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Building the Voluntary City: Lessons from Gurgaon and Jamshedpur

The world’s urban population is growing very rapidly, especially in the developing world. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that in India alone such an expansion will require the building of, in essence, a new Chicago every year for the next several decades. The problem with these numbers is not the expense. The problem is political and organizational. Many currently less-developed countries, including India, remain high in corruption and low in efficiency, especially in the administration of their towns and cities. It would be wonderful if foresighted and public-spirited government planners would provide India and other developing nations with wise urban planning but it seems unwise to rely on what has historically been rare for this massive transformation. Is there an alternative?

In Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s private city (working paper) found in a new book Cities and Private Planning  Shruti Rajagopolan and I explore this question. Gurgaon, which I have written about before, shows both the successes and failures of private development. On the surface, Gurgaon is a gleaming, modern city built nearly overnight on wasteland. Gurgaon was built, however, without benefit of planning and its failures–most notably poor and inefficient provision of  water, sewage, and electricity–are a warning. The failures all stem from high transaction costs, Gurgaon’s private developers have simply not managed to Coasean bargain and internalize externalities. It’s clear from Gurgaon that cities need advance planning–a reservation of rights of way for water, sewage and electricity at the very minimum–but does the planning have to be provided by government which is often incapable of such foresight?

The lessons of Jamshedpur, India, suggest another approach. Jamshedpur is a private township, planned from the beginning by visionary businessman Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, who, after travelling to the United States to see Pittsburgh, returned to India to found Tata Iron and Steel. Jamshedpur has been run by a single, integrated entity for over 100 years and as it is integrated it has internalized externalities. As a result, Jamshedpur, India’s other private city, has some of the best urban infrastructure in all of India.

Gurgaon shows the benefits of competition. Jamshedpur the benefits of integration. Can we get the best of both worlds?

If the rights to develop Gurgaon had originally been sold in very large packages, some five to seven proprietary but competitive cities could have been created in that region. Within this system the role of the state is to make it possible to auction large parcels of land. Once such parcels and associated rights to develop the land are created, private developers will provision public goods and services up to the edge of their property.

As proprietary communities, the competitive cities would have every incentive to invest in and especially to plan for appropriate infrastructure. Moreover, with five to seven communities in the same region, competitive pressures would keep rents low and at efficient levels for maximizing net benefits (Buchanan and Goetz 1972, Sonstelie and Portney 1978). Within the larger city, subdivisions on the order of neighbourhoods and business districts could be sublet and run by competitive firms with the overarching city establishing rules to internalize externalities. Competitive private governments would also generate experimentation and innovation in new rules that would then spread through intercity learning (Romer 2010).

Thus, Rajagopolan and I conclude:

In the next five decades many entirely new cities with populations in the millions will be built in places where today there is little or no population or infrastructure. Most of the urban development will occur in the developing world where government resources are stretched thin and planning is in short supply. Gurgaon illustrates the scope and the limits of private sector provisioning when the state machinery fails to provide essential public goods. The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.

China’s Private Cities

In Rising private city operators in contemporary China, Jiao and Yu report that China’s private cities are growing.

…the last decade has witnessed a large growth in private city operators (PCOs) who plan, finance, build, operate and manage the infrastructure and public amenities of a new city as a whole. Different from previous PPPs, PCOs are a big breakthrough…they manage urban planning, industry development, investment attraction, and public goods and services. In other words, the traditional core functions of municipal governments are contracted out, and consequently, a significant neoliberal urban governance structure has become more prominent in China.

In the new business model, the China Fortune Land Development Co., Ltd. (CFLD) was undoubtedly the earliest and most successful. It manages 125 new cities or towns with a total area of over 4000 km2. Founded in 1998, the enterprise group has grown into a business giant with an annual income of CNY 83.8 billion in 2018. The company’s financial statements demonstrate that the annual return rate of net assets has grown as much as 30% annually from 2011 to 2018, which is the highest among the Chinese Fortune 500 companies.

As Rajagopalan and I argued in Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City the key development has been to scale large enough so that the private operator internalizes the externalities. Quoting Jiao and Yu again:

The key to solving this problem is to internalize positive externality so that costs and benefits mainly affect the parties who choose to incur them. The solution of the new model is to outsource Gu’An New Industry City as a whole to CFLD, which becomes involved in the life cycle including planning, infrastructure and amenity construction, investment attraction, operations and maintenance, and enterprise services. In this way, a city is regarded as a special product or a spatial cluster of public goods and services that can be produced by the coalition of the public and private sectors. The large-scale comprehensive development by a single private developer internalizes the externality of non-exclusive public amenities successfully and achieves a closed-loop return on investment.

As a result private firms are willing to make large investments. In Gu’An, an early CFLD city, for example:

CFLD has invested CNY 35 billion to build infrastructure and public amenities, including 181 roads with a length of 204 km, underground pipelines of 627 km, four thermal power plants, six water supply factories, a wastewater treatment plant, three sewage pumping stations, and 30 heat exchange stations. The 2018 Statistical Yearbook of Langfang City illustrates that the annual fiscal revenue increased to CNY 9 billion, and the fixed asset investment was approximately CNY 20 billion, and Gu’An achieved great success in terms of economic growth and urban development strongly promoted by the collaboration with CFLD.

By the way, The Journal of Special Jurisdictions, is looking for papers on these cities:

Although a relatively recent phenomenon in urban development, Chinese Contract Cities already cover 66,000 square kilometers and house tens of millions of residents. They host a wide range of businesses and have attracted huge amounts of investment. In cooperation, local government entities, private or public firms plan, build and operate Chinese contract cities.  Developers obtain land via contracts with local government or long-term leases with village collectives and enjoy revenues generated from economic activity in the planned and developed community. Residents contract a management firm for housing and other municipal services. In that way, Chinese contract cities offer innovative solutions to urban finance, planning, and management challenges.

The Chinese Contract Cities Conference will offer the world’s first international gathering of experts on this important new phenomenon.

…The proceedings of the Chinese Contract Cities Conference will appear in the Journal of Special Jurisdictions.

See also my previous post on Jialong, China’s Private City.

Jiaolong, China’s Private City

Shruti Rajagopalan and I wrote about India’s private cities, Guragaon and Jamshedpur in Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City. One thing we discovered was that transaction costs prevented private developers from coordinating on infrastructure such as sewage and electricity even though that was clearly the efficient solution and there was plenty of time to bargain. We suggested larger purchases–such as at Disneyland–were necessary to internalize the externalities.

In The Contractual Nature of the City, Qian Lu looks at Jiaolong, an unusual private city in China. Jiaolong is small, about 4.3 square km and a population of 100,000 but all the infrastructure including electricity, sewage, roads, apartments, shopping malls, aquarium, office buildings, and hotels have been built privately. The firm in charge, Jiaolong Co., has planning rights and crucially it collects 25% of all property tax which means it internalizes part of the increase in value generated by its investments.

Jiaolong is a city built and operated by a business corporation. This is rare in China because in most cases the local city government is in charge of urbanization. In almost all cities, government makes land and city planning, takes farmersland, builds city infrastructure, sells land to housing developers and manufacturers, operates police stations, hospitals, schools and universities. By holding the monopoly power of coercion, the government is able to pool together resources by fiat and hold transaction costs low.

The urbanization of Jiaolong is not based on coercive power, but by a series of contracts with Shuangliu government, firms, farmers, residents and other relevant parties. As the central contractor, Jiaolong Co. is able to simplify the contractual web and reduce coordination cost. The essential contracts are the investment contract with the county government to transfer planning rights, and a series of contracts with the government and firms to share tax. Tax sharing contracts define the income rights for Jiaolong so that Jiaolong could share the surplus of urban development and infrastructure construction. Sharing contracts also motivate Shuangliu government to provide public services including protection of property rights. A series of contracts transfer planning rights, land use rights, and income rights to Jiaolong Co., and thereby endogenize the externality of infrastructure building and urban development. From the perspective of institutional change, Jiaolong offers a case of contract-based rather than coercion-based urbanization, the latter being the typical approach in China.

Politically Incorrect Paper of the Day: The United Fruit Company was Good!

The United Fruit Company is the bogeyman of Latin America, the very apotheosis of neo-colonialism. And to be sure in the UFC history there is wrongdoing and plenty of fodder for conspiracy theories but the UFC also brought bananas (as export crop), tourism, and in many cases good governance to parts of Latin America. Much, however, depends on the institutional constraints within which the company operated. Esteban Mendez-Chacon and Diana Van Patten (on the job market) look at the UFC in Costa Rica.

The UFC needed to bring workers to remote locations and thus it invested heavily in worker welfare:

the UFC invested in sanitation infrastructure, launched health programs, and provided medical attention to its employees. Infrastructure investments included pipes, drinking water systems, sewage system, street lighting, macadamized roads, a dike (Sanou and Quesada, 1998), and by 1942 the company operated three hospitals in the country.

Given the remoteness the plantations and to reduce transportation costs, the UFC provided the majority of its workers with free housing within the company’s land. This was partially motivated by concerns with diseases like malaria and yellow fever, which spread easily if the population is constantly commuting from outside the plantation. By 1958 the majority of laborers lived in barracks-type structures… [which] exceeded the standards of many surrounding communities (Wiley, 2008).

Image result for united fruit companyThe UFC wasn’t just interested in healthy workers, they also needed to attract workers with stable families:

One of the services that the company provided within its camps was primary education to the children of its employees. The curriculum in the schools included vocational training and before the 1940s, was taught mostly in English. The emphasis on primary education was significant, and child labor became uncommon in the banana regions (Viales, 1998). By 1955, the company had constructed 62 primary schools within its landholdings in Costa Rica (May and Lasso, 1958). As shown in Figure 6a,spending per student in schools operated by the UFC was consistently higher than public spending in primary education between 1947 and 1963.21 On average, the company’s yearly spending was 23% higher than the government’s spending during this period.

…The UFC did not provide directly secondary education although offered some incentives. If the parents could afford the first two years of secondary education of their children in the United States, the UFC paid for the last two years and provided free transportation to and from the United States.

A key driver of UFC investment was that although the UFC was the sole employer within the regions in which it operated, it had to compete to obtain labor from other regions. Thus a 1925 UFC report writes:

We recommend a greater investment in corporate welfare beyond medical measures. An endeavor should be made to stabilize the population…we must not only build and maintain attractive and comfortable camps, but we must also provide measures for taking care of families of married men, by furnishing them with garden facilities, schools, and some forms of entertainment. In other words, we must take an interest in our people if we might hope to retain their services indefinitely.

This is exactly the dynamic which drove the provision of services and infrastructure in unjustly maligned US company towns. It’s also exactly what Rajagopalan and I found in the Indian company town of Jamshedpur, built by Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata.

The UFC ended in Costa Rica in 1984 but the authors find that it had a long-term positive impact. Using historical records, the authors discover a plausibly randomly-determined boundary line between UFC and non-UFC areas and comparing living standards just inside and just outside the boundary they find that households within the boundary today have better housing, sanitary conditions, education and consumption than households just outside the boundary. Overall:

We find that the firm had a positive and persistent effect on living standards. Regions within the UFC were 26% less likely to be poor in 1973 than nearby counterfactual locations, with only 63% of the gap closing over the following 3 decades.

The paper has appendixes A-J. In one appendix (!), they show using satellite data that regions within the boundary are more luminous at night than those just outside the region. The collection of data is especially notable:

For a better understanding of living standards and investments during UFC’s tenure, we collected and digitized UFC reports with data on wages, number of employees, production, and investments in areas such as education, housing, and health from collections held by Cornell University, University of Kansas, and the Center for Central American Historical Studies. We also use annual reports from the Medical Department of the UFC describing the sanitation and health programs and spending per patient in company-run hospitals from 1912 to 1931. We also collected data from Costa Rican Statistic Yearbooks, which from 1907 to 1917 contain details on the number of patients and health expenses carried out by hospitals in Costa Rica, including the ones ran by the UFC. Export data was also collected from these yearbooks, and from Export Bulletins. 19 agricultural censuses taken between 1900 and 1984 provide information on land use, and we use data from Costa Rican censuses between 1864-1963 to analyze aggregated population patterns, such as migration before and during the UFC apogee, or the size and occupation of the country’s labor force.

Overall, a tremendous paper.

Is Economic Research Biased by Partisanship?

The Washington Monthly, a magazine of ideas from the liberal-left, has a profile of me and my paper with Nathan Goldschlag, Is regulation to blame for the decline in American entrepreneurship? The profile ups the “libertarian says regulation not responsible for bad thing!” angle. My earlier paper, finding that more guns leads to more suicides, was also given the “even a libertarian says” angle. In both cases, I was treated fairly and well and since I wrote the papers to be read, I am happy for the publicity. But I am uncomfortable with these takes.

After all, I am not surprised that my research is not biased by partisanship. Why should other people be? Should I not be insulted? Moreover, I don’t think that I am special in this regard. I think that most academic research in economics is not biased by partisanship. Thus, while it’s nice to receive plaudits on twitter for honesty and bravery, they are undeserved. This is normal. Normal for me and normal for other economists. The public perception to the contrary likely comes from two failures–a failure to distinguish partisan commentary from academic research and a failure to consider that ideology influences topic more than findings.

Economic commentary in the media often does come from political partisans but that is a completely different role than publishing peer-reviewed research. Papers published in mainstream economics journals have passed a high bar and are much less likely to be infused with partisan bias–this is true even when the research leads to a blog post or op-ed that may be of partisan interest.

An economist’s ideology probably does influence the topics they choose to research. I’ve written on bounty hunters, privateers, and the private provision of public goods, topics surely influenced by my interest in how markets solve problems usually thought solvable only by governments. Choice of topic, however, does not necessarily determine the outcome. In the aforementioned three cases, my research can be read as broadly supportive of private solutions. The topics of dynamism and regulation, firearms and suicides, and private cities in India were probably also influenced by ideology but in these cases the research can be read as somewhat less supportive of private solutions.1 Let the chips fall where they may. I’ve learnt something in both sets of cases. My academic ideology, “a demand to know the truth,” trumps any narrow political ideology.

There’s another problem with praising a “libertarian”, or any researcher with strong beliefs, for honesty when their research conclusions don’t fit narrow priors. It puts their research that does fit narrow priors under a cloud. But only people with strong beliefs are put to this test. No one gets suspicious when a moderate democrat produces lots of research that fits moderate democrat priors. Why not? Do you assume reality is moderate?

I also wonder whether the people lauding me for my honest research–for which I thank them–will draw the correct conclusion. Namely, they should now be more receptive to my work on bounty hunters, privateers, and the private provision of public goods. Fingers crossed.

Let me conclude on a lighter note. There are many reasons why regulation could be costly outside of its effects on dynamism. Thus, for my friends who think that I have gone all-squishy, n.b.:

Not that Tabarrok himself has become a booster for regulation. He doesn’t think much of government’s ability to spark innovation through setting standards; the first thing he did when he last bought a new shower head, he said, was remove its federally mandated flow restrictor.

Read the whole thing.

Addendum 1: I have also written many papers like Would the Borda Count have Avoided the Civil War? and Patent Theory versus Patent Law where the topic was driven out of some non-ideological interest or simply because I had an idea. Publish or perish!

A City on the Hill

The Redeemed Christian Church of Nigeria has built its own private city.

A 25-megawatt power plant with gas piped in from the Nigerian capital serves the 5,000 private homes on site, 500 of them built by the church’s construction company. New housing estates are springing up every few months where thick palm forests grew just a few years ago. Education is provided, from creche to university level. The Redemption Camp health centre has an emergency unit and a maternity ward.

On Holiness Avenue, a branch of Tantaliser’s fast food chain does a brisk trade. There is an on-site post office, a supermarket, a dozen banks, furniture makers and mechanics’ workshops. An aerodrome and a polytechnic are in the works.

…“If you wait for the government, it won’t get done,” says Olubiyi. So the camp relies on the government for very little – it builds its own roads, collects its own rubbish, and organises its own sewerage systems. And being well out of Lagos, like the other megachurches’ camps, means that it has little to do with municipal authorities. Government officials can check that the church is complying with regulations, but they are expected to report to the camp’s relevant office. Sometimes, according to the head of the power plant, the government sends the technicians running its own stations to learn from them.

There is a police station on site, which occasionally deals with a death or the disappearance of a child, but the camp’s security is mostly provided by its small army of private guards in blue uniforms. They direct traffic, deal with crowd control, and stop children who haven’t paid for the wristband from going into Emmanuel Park – home to the aforementioned ferris wheel.

As in Gurgaon, India, where the government fails opportunities are opened for entrepreneurs who think big.

Mapping Indian addresses and managing Indian logistics

A startup named Delhivery has hired more than 15,000 staff, from developers to executives poached from Facebook and posh consultancies. Its headquarters in Gurgaon are so packed that engineers spill onto an outdoor porch, tapping their keyboards furiously. Delhivery, which works with a number of e-commerce firms, is using machine learning to subdivide India’s postcodes, the better to map idiosyncratic descriptions. “We’ll know the house with the yellow door next to the temple,” says Sandeep Barasia, the managing director. The company moves goods to 700 or so small distribution centres overnight to avoid congested main roads during business hours. Thousands of delivery boys then dash to and from the distribution centres throughout the day, bearing more than 20 kilos on their bikes.

That is from The Economist, a good article throughout.

Romer on Urban Growth

Here’s one bit from an excellent interview of Paul Romer on urban development:

Q. How are economics and planning and development of cities related each other?

Urban Expansion is an exception to the usual rule that an economy does not need a plan. Creating new built urban area requires a plan for the public space that will be used for mobility (sidewalks, bus lanes, bike lanes, auto lanes …) and for parks. At a minimum, this plan should provide for a network of arteries big enough to allow bus travel and dense enough that no location is more than 0.5 km from such an artery. This is the only thing that needs to be planned up front for land that is not yet developed. Everything else can wait. But if informal development comes first, it is too late. The area will never have enough public space to allow successful urban development.

I think Romer is correct. What surprised me most when studying Gurgaon in India was that despite strong demand, there wasn’t a lot of common infrastructure being built. The transaction costs of ex-post planning were simply too high.

In addition to transport arteries, I would also mention the importance of setting aside space and access points for sewage, electricity, and information arteries. It’s not even necessary that government provide these services or even the plan itself (private planning of large urban areas is also possible) but a plan has to be made. By reserving space for services in advance of development, developers and residents can greatly improve coordination and maximize the value of a city.

A simple, minimal urban plan is analogous to the rules of the game.

Designing Private Cities, Open to All

NEW YORK — The world is building more cities, faster than ever before. China used more cement in the last three years than the United States used in the entire 20th century. By 2050, India will need new urban infrastructure to house an additional 404 million people — a task comparable to building every city in the United States in just 35 years. The global urban population is expected to rise to well over six billion by 2050 from 3.9 billion today.

The world needs more cities. The task, however, is not simply to build new cities but to design them for today, tomorrow and the next century.

Jane Jacobs taught us that a city is a complex dance of top-down and bottom-up planning. Too much of one or the other and a city fails to meet the needs of its residents.

As the world urbanizes, we need to experiment with new urban forms and new forms of urban planning, and privately designed and operated cities — proprietary cities — like Jamshedpur, India, or Reston, Va., may provide answers.

That is the opening to an op-ed in the New York Times written by me and Shruti Rajagopolan, do read the whole thing.

Addendum: The op-ed is a precis to our paper, Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City in the book Cities and Private Planning. You can also listen to my EconTalk with Russ Roberts on these issues.

In Defense of the Company Town

In my EconTalk with Russ Roberts on proprietary cities I only mentioned company towns in passing. Even the great Milton Friedman got company towns wrong, however, so it’s worthwhile spending a little time to dispel some myths.

Take company stores. Why did mining companies often own the town store? The standard answer: to squeeze every nickel from the workers so they would “owe their soul to the company store.” But that lyrical argument makes no sense and the truth is actually closer to the opposite.

The mining towns were isolated geographically but they weren’t isolated from the national labor market. The number of workers in these towns moved up and down in response to the price of coal and the workers often traveled long-distances to work in the mines, sometimes from other states or other countries. The company towns were isolated not because the workers couldn’t get out but because few people wanted to live where coal was abundant. As a result, workers had to be enticed to travel to and to live in these towns. Oil rigs are similarly isolated today and once on board the workers have nowhere to go but the company restaurant, the company theater and the company gym but that hardly means that the workers are exploited.

Since the mine workers weren’t isolated from the national labor market they had to be paid wages consistent with wages elsewhere and indeed on an hourly basis wages in mining were higher than in manufacturing (not surprising since these jobs were riskier). Moreover, workers weren’t dumb and so–just like workers today–they would consider the price of housing and the price of goods in these towns so see how far their wages would take them. All of this suggests that workers would not be fooled by high wages and really high prices at the company store that nullified those wages. And indeed, prices at company stores were not especially high and were similar to prices at independent stores in similar locations.

It was possible to find examples of a good at a particular company store which had a markedly higher price than at a particular independent store but this was cherry picking, (I am reminded of the exam question about two rival supermarkets both of which advertise “the average consumer at our store would pay 20% more if they shopped at our competitor.” The question asks how it can be possible that both stores are telling the truth.) Comparing identical baskets, prices at company stores were not higher than at similar independent stores.

I said that the traditional story actually gets things backward. We can see how by asking why the companies owned the stores. First, independent stores had to bear a lot of risk because they would be selling in a local economy that was dependent on a single mine. That risk was better born by the mining firm itself because it knew more about coal and fluctuations in the price of coal, its own plans, the time the mine would be expected to be open and so forth. Thus, it was cheaper for the mines to own the stores than for independents to own the stores.

Second, if an independent store did open they would have a monopoly and would want to charge a monopoly price but–and this is key–the higher the price charged by the independent store the higher the wages the coal mine would have to pay to compensate the workers. Thus monopoly independents would be bad for the workers but they would also be bad for the owners of the mine. If the mine owned the store, however, they would have a greater incentive than the independent store to lower prices because that meant they could save on wages. Overall, both workers and mine owners would be better off with company stores (A classic example of the double marginalization problem).

Similar arguments apply to company owned housing. On the one hand, this did mean that during a lengthy strike the firm could evict the workers from their housing. On the other hand, would you want to buy a house in an isolated town dependent on a single industry? Would you want to own a major asset that was likely to fall in price at the same time that you were likely to lose your job? Probably not. Rental housing meant that workers had the freedom to leave town easily when better work opportunities were available elsewhere – i.e., it meant that the workers were less isolated from the national labor market than they would be if they owned their homes and were tied down to a single place and a single employer. Moreover, the fact that the housing was company owned meant lower prices than if the housing was owned by an independent monopoly developer, the most relevant alternative (again because of the double marginalization problem).

The bottom line is that far from being an example of the abuse of monopoly power, the company town was an effort to constrain monopoly power.

References: The best source for an accurate view of the company towns in the mining industry is Price Fishback’s Soft Coal, Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930. The book is based on a series of papers (JSTOR).

The company towns built by the mines weren’t especially pretty but some of the other company towns, especially those which employed high-skilled workers, were professionally designed by the leading architects of the day and they came with parks, playgrounds, retail areas, public transportation, churches and a variety of services. In essence, these company towns were doing what Google does today, competing for workers with amenities. Margaret Crawford’s book, Building the Workingman’s Paradise, is an interesting history showing how company towns pioneered a number of architectural and planning innovations that later found there way into many post World War II home developments.

Tabarrok on Econ Talk on Private Cities

Based on my paper, Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City (with Shruti Rajagopalan) I discuss private cities with Russ Roberts over at EconTalk this week.

I think the conversation went well but I haven’t heard it yet so let me also take the time to point you to my favorite recent EconTalk, Russ interviewing Greg Page, the former CEO of Cargill, the largest privately-held company in America. Their discussion covers the global food supply, false definitions of national food security, the role of prices, comparative advantage and more. It’s a great discussion.

How to make America more like Disneyland

David Cay Johnston takes a trip to Disneyland some 60 years after his first visit. It looks better than ever, even as America has declined.

broken fountain detroitEvery night Disneyland gets freshened up. When the park closes at midnight, the lights go up, and crews steam gum off the sidewalks, daub fresh paint where needed, water the flowers, polish the streetlights and examine the walkways. I had to look hard just to find unrepaired cracks on Main Street and the paved walkways. By chance, I got to walk backstage, where the asphalt and concrete surfaces were in near perfect shape, the walls painted, the handrails free of rust.

…Yet outside the gates, America fails to invest in its infrastructure, costing us lives from accidents, floods, sinkholes from water-main failures and explosions from faulty natural gas lines. Sidewalks buckle or heave after winter freezes, making many hazardous to walk on. America’s roads deteriorate, costing the economy in efficiency, though the front-end-alignment shops and tire dealers do well.

…The water fountains at Disneyland all worked, while in city halls and airports, many barely dribble because there is no budget to replace their filters before sediment clogs them.

Johnston’s piece is titled America should be more like Disneyland but instead of thinking seriously about what this means he fumbles on the 20 yard line and concludes that what makes Disneyland different is….happy thoughts. If only we were more like W.D., he says, “we could make America into a happy place.”

No, what makes Disney invest in infrastructure is not happy thoughts. Johnston is in fact clear about this:

The Walt Disney Co. invests in infrastructure because it makes the company money.

The problem with America is that our public infrastructure has been turned over to a fickle political process that is not governed by a rational calculation of cost and benefit, market test and experimentation but by a pursuit of power, glory and advantage that only rarely coincides with the public interest.

America should be more like Disneyland and to do that we need to develop institutions that allow more infrastructure to built by the private sector. Most ambitiously we need more cities as hotels, more proprietary cities. As Rajagopolan and I wrote in our study of India (in Cities and Private Planning):

The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.

Cities as hotels

Earlier this year I posted about India’s private city, Gurgaon. Gurgaon has grown from nothing to a city of 1.5 million people in just 30 years and it has done so based almost entirely on the private provision of public goods, including transportation, utilities, and security. Gurgaon is a desirable place to live in India but it has grown haphazardly as a city of private oases, rather than as an integrated city. As a result, Gurgaon has not enjoyed all the benefits of economies of scale in infrastructure provision or the benefits that come from internalizing externalities–the types of benefits that are possible with a single owner or integrated political system. As Matt Yglesias explained at the time:

Imagine if someone owned all of San Francisco and leased the land and structures out. Well obviously he’d want to have some kind of fire department and building standards to protect his investment. And he’d want to have a security force, since crime would reduce the value of the rent. And he’d want there to be some parks, because people like parks and their presence will increase the rent he can charge. (Indeed, my building includes a small private park). And obviously he’d need schools and really all the rest. …But in order to internalize the benefits of privately provided infrastructure, parks, public safety, etc. the scale of the enterprise would have to be really big. Like the size of a whole city.

Gurgaon, however, is not unique. Private cities are growing throughout the developing world and some of them are quite large.

Renaissance Partners, the investment unit of Moscow-based Renaissance Group, plans to build a 6,400- acre city in the Democratic Republic of Congo as it seeks to benefit from Africa’s urbanization.

The Russian firm is working on a master plan for the new urban center after securing the land outside Lubumbashi, the country’s second-largest city… Renaissance is considering similar projects in GhanaNigeriaSenegal and Rwanda, he said.

“The West has peaked in terms of economic growth and the new markets are in Africa,” Meyer, 39, said. “And the main drivers of this growth in Africa are going to be cities.”

Renaissance’s Lubumbashi project will be more than double the size of Tatu City, the $5 billion center that the Russian firm is building from scratch outside the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The Moscow firm, headed by Stephen Jennings, plans to take advantage of Africa’s economic growth and emergence of a growing urban middle class demanding better infrastructure.

6,400 acres is a small city, about the size of Apple’s home of Cupertino CA (pop: 58,000), but it is big enough that Renaissance partners will have an incentive to build public goods such as city-wide sewage, parks, roads (congestion pricing!), an electric plant and grid and so forth, exactly as Matt argued (see also The Voluntary City).

Private cities are happening now for a reason. Africa, India, and China are urbanizing more rapidly than has ever occurred in human history. In Africa, the number of urban dwellers is projected to increase by nearly 400 million, in India at least 250 million will move to cities and in China more than 400 million will move to cities in just the next 20 years. Not all of these people will move to older cities, which are not always in the right places and which rarely possess anything like the right material let alone the right political infrastructure. The rising middle-class want to live in first-world cities and in many of these countries only the private sector can deliver those cities.

The rapid urbanization of the developing world is an opportunity to remake cities anew. Private cities as hotels on a grand scale.

India’s Voluntary City

Fascinating piece in the NYTimes about a new city in India, a new city of 1.5 million people and more or less no city government.

Gurgaon was widely regarded as an economic wasteland. In 1979, the state of Haryana created Gurgaon by dividing a longstanding political district on the outskirts of New Delhi. One half would revolve around the city of Faridabad, which had an active municipal government, direct rail access to the capital, fertile farmland and a strong industrial base. The other half, Gurgaon, had rocky soil, no local government, no railway link and almost no industrial base.

As an economic competition, it seemed an unfair fight. And it has been: Gurgaon has won, easily. Faridabad has struggled to catch India’s modernization wave, while Gurgaon’s disadvantages turned out to be advantages, none more important, initially, than the absence of a districtwide government, which meant less red tape capable of choking development.

Gurgaon  has no publicly provided “functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation.” Yet Gurgaon is a magnet for “India’s best-educated, English-speaking young professionals,” it has 26 shopping malls, seven golf courses, apartment towers, a sports stadium, five-star hotels and “a futuristic commercial hub called Cyber City [that] houses many of the world’s most respected corporations.” According to one survey, Gurgaon is India’s best city to work and live. So how does Gurgaon thrive? It thrives because in the absence of government the private sector has stepped in to provide transportation, utilities, security and more:

From computerized control rooms, Genpact [a major corporation, AT] employees manage 350 private drivers, who travel roughly 60,000 miles every day transporting 10,000 employees. Employees book daily online reservations and receive e-mail or text message “tickets” for their assigned car. In the parking lot, a large L.E.D. screen is posted with rolling lists of cars and their assigned passengers.

And the cars are only the beginning. Faced with regular power failures, Genpact has backup diesel generators capable of producing enough electricity to run the complex for five days (or enough electricity for about 2,000 Indian homes). It has a sewage treatment plant and a post office, which uses only private couriers, since the local postal service is understaffed and unreliable. It has a medical clinic, with a private ambulance, and more than 200 private security guards and five vehicles patrolling the region. It has A.T.M.’s, a cellphone kiosk, a cafeteria and a gym.

“It is a fully finished small city,” said Naveen Puri, a Genpact administrator.

…Meanwhile, with Gurgaon’s understaffed police force outmatched by such a rapidly growing population, some law-and-order responsibilities have been delegated to the private sector. Nearly 12,000 private security guards work in Gurgaon, and many are pressed into directing traffic on major streets.

Not everything works well, of course. Gurgaon is describe as a city of “private islands.” Private oases would be a better term. Within the private oases life is good but in between lies a desolate government desert. Not only are services such as roads and utilities poor, the private oases don’t internalize all the externalities so there are problems with common resources such as the water table. It would also be more efficient to have centralized sewage and electricity.

Much of the article is written as a “cautionary tale,” the private sector can’t do everything and the absence of government has made the city dysfunctional.  I see the situation somewhat differently. The problem is that the original developer didn’t go far enough. The original developer, DLF, made a deal to build commercial buildings and apartments but:

… a state agency, the Haryana Urban Development Authority, or HUDA, was supposed to build the infrastructure binding together the city.

And that is where the problems arose. HUDA and other state agencies could not keep up with the pace of construction. The absence of a local government had helped Gurgaon become a leader of India’s growth boom. But that absence had also created a dysfunctional city.

Had the original developer been responsible for both the oases and the desert it could have built the power plants, the roads and other infrastructure and made locating in Gurgaon even more desirable than it is now. It is true that a city requires public goods which local governments often do not provide. Charter cities try to get around this problem by importing wholesale a new, higher-quality government. An alternative is to avoid government all together and privatize enough to make the entire city what is in effect a hotel on a grand scale.

But what to do now?  The governments involved are inefficient and often corrupt. We can hope that they will get better in response to the well-educated populace and the incoming corporations but even today, the solution is not simply to hope for better government but to expand on what is working well. The firms that operate the private oases are “small cities,” the solution is to make these cities larger.

Connect enough office parks, factories, and apartments, for example, and it will make sense for a private firm to build an efficient electric plant rather than have smaller firms use inefficient and polluting diesel as is the case now. Similarly, Will Rogers once said the solution to congestion was to have business build the roads and government build the cars. In fact, only the former is necessary. Privatize the roads and they will be quickly built and well maintained (yes, they will probably be more expensive than necessary due to some monopoly power but at this point in time that is a second-order problem).

As the private oases reach out and connect with one another most of the kinks will be ironed out. The city is only thirty years old and undergoing a growth spurt, so some problems are to be expected. The big picture, however, is that a modern city has been built from the ground up based almost entirely on private development, it is attracting residents and jobs and leading the country in economic growth. A remarkable achievement.

Addendum: For more historical and contemporary examples on the private provision of public goods see The Voluntary City.

Addendum 2: Matt Yglesias gets it and then makes some interesting comments and critiques.