City States

If you happened to catch me on Twitter in the last few weeks you'll know that I've occasionally been surfacing from a marathon game of Civilization V on the hardest setting to read the news. So, with a head full of production stats, diplomatic deals, troop movements and technology trees I managed to catch fleeting exchanges about the proposed plans for reforming Honduras.

Honduras didn't rank up in the what Foreign Policy magazine lovingly calls 'Postcards From Hell' this year and this enthused Honduras Weekly enough to poll their outrage at being overlooked for such a prestigious honour. What they don't talk about is the solution that has already been proposed and sent on its way through the Honduran political system - Charter Cities. As far as I understand it, the Honduran government has decided to admit that almost no part of its civil infrastructure is incorruptible or, in some cases, even trustworthy and the only solution is to lease it out to other more stable nations. 

The first part of this proposal would see the Canadian courts acting as a model for a new RegiĆ³n Especial de Desarrollo - a free economic zone - in Honduras around which a stable city could be built. Essentially, this would be sort of like how Hong Kong used to be. Operating in the political boundaries of another nation but under different rules. 

We're already seeing these zones crop up in North Korea and China of course is probably most famous for them, but the idea of chartering the entire legal system is more extreme and potentially more dangerous. A lot of the criticism of the project comes from the long history of economic abuse that South and Central America have suffered at the behest of their northern cousins and there's a lot of wording such as '...democracy will be introduced gradually...' and '...leasing of land...' that ring some bells of warning.

This model of a 'free city' rang other bells for me though - hark back to Venice and the incredible success of that model. Saskia Sassen is prone to argue that the city is the future of civilisation because it attracts specialists and lowers transaction costs - everything is more efficient and more easily controlled in a tighter geographic environment for various convincing reasons. But, as my gaming experience will tell me, the success of this model relies heavily on the consistency of investment as well as location and guile. It's easy to point to the success of Shenzhen or Hong Kong while conveniently avoiding the complete disaster made of much of the rest of the far east in the nineties. 

Still, this is a totally new idea, seemingly initiated by Honduras itself (although time will tell) and without the political hangovers that governed cities like Hong Kong, West Berlin or Tokyo under occupation. What really sets the project apart is the 'Transparency Commission' - a group of effectively independent and outside observers who can check on the progress of the project and make sure that it doesn't end up 'more Macau than Hong Kong.'

All that outside intervention will also create a playground for urban developers, architects and designers and it's going to be great to see if, like with the whole plan, we begin to see some really innovative and new ideas come to life in Honduras.