Is Facebook’s ‘Zee Town’ more than just a Mark Zuckerberg vanity project?

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Is Facebook's 'Zee Town' more than just a Mark Zuckerberg vanity project?
Mark Zuckerberg (left) discussing expansion plans with architect Frank Gehry // Photograph: Facebook/AFP

So now comes word that Mark Zuckerberg – apparently unsatisfied with having enlisted one out of every seven living human beings to the social networking service he founded – wants to leave his physical stamp on the Earth.

It’s a moment that seems to come for many commercial enterprises. In founding a town for some 10,000 of his employees to call their own, the Facebook mogul is following generations of entrepreneurs, from the Dutch East India Company to Walt Disney. Out of expedience, paternalism, promotional value or sheer ambition, these concerns found it useful to aggregate some portion of their labour pool at a single, highly ordered site – the better to ensure that employees’ energies were properly directed toward the bottom line. Zuckerberg’s version is to take the form of a 200-acre private municipality adjacent to Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, masterplanned by long-time collaborator Frank Gehry and ever-so-humbly dubbed “Zee Town”.

There are two questions to be asked here. Firstly, do towns decreed by design ever work? And what about those, like Zee Town, that are created as expressions of a particular corporate culture?

Of cities-by-fiat, the consensus seems to be that such places can indeed eventually come into their own, but only after a few decades – it takes time for a genuinely organic urban culture to bed in. From a slate-wiping fresh start, places such as Brasília and Chandigarh needed a full half-century to develop anything like a life of their own. And at that, only after very significant informal settlements had grown up in the interstices of their triumphal top-down plans. ….

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