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Charter Cities

New Cities, More Choices, Better Rules
The Charter Cities initiative works with governments in rapidly urbanizing countries, focusing on the potential for startup cities to fast track reform. Collectively these countries will add billions of new residents this century. Existing cities will expand, and entirely new cities will emerge. We encourage reform-minded leaders to use new cities as a mechanism for change—a way to experiment with new rules that can offer people more job opportunities and new ways to make progress in both their own lives and the lives of their children.

A charter city is a type of civic startup, a framework for reform. Civic startups allow societies to experiment with new rules, but to do so in ways that do not force change on those who don’t want it. They are attractive to people who want to try new ways of doing things. Because participation is voluntary, the social norms of those who participate work to legitimize the new rules that a civic startup puts to the test. Like other civic startups, a charter city offers a way to break out of systems of rules that otherwise deprive people of chances to reach their true potential.

A Flexible Framework for Reform

Reformers can start a charter city by enacting founding legislation—or a charter—that commits a public entity to key principles of reform. Though the specifics of reform depend on the local context, all charter cities share two foundational principles: people must be free to choose whether to move in, and those who do must enjoy equality under the law. Opt-in and equality under the law ensure that everyone has a stake in the economic and cultural life of the new city.

Grounded in these foundational principles, charter cities offer a great deal of flexibility for reform. Many will begin by identifying and adapting good rules from elsewhere in the world, much like Shenzhen did when it adopted rules that allowed China to reap the gains from global economic participation after a prolonged period of economic decline. Some charter cities will draw on the expertise of different national or municipal governments, engaging reputable partners in an effort to attract residents, businesses, and investors.

Startup Thinking at the City-Scale
Charter cities will start small. But by thinking at the city-scale, leaders can give the reforms in a charter city room to succeed—the potential to attract millions of people, most of whom will be heading to cities this century anyways. A successful charter city could not only host millions of residents, it could also influence welfare-enhancing change in the broader society by demonstrating the benefits of reform.

The world has locations where many new cities could be built. The benefits that these cities could generate are so large that they could be self-financing. There is no doubt that some upstart cities will fail to take off. However, those that do succeed will quickly give new social and economic opportunities to millions of people who currently lack good options—generating benefits that dwarf the costs from experimenting with new cities that never manage to get off the ground.

At their best, cities are environments in which people can earn incomes, raise healthy families, and find meaning in their lives. We’re working with governments to realize a world in which every family can choose between several safe, vibrant, and economically dynamic cities, each of which is vying to attract them as residents.