Earlier this month, former President Donald Trump unveiled a dramatic, far-reaching proposal to build up to ten new American cities if he’s elected to a second term.
These federally-chartered purported utopias, dubbed “Freedom Cities,” would feature “vertical takeoff-and-landing vehicles,” manufacturing hubs, “baby bonuses,” and plentiful single-family housing, delivering a “quantum leap for America’s standard of living.”
“These Freedom Cities will reopen the frontier, reignite American imagination, and give hundreds of thousands of young people and other people, all hardworking families, a new shot at homeownership,” Trump said in a video announcing his plan on Truth Social.
The grand, futuristic proposal was mostly met with crickets and some light mockery from Trump supporters and others on the right.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that Trump’s policy would yield “a Trump casino and some mixed-used buildings run by Jared Kushner rising off an unfinished spur of highway somewhere in the vacant portions of the American West, funded by hard-sell fundraising appeals to vulnerable seniors.”
Conservative media barely covered the announcement. Fox News left its in-house comedian, Greg Gutfeld, to handle the coverage of Freedom Cities. Gutfeld marveled at Trump’s quantum leap as “optimism on meth,” while Fox contributor Tom Shillue urged Trump to bring back some of his greatest hits from years past, like building the border wall and buying Greenland from Denmark.
But another Gutfeld guest dove straight into disinformation. Conservative radio show host and Tea Party activist Sonnie Johnson argued that Trump’s proposal is “a leftist plan” to create 15-minute cities — the urban planning concept in which people live within a short walk or bike ride of most daily necessities.
She went on to push an increasingly popular conspiracy theory that cities around the world are attempting to trap residents in dystopian, heavily-surveilled communities and strip them of their cars and freedom of movement.
“The purpose of these cities is that everything is in a 15-minute walking distance, so you don’t have to have a car, they can keep you in a limited area, you don’t go and travel, you’re not wasting energy, it helps you cut down on your carbon footprint,” Johnson said. “It is a Green Deal initiative made to cut down on energy and stop humans from having the ability to move freely across spaces.”
She added, “They’re already building them in Saudi Arabia and other countries.”
The concept of 15-minute cities was popularized by French professor Carlos Moreno and best describes a city like Paris, which has successfully made many of its neighborhoods pedestrian-friendly while reducing car traffic.
Conspiracy theorists have tied the dense city model to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, mixing pandemic lockdown paranoia with resistance to climate efforts.
The disinformation about walkable cities brought thousands of people to the streets of Oxford, UK, in February to protest the British city’s modest efforts to reduce traffic congestion. Right-wing politicians have fanned the flames. A conservative member of the UK parliament recently called 15-minute cities an “international socialist concept” that “would take away your personal freedoms.”
The popular urban planning concept has been deeply misunderstood, experts say.
“There’s nothing radically different from a so-called 15-minute city and what you would see in a small or midsize American city before WW2,” Andrew Justus, a housing policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, said in an email.
But Freedom Cities don’t sound like 15-minute cities at all. They would purportedly feature affordable cars and single family housing, recreating the classic American suburb on federal land.
Trump’s proposed cities have similar elements to new cities being built in the Persian Gulf, China, and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia’s planned 100-mile long carbon-free metropolis, called The Line, is billing itself as a five-minute city — something like a massive indoor mall.
A Republican consultant close to Trump’s campaign said Trump came up with the idea himself and was likely inspired by Saudi Arabia‘s construction of futuristic desert cities.
“Trump sees the Saudis investing a lot of money, you know, why don’t we create something similar like that in the US?” he told Insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That’s just the way his brain works.”
Urban policy experts are skeptical that any sort of federally-chartered city building project would be successful in the US. Policymakers should instead focus on how to make existing cities more livable and productive.
“All economists would think this is a bad idea — this isn’t how cities develop. They don’t spring up magically out of nowhere,” Rick McGahey, an economist and author of the new book “Unequal Cities,” told Insider. “It just totally misunderstands where cities come from, what their role is in the economy, and that’s why we should be helping our existing cities because they are the core of our economic growth and prosperity.”
Andy Winkler, the director of housing and infrastructure projects at the Bipartisan Policy Center, agreed that there would likely be little political or other support for a federally-directed initiative like Trump’s. But he added that the US needs to be “competitive in thinking about what the future of cities really is.”
“I can’t fault somebody for having some creative vision,” he said.
The Republican consultant wasn’t convinced Trump’s proposal is entirely serious, but he argued it was designed to get attention and has succeeded in that.
“I mean, you’re talking about it,” he said. “As for people making fun of it, so what? People make fun of things all the time. People made fun of Trump when he said he was going to renegotiate NAFTA. Guess what he did?”
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