Oasis or pipe dream? Billionaire’s dream of sustainable desert city built from scratch

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US billionaire Marc Lore recently released his vision for Telosa, a sustainable Utopia in the desert.

The new city hopes to reach a population of five million people in 40 years and is scouting locations in western US desert regions like Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas and Idaho.

Digital renderings paint a picture of a Utopian dream metropolis, smart buildings with hanging rooftop gardens, electric vehicles buzzing on the streets and skylines and abundant open spaces.

The city’s website promises sustainability, with fresh water stored, cleaned and reused locally, eco-friendly architecture, renewable power sources, autonomous electric vehicles and a top priority focus on the environment.

Lore is an entrepreneur, the founder of Jet.com and Diapers.com, and a former Walmart executive. He hired architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group to bring his ambitious dream to life.

“We have a chance to prove a new model for society that offers people a higher quality of life and greater opportunity,” he says. Thirty years from now, Lore imagines his city and its lifestyle will serve as “a blueprint for other cities and even the world”.

The project’s cost is expected to exceed US$400 billion.

Beyond those dealing with environment and energy, Telosa’s Utopian values will include education, housing, mobility and a civic voice for all members of the population, who will be empowered to help make decisions about its future. In fact, inequality in cities around the world is one of the driving forces of the Telosa vision. “While the current economic system is a growth engine, it has led to increasing inequality,” says Telosa’s website. “Cities today are unfair.”

Too good to be true? Maybe. There are plenty of hurdles and question marks hanging over the project that would need to be addressed, as well as the issue of funding.

Water – the biggest issue in a desert, during a drought, in a climate crisis

In the western US, water shortage is already a major concern. Ongoing drought and dwindling groundwater now sound alarm bells for an unstable future, even in existing communities. In the desert, and with scarce resources available to the people, infrastructure and food supply chain already in the area, how will Telosa start from scratch in a fair and sustainable way?

Water is “the most precious commodity” for the proposed town, says the website. It is intended that there will be capture and storage systems as well as blue and green infrastructure. Smart metering, leak detection and water recycling will minimise the demand on regional natural water sources.

Other desert cities rely on fossil groundwater, such as in Arizona where its supply is not sustainable unless replenished over time. In Dubai, which is actually not a bad example of a desert city that appeared very quickly, drinking supply comes from desalinated sea water. “But that process comes with a high carbon footprint and the problem of brine disposal,” points out Adina Solomon in Smart Cities Dive.

In a climate crisis, it is clear that all cities must rethink their approach to water management. Urban population growth, unpredictable weather and insecure supply will be the reality. It’s hard to say whether its sustainable water system, let alone the city itself, will ever come to life in the right way, but Telosa at least acknowledges these water truths.

The first phase of the city’s construction, which would accommodate 50,000 residents across 1500 acres, comes with an estimated cost of US$25 billion. Funding will come from “various sources”, project organisers told CNN, including private investors, philanthropists, federal and state grants and economic development subsidies.

Telosa, wherever it may end up, hopes to start welcoming residents in 2030.

Photo by Daniel Vargas on Unsplash

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