Utopia is a centuries-old genre that aims to answer the question: How can we create a better world for the environment and humanity? When people try to realize a utopian vision, though, the result is often the opposite. We could very well see this with Telosa.
Earlier this month, former Walmart CEO Marc Lore made headlines when he announced a plan to build “the most sustainable [and inclusive] city in the world.” The future city of Telosa, meaning “highest purpose,” is envisioned as a land endowment in the U.S. West for a projected 5 million people. At the outset, the project will cost $400 billion and be built from the ground up with low-carbon technology, sustainable building materials and efficient public transport.
There are a few positive elements at play here. The goal of a land endowment — the centerpiece of Lore’s vision — is to invest in the long-term financial interest of the beneficiaries, i.e. future Telosans. Now that monorails and self-driving cars are no longer a question of how but when, the city also aims to help people and cutting-edge tech coexist in harmony. As the creative force behind the Copenhill waste-to-energy plant ski slope, architect Bjarke Ingels, Lore’s collaborator, is a good choice to make this happen.
On the other hand, what does it mean for capitalists like Lore to build the future of inclusivity? In a statement about the future Telosa, Lore proposes land endowment as a form of “inclusive growth.” It’s a major feature of his new economic model of Equitism, a version of capitalism that reframes land ownership to “set the global standard for urban living and expand human potential by becoming a blueprint for future generations.” His ideas lean strongly on inclusive design, with a focus on bikes and pedestrians.
But sustainability and inclusivity don’t necessarily go hand in hand. In this sense, we might see Telosa as a potentially misguided response to climate change. As extreme weather patterns gnaw at the country from the coasts, people will move inland as resources become scarce. Because we live in a deeply unequal world, we know communities of color will be harder hit.
Back to Lore, who plans to build a hallmark viewing tower called Equitism as homage to his economic philosophy. At first glance, this hits a strange chord: Towers are naturally exclusive because they are set apart from the surrounding landscape. Plus, the name seems better suited to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Barney Stinson’s video CV.
Many believe equity involves building something new rather than simply patching what we have - and this includes entities from Lore to Black Lives Matter. Though the Telosa site outlines commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, the founder and lead architect are still white and male. Given the enormous link between environmental justice and racial justice and renewed calls for deconstructing systemic racism, Lore’s idea begs the question: Who is the city really for? Who are the 5 million people with the money to move to and live in Telosa?
To become real, utopian ideas require collective, large-scale buy-in. Lore aims to build a “new model for society.” But the creators of the Red, Black & Green New Deal, for example, argue equitable environmental change should be led by those climate change affects most.
If Lore is after large-scale impact, he might look to MacKenzie Scott’s idea. The ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos made waves in the philanthropy sphere when she gifted more than $4 billion to 384 groups across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and D.C. Her record-breaking donations spanned social issues from food and housing insecurity to medical debt and domestic violence. Most were in the form of unrestricted grants that were specifically intended to benefit the marginalized groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Let’s be realistic: Billionaires alone can’t solve climate change or lead us forward into the scary world just over the precipice. But they can certainly help in the fight to make more cities more sustainable.
American infrastructure is long overdue for a crucial look at the systemic racism embedded in it. While researchers figure out how best to apply funds from the 2021 infrastructure bill, billionaires with a vision and cash to spend might better put their money towards reducing inequality in the urban planning of the here and now.
Improving infrastructure with, say, solar energy and fossil fuel-free steel is likely cheaper and more sustainable than building from scratch - and can be applied more evenly across the board. Though it may come without the legacy or global recognition, it will help a lot more people faster.
Image credit: City of Telosa website