Cities that failed

Google Maps doesn't always get the destination right first time. And just occasionally, you stumble across something genuinely strange in the process. Take Port Charlotte in Florida, which I arrived at by accident. Miles, and miles, of roads laid out - but no houses. A closer inspection shows that these roads are not new, and there's no sign of any building or development going on.

There is a small city centre - but these empty suburbs surround it in all directions and cover more than five times the total surface area of the populated town.

Some investigation later, it turns out Port Charlotte is not alone. It's much the same story at Lehigh Acres, some 150 km to the southeast -

If you follow the link, and switch to street view, every single road has been photographed by the Google Street View car - showing nothing but mile after mile of roads running through scrubland.

There's another similar one in Cape Coral (link - opens in a new window) - complete with a large complex of marinas and harbours to the north west of the city centre.

And it's not just a Florida thing - try California City, deep in the heart of the Mojave Desert, and about 150km north of Los Angeles. Again a fairly typical American suburban layout - but in the middle of the desert, and with no houses in sight.

Flick between the 'aerial' (above) and the 'map' (below) view, and it looks like a fairly major development. Note that the roads on the left half of the above image have never even been declared roads (so do not feature on the map below) - presumably at some point whoever was building the roads just stopped bothering with all the legal paperwork needed to get them officially recognised.

California Valley, which is in the middle of the desert in central California, is another are with miles of roads laid out with no settlement whatsoever beyond a few small huts (typical picture right, link to more detailed map here). Its Wikipedia article notes that fewer than 500 people live in the entire region, and warns anyone thinking of visiting the area that:

Street name sign in a remote landscape"This is a remote area and only limited services are available. As of 2005, there were no gasoline stations and no lodging open to the passing public. Rental cabins are sometimes available, and other services are advertised on the posting board at the Community Center. Travelers are advised to top off gas tanks and procure potable water and food appropriate to their travel plans in advance."

Google Street View of California Valley (link) suggests a rather spectacular landscape, but little potential for actual habitation.

Deeper still into the desert, here's another vast layout of streets stretching deep into the wilderness at Rio Rancho in New Mexico - apart from the green sections (which are reasonably densely populated), the entire area of roads in the picture below (220 square kilometres) contains a couple of dozen houses -

So what happened to these 'cities'? Who built, and who paid for, these crumbling road networks in the desert? Where were all the inhabitants going to come from, and why did they not come?

These cities were developed by real estate speculators in property booms in the 1920s and late 1960s (with a particular boom between 1969 and 1973). The business model was a simple one: buy a vast tract of rural land (preferably in the desert or somewhere out of the way, and correspondingly cheap), subdivide it into tens of thousands of small plots just big enough for a house and garden, lay out road systems (and, sometimes, rudimentary facilities), and employ salespeople to sell the plots on to aspirational Americans who want to buy their very own slice of the 'American Dream'. The marketing touted the property as having tremendous investment potential, citing authorities with quotes such as: "Ninety percent of all millionaires became so through owning real estate."

The economic case was a compelling one - as land was worth far more when subdivided into platted lots', and zoned as urban land, than when it was bought in bulk as farmland (or, more often than not, desert, marsh or scrubland) - and people in far away cities who had never been to visit the areas could (with a bit of carefully targeted advertising) be sold plots of land for far more than they were really worth.

In some cases there was a hint of a grander vision - for example in the case of California City, real estate developer and sociology professor Nat Mendelsohn purchased some 490 square kilometres of Mojave Desert land with the aim of master-planning California's next great city. He designed a model city, which he hoped would one day rival Los Angeles, around a Central Park with a 26-acre artificial lake. Growth did not happen quite as quickly as he expected, and the city ended up as a grid of crumbling paved roads, intended to lay out residential blocks.

And why did they fail? There are a variety of reasons. In California City the central area was cleared leading to huge dust storms, and in California Valley a planned irrigation scheme never materialised (leaving the city stranded in one of the most arid and inhospitable parts of the USA). Sheer oversupply was an issue in Florida. But above all, these areas were developed and sold purely speculatively as a 'dream retirement home plot ' by rather fly-by-night developers - who probably knew that the infrastructure needs of these cities (in particular the water supply) would never have been able to be met. It was only when the happy landowners arrived at their remote patch of desert that the sheer difficulty of building and servicing a house miles from anywhere, with no water, electricity, sewerage, let alone local services, sank in. These 'platted lots' (so-called because they are 'platted', or subdivided in the local land registry and assigned to individual owners) are a major drain on the resources of local government due to the huge number of roads and utility networks that have to be maintained for the tiny number of inhabitants that did actually persevere and build houses. The number of such schemes, and the impossible-to-service subdivisions they led to, subsequently led many states to introduce planning laws requiring sewer, water and power to be provided before plots could be sold.

The most celebrated example of all dead cities, though, has to be Salton City -also in California, and about 200km east of LA. As with the examples above, on on the map it looks like quite a conurbation (with 10 square miles of road network, a marina, several suburbs, a city centre park, and even an airport to the south of the area shown) -

But the aerial photo reveals a rather different scene, with the odd dilapidated house (almost all of them, on closer inspection, as well as the airport terminal, are completely derelict). These google maps images can be dragged - if you try with the one below, go south in a roughly straight line and you'll eventually see the airport.

For reasons that are anyone's guess, Google's street view cars have gone round dutifully photographing the streets of most of these 'towns' (especially the Florida ones, where every street seems to be recorded). It's a desolate scene - the image below is a typical view in Salton City (and again you can drag it around). All the streets are paved and they have the same American-style street-name signs you'd see in any city. There's also an extensive network of what look like well maintained fire hydrants for the homes that were never built.

Here's a view of Salton City's rather forlorn looking airport. It's set by a network of streets slightly separate fom the main city with themed names including 'air park circle', 'air park drive', 'skyway drive', 'skyliner court' and 'palm air court', all of which are completely empty and seem to have been designed as an airport business centre.

Salton City failed for a rather different reason: the town was initially developed in the 1950s as a resort community on the Salton Sea, an inland sea which had been accidentally created in 1905 when heavy rainfall and snow melt caused the Colorado River to swell and breach a dyke, and fill the formerly dry valley with water. It was stocked with fish and became a major tourist and retirement destination, but as with any inland sea, with water flowing in across the desert but leaving only by evaporation (think of the Dead Sea), the salinity of the already highly polluted sea rose, the fish died, and it gradually became rather a health hazard. By the time Salton City (and several other similar towns round the shore of the lake) was ready to be inhabited, it was already clear that the city was in deep trouble. Very little development took place and most of what was built - including several hotels, the airport, and the city's marina - was abandoned. Today it's a place that attracts a few loners, travellers, misfits and people who want to get away. It notably featured in the 2007 film 'Into the Wild', about the story of Christopher McCandless.

One of the worst of all developments of this kind was the 230-square-kilometre 'Golden Gate Estate South', in Florida's everglades. It was planned as a town of 400,000, but ended up as one of Florida’s most infamous real estate scams. Spurious salespeople sold 29,000 lots over the telephone to out-of-state buyers who had no idea that the land was uninhabitable marshland, and that by late June, despite 180 miles of drainage canals, they would need boats to reach their land. I quote from simplify3's notes - 

"Lonely canals and little-used roads criss-cross this cypress swamp turned subdivision, which was originally platted in the early 1960s by the Gulf America Corporation. The company dug canals to drain the wetlands and carved the property into 1.25-acre lots. It then promoted Golden Gate worldwide as a vacation and retirement community. Most of the lots were sold by 1965, but unsuspecting buyers still get suckered into paying over $15,000 for a lot worth about $3,000. In 1974, when the area was less than 10 percent developed, it became apparent to county officials that the project, with limestone roads and no centralized water and sewer system, could not support the number of platted lots."

A look at the aerial photo says it all. Compare this with the level of planning that has clearly gone into Salton City - in contrast at Golden Gate the road layout is the most rudimentary possible - with long straight unpaved tracks that don't even connect to each other. There were no services or utilities of any kind, no schools or provision for any kind of employment, and little prospect of any being developed, and certainly no intention of developing a town that could actually work. The development eventually went bankrupt, but (along with several similar schemes that followed) gave rise to the expression 'I have Swampland in Florida to sell you'.

The Golden Gate estate continues to be a particular headache for all concerned - on top of all the other problems, it's in the centre of a very ecologically sensitive area (and street names like 'alligator avenue' hint at what lurks in the swamps). The cash-strapped municipality is doing its best to prevent further development and consolidate the land into the neighbouring national park - but untangling legal ownership of the thousands of plots (many of which were abandoned by their owners over a generation ago), and consolidating what development may occur, is a difficult and costly process. There is little incentive for any developer to tidy up the area (for example by adding drainage, lighting, pavements and utilities) because the land is already sold, and it is nigh-on impossible to assemble enough of the tiny lots in any area from their absentee owners to make a viable modern development - which seems to condemn these areas to sit in this strange partly-developed state for the foreseeable future.

City governments know that they will never be able to supply utilities to all these scattered lots, or maintain the roads, even if it wanted to - and across the US are gradually tightening the rules to prevent the small nuber of people who still try to develop these plots of land (sometimes insisting small plots be combined to larger and more viable ones, banning development in areas altogether in the remoter parts of these zones, or offering more suitable plots nearer the city in exchange for remote ones).

These scams still take place regularly, albeit not on such an epic scale, and the existing plots of land (in these cities and many others) continue to be bought and sold on the internet at inflated prices. Many also still cling to the notion that they might just, one day, build that dream home on that plot of land in California they inherited from their grandparents.

PS. There's a good article with more on these failed settlements, and what became of hem, in an article by Hubert Stroud - Planning of the wake of Florida Land Scams.

See also...

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Punting guide to the River Cam