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In recent years, entrepreneurs have tried to route around such obstacles in novel ways. Food trucks give aspiring chefs more flexibility than a traditional restaurant. Pop-up boutiques allow entrepreneurs to rapidly prototype and debug new retail concepts. The Downtown Project has similar aims: It’s an attempt by people who aren’t urban planners to inject urban planning with the radical configurability that characterizes software design.
Witness Hsieh’s plans for Central Container Park, an outdoor mall whose buildings will be fashioned from shipping containers and thus allow entrepreneurs to test ideas before investing in costly build-outs and long-term leases. Or his notion of creating a dorm-like building that offers 100-square foot studios (with shared bathrooms) for as little as $100 a month.
Already, Hsieh is discovering that building a real-life metropolis is more complicated than playing Sim City. “I come from a tech background and I’m used to being able to go from idea to launch in 24 hours,” Hsieh recently told Pando Daily editor Sarah Lacy in a video interview. “And you just can’t do that with city regulations and permits and so on.”
But according to The New York Times, the Downtown Project has persuaded “around 15 tech start-ups” to set up shop in Las Vegas and initiated at least 16 construction projects. It’s purchased multiple properties and jump-started a new restaurant and a co-working facility. Along with the shipping container park, a pre-school, a newsstand, another co-working facility, and a venue for TED-like public talks are also in the works.
“As someone who works in this field, I’m shocked at how fast he’s been able to organize and move,” says Florida. “It shows what entrepreneurs can do versus what governments can do.”
And perhaps it also points a way toward a more dynamic future, where urban planning is defined at least as much by new ideas and experimentation as it is by zoning codes and preservation groups. As flexibility, novelty, and rapid change increasingly characterize our lives, we want more and more of these things, from our neighborhoods as well as our smartphones.