Satellite Cities Are Everywhere, And They Might Save Our Urban Future | Hyperloop One
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Satellite Cities Are Everywhere, And They Might Save Our Urban Future

Kevin Randall

When developers began building the city of Palava, India, about an hour’s drive east of Mumbai on a 4,500-acre greenfield site, they used the notion of 5-10-15. Daily needs should be a 5 minute walk away, errands due every couple of days should be a 10 minute walk, and tasks requiring completion once a month should be within a 15 to 20 minute walk. This, they deemed, was the ideal formula for happy living.

Palava, currently home to 8,500 families, is a grand-scale experiment in how to solve the social and geographic challenge posed by India’s rapidly growing middle class, which has doubled in size over the last eight years. The typical household income of new home buyers in Pavala is in the $18,000 to $30,000 range, and the developer, the Lodha Group, has set a goal for Palava of 500,000 residents and 100,000 jobs, and to rank among the top 50 most livable cities in the world by 2025. At the moment, no Indian city is ranked in the top 100.

So-called satellite cities such as Pavala have emerged over the last decade as a means to reconcile the seemingly intractable problems created by the conventional relationship between cities and suburbs: congestion, pollution, skyrocketing housing costs, hyper-gentrification (e.g. San Francisco), reduced diversity in city centers, and affordability, acute divide in public school quality, the rise of "super commuters,” and higher rates of obesity.

Proponents of satellite cities argue that by establishing more self-sufficient and smaller metropolitan areas further from a major city than a traditional suburb, they offer the best of a city (a jobs-rich and culturally-rich central business district) and a suburb (affordable housing, walkable green space). Commute times are shorter and there’s less congestion since residents work close to their homes. And as next-generation transportation evolves, such as hyperloop, self-driving and shared vehicles, air taxis and package-delivering drones, the physical distance between satellite cities and major urban centers will decrease and connectivity will increase. The development of satellite towns could also help bridge the growing political, social, ethnic, cultural and economic divide between urban and rural populations.

Satellite cities and towns have developed over the years with varying degrees of success. Their execution is farthest along in the developing world where problems of urban overcrowding, pollution and socioeconomic inequality are more acute than in the developed world.

China has been a pioneer of the concept. One such project, a new satellite city planned in Southwest China, could serve as a model for satellite cities worldwide. When complete, Chengdu Great City — a population-dense city located about two miles outside Chengdu — will have enough housing to accommodate 80,000 people. Streets are designed so any location can be reached by 15 minutes on foot. Its master plan, created by Chicago architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, will allow for cars but only half of the road area can be used for motorized vehicles. The city will also connect via public transit to the larger nearby city of Chengdu.

East African governments and private partners have also pushed a number of satellite efforts. In Kenya, Tatu City (planned for 62,000 residents) will complement and slightly compete with nearby Nairobi. Kenya’s Konza Technology City aims to become the ‘Silicon Savannah’ with the necessary supportive infrastructure for education, healthcare, housing, recreation and transit.

Ambitious satellite city development in the U.S. has been less robust, likely attributable to long-term demographic and economic trends. Small towns have been losing population to metro areas; today, more than 80% of Americans live in big cities. However, over the past year, 11 states saw small-town growth: Utah, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Florida, Idaho, Delaware, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and South Carolina. Quality of life factors including education, transportation, housing and jobs figure into these trends. All of these states show up in U.S. News' top-15 Best States for job growth; seven are in the top 15 for attracting young people.

Population in Vineyard, Utah, a tech industry satellite town, grew 24% from 2015 to 2016. Utah Valley University is building a campus in Vineyard which will be served by a new commuter rail and mass transit system. New homes with views of Utah Lake and nearby mountains are also a draw. "It's the only place maybe even in the state of Utah that you could live and not have to have a car," says Utah County City Manager, Jake McHargue.

Still, history is full of failed satellites, grandiose plans that never got built and utopias that turned into ghost towns. They mark every continent. Brazil’s Fordlandia. England’s Harlow. Egypt’s New Cairo. Critics of satellite cities point to exorbitant infrastructure development costs and the long development timetable.

However, satellite city planners now benefit from nearly a century of data and experience on what works. If nothing else, there appears to be some encouraging signs around the world that satellite development is worth trying, if only to address an array of problems that are only worsening. It’s also possible that satellites, rather than being a separate ‘third way’ of urban development will, through new and faster modes of transport, help make both the adjacent major cities and suburbs better places to inhabit overall.

Kevin Randall is a writer who has also contributed to “The New York Times” and “Harvard Business Review”