would a country offer a private developer institutional autonomy?  There are a number of reasons.  The private developer could show how increased economic activity would generate more taxes.  The private developer could guarantee the creation of a certain amount of jobs.  The private developer could ensure a certain amount of investment, alleviating the need of the state to build infrastructure.  Perhaps the state realizes territorial change is far easier than country wide institutional change.

Regardless of the reason why proprietary cities are spreading, the fact remains they are spreading.  However, proprietary cities are spreading under different institutional arrangements with their host states.   There are three categories of such arrangements.  First, some are being built as joint ventures with the host state.  Second, other proprietary cities have contractual arrangements with the host state.  Lastly, some host states create a legal framework for the creation of competing proprietary cities.

A public private venture, like King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, has several advantages.  First, governments typically have deeper pockets than private developers.  This allows greater initial investment.  Second, government involvement in the project could allow for greater institutional autonomy as the city is not entirely private, diminishing potential fears about a corporatist dystopia.  The downside is that greater government involvement means greater government involvement.  This will likely slow down any project with bureaucratic delays, as well as increasing the likelihood of further government intervention in the future.

While I do not expect public private ventures for proprietary cities will go away, they will not be the dominant form of proprietary cities either.  They will likely occupy a middle ground, used by corrupt governments to showcase a big project as well as to hand out favors to politically connected cronies.

Honduras has taken the furthest step in creating a legal framework for the creation of proprietary cities with ZEDEs.  While not proprietary cities, ZEDEs will be run by a technical secretary appointed by a government established committee, they do come close.  The ZEDE law allows for the creation of numerous competing zones.  Different developers can try different strategies to attract residents, the best strategies winning.

If Honduras sees success with the ZEDEs, similar laws will likely multiply throughout Central America.  Successful ZEDEs being copied along with the law.  It is possible other parts of the world, Africa for example, could notice the ZEDEs and copy them.  However, ultimately I am skeptical ZEDE style laws will grow beyond Central America.  Drafting such laws so as not to be corrupted by the political process is extremely difficult and there is no interest group which would push for the passage of such laws.

The most promising long term strategy, but likely the most difficult short term, is proprietary cities having exclusive contracts with their host states.  A city developer could draw up a contract and offer it to several different governments, promising increased tax revenue and the creation of new jobs.  The developer in return would ask for a degree of institutional autonomy to help the city flourish.  The main stumbling block is there does not exist any developer with enough experience or expertise to credibly offer such a contract.

However, as proprietary cities achieve success in other areas, such as Honduras, the skills necessary to create such a contract and credibly offer it will emerge.  Companies investing in ZEDEs and similar autonomous zones will begin to acquire the skills necessary for large scale expansion.  Eventually, private companies will competently be able to offer hundreds of millions to billions of dollar investments in new cities.  Such potential investments will give them strong bargaining power in asking for institutional autonomy.

Proprietary cities are likely to continue to compete with traditional city governments.  The success of proprietary cities will depend on the degree of institutional autonomy they obtain from host countries which in turn will depend on the mechanism by which they are able to exist in the host country.

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