If he’s re-elected President, Donald Trump proposes building ten brand-new “freedom cities” on federal land. But waving a magic wand isn’t how cities develop. America neglects its existing cities, and any urban funding should go to help with their many needs.
Trump’s “freedom cities” idea doesn’t have much detail. In a campaign video, Trump said the federal government would hold “a contest to charter up to 10 ‘freedom cities’ roughly the size of Washington DC, on undeveloped federal land.” They would “reopen the frontier…and give…all hard working families, a new shot at home ownership and in fact, the American dream.”
There’s lots of problems with the idea. First, America cities are legal creatures of states. States control what cities can and can’t do, often to the city’s detriment. (The historic and ongoing battle over city autonomy is discussed in my new Columbia University Press book, Unequal Cities.)
Maybe Trump would just give states federal land if they propose a “freedom city.” That would favor the West. The states with highest percentage of federally owned are all in the west, led by Nevada with 84.9%. Some of that belongs to the military, and some is national parks. (Presumably Trump doesn’t want a new city in the middle of Yellowstone Park or the Grand Canyon.)
But the idea’s real flaw is the misconception of how cities form, grow, and thrive. Cities are places where people come together to live, work, and prosper, through a variety of economic and social forces. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser has called cities humanity’s “greatest invention” which “makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.”
America is an urban and metropolitan country, where cities anchor the metropolitan areas that dominate the US economy. In 2021, “metropolitan areas accounted for 90% of real gross domestic product” and led job and wealth creation.
In the libertarian magazine Reason, Christian Britschgi summarizes the widely held view of cities that economists of all political leanings share: “cities tend to emerge naturally where they make sense. They require some matchmaking between geographic advantage, available resources, pre-existing industry or infrastructure, and more to really get going.”
Trump’s idea should shock Republicans for two reasons. First, Trump himself thrives on anti-city rhetoric and positions. In 2020, Trump attacked Biden repeatedly over pro-urban policies, saying Democrats would “easily spread” crime from cities to suburbs, threatening the safety of “suburban women.” As President, he attacked cities over immigration, trying to withhold federal funds and threatening to arrest mayors who didn’t change policies.
Maybe Trump thinks “freedom cities” would be run by Republicans? If so, they’d be bucking political trends. In 2022, 62 of the 100 largest US cities had Democratic mayors, with Democrats running 17 of the 20 largest cities.
Second, Republicans still pay at least some rhetorical attention to limiting federal government powers and cutting federal spending. But federal authorization and direct building of cities (and spending the billions it would take to create them) is as much a “Big Government” project as one can imagine.
Federal city policies instead should concentrate on funding our existing cities. As my book details, cities at the center of metropolitan regions are ringed by independent and often hostile suburbs. Suburbs capture metropolitan economic benefits while leaving the costs of growth (pollution, public education, crime, aging infrastructure, and inequality and racial discrimination) concentrated in the core city.
The COVID-19 pandemic produced a temporary bump in fiscal aid to cities, but long term trends are working against them. Between 1977 and 2017, federal and state aid to cities fell “from 31 to 16 percent of municipal revenue,” forcing cities to cut vital services and reduce infrastructure investment.
This fiscal and service squeeze encourages affluent households to leave, often to adjacent suburbs that are subsidized through home mortgage deductions and transportation policy favoring cars. Suburbs use restrictive zoning and other policies to exclude lower-income and non-white people. This process further reduces the core city’s tax base and increases inequality with the independent suburbs, which exist in large part due to the core city’s economy.
Trump is famous for tossing out ideas without ideological coherence, and seeing what sticks and becomes popular. So “freedom cities” may not stand the test of time. One can only imagine what other Republican presidential candidates will say about massively increasing federal spending and powers to create new cities.
Meanwhile, Democrats and others who want to stimulate economic growth and reduce inequality have clear options—increase federal fiscal support for cities, and address the power imbalance they face in their regions and states. That’s the urban policy we need, creating a win-win for greater equity that also would stimulate economic growth and prosperity.