A Giant, Fake City in the Middle of the Desert

The mock metropolis is meant to have everything but people who live there.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Grigory Potemkin, the 18th-century war hero and nobleman, was also Catherine the Great’s lover and military advisor. According to ubiquitous legend, Potemkin fabricated villages along the banks of the Dnieper River in a bid to impress her. Historians aren’t convinced that Potemkin really constructed entire fake villages, their facades illuminated by enormous bonfires—but the concept may not be so far-fetched.

These days, when people talk about a Potemkin village, they’re usually referring to a ruse to make something appear better than it actually is. It’s a useful metaphor, but also a reflection of people’s fascination with fake cities and questions about the line between authenticity and artificiality in man-made environments.

All cities are “fabricated,” of course, in the narrowest of terms. They’re constructed by humans. But Potemkin Villages are fabrications of another order. The distinction between a real village and a Potemkin one might seem stark, but under close examination the definitions can blur. There is, for example, the proliferation of China’s “ghost cities”—left empty as the rate of construction outstrips the rate of home occupancy. On the other end of the spectrum, there are unofficial tent cities of indigent populations, such as the ones that have cropped up on Oahu, in Hawaii. Examples of fabricated cities abound in literature—Joyce’s Ulysses, Magdalena Tulli’s unnamed city in Flaw, or Andrei Bely’s Petersburg—all serving to underscore the interplay of ideas, artificiality, and the actual bricks and mortar that constitute a city.

There is also in the works a plan to build an entire city without residents  in the New Mexico desert.

The Center for Innovation, Testing, and Evaluation (or CITE), will be, when finished,  a to-scale fabricated town, built to code, complete with schools, roads—basically everything you would consider the necessary components of a functional city. Except, of course, no residents. You can think of CITE as a sort of ghost town in reverse. First the vacant buildings will be constructed, and then the people will come. And while there won’t be actual residents at CITE, there will be visiting scientists, business leaders, and government representatives all passing through. According to its own website, “CITE will be a catalyst for the acceleration of research into applied, market-ready products by providing ‘end to end’ testing and evaluation of emerging technologies and innovations from the world’s public laboratories, universities, and the private sector.” In other words, this ghost town is going to be a giant petri dish for city planning.

When construction is completed in about four years, CITE will be the largest scale testing center on Earth. Meant to simulate a town with a population of 35,000—about the size of Bennington, Vermont—it will cover about 26 square miles and include a city center as well as suburban and rural zones. There will be a city hall, airport, regional mall, power plant, school, church, and gas station. As models go, this one is a behemoth, but necessarily so. Large-scale efficiency and industrial product tests require a lab this size. The bigger the better, in fact. And that’s why Pegasus Global Holdings, the technology company financing CITE, is willing put up the billion dollars that the project is expected to ultimately cost. Pegasus plans to rent the facility out to parties interested in conducting large-scale tests, and they’re anticipating demand.

The simplest way to imagine the sort of large-scale experiments that might eventually take place at CITE is to consider the existent problems of any city. Security and first responder experiments could be conducted. Infrastructure projects like smart grids and more efficient ways to distribute renewable energy could be tested. Nonprofits could practice disaster-relief scenarios. Corporations could also test products on a scale that’s currently implausible. This might be the place where automated driving is perfected or a new kind of wireless communication pioneered.

Pegasus has created renderings of what the finished CITE might look like, and it’s fairly astounding—like a cross between an intentional community and Disney World. There are separate districts in which it will be possible to test distinct products: Energy District, Development District, Water District, Agricultural District, and a downtown area. And each will be connected by an underground nervous system of sensors, water, and sewer systems. Of course, in order to accommodate researchers, there will be a sort of cutting-edge campus with offices, conference rooms, and a hotel.

Pegasus Global Holdings

When researchers will be able to begin work at CITE, though, remains a question. The project was originally slated to break ground in June 2012 near the town of Hobbs, in Southeastern New Mexico’s arid, but resource-rich, Lea County. Sam Cobb, the mayor of Hobbs, was understandably excited about the huge project, not only for the jobs and the money that it would provide, but also for the prestige. “It brings so many great opportunities and puts us on a world stage,” Cobb told the Associated Press three years ago.

CITE would have been a sort of futuristic sister city to Hobbs. The two would have mirrored each other in size and scale, each providing the other with the resources needed to thrive. At least that was the plan.

By July of 2012, Pegasus put the project on hold. Lea County manager Mike Gallagher told Fox News at the time that CITE coordinators had been working closely with the county, but “when we started pressing for details, that’s when they decided to look elsewhere.” A spokesman for Pegasus told me the delays had to do with environmental concerns.

The reasons for the abrupt shelving of CITE remained vague. And that’s not entirely unexpected. CITE is a huge project, with a lot of time and money being invested in it. It makes sense that Pegasus would be picky about such a major purchase of land—they will, after all, have to operate at the location for years into the future. Much of the emotional charge of the skepticism being directed towards CITE seemed like it was being colored by the ambitious scale of the project itself. State land office counsel Harry Relkin told Fox News, “It is such a wild—or if you want to be positive—innovative idea, I can understand the skepticism.”

When it comes to choosing a location for a project like CITE, the hackneyed mantra “location, location, location” can’t be overemphasized. As Pegasus managing director Robert Brumley explained to The Las Crucces Sun-News, “There were really good places but had one or another item that gave us some concern. The primary concern is can you operate it once you build it.” There’s a bit of a Goldilocks element to finding the right location for CITE. You want to be close to major institutions, both academic and defense, but well enough away from large cities to lower cost and avoid spill over that might affect test results. Southeastern New Mexico, has defense research labs and universities but remains relatively rural, which makes it ideal. Work on CITE has resumed after a two-year delay, and construction is slated to begin sometime this year.

How does one begin to build a fake city? The same way an engineer designs anything, it turns out: By thinking about the person who will be using the thing being built. Anticipating the needs of the organizations renting CITE help establish what it will entail. But no two actual cities are exactly the same, and some are wildly different. Compare the canals of Venice with the brittle sprawl of Phoenix. Or Copenhagen with Hong Kong. Cities have idiosyncratic histories and distinct personalities, all created by the inhabitants—which can make it difficult to imagine what the Platonic ideal of a city might be. In the case of CITE, the template didn’t come out of thin air. You couldn’t call it an exact model, but CITE will be patterned after the very real city of Rock Hill, South Carolina—ideal as a template for its size and mixture of both old and new building materials, which would afford a larger variety of testing opportunities. As Brumley told me, in order to more fully replicate an older, East Coast city, CITE should have “Several layers of older technology on top of newer technology. Not only fiber, but stuff people have forgotten about, like copper.”

But even having a template doesn’t tell you how detailed a replica city should be. There could be trash or vandalism manufactured for the sake of a specific test, but what about stuff that becomes less essential when you don’t have, you know, actual residents? Stuff like public art?

As it turns out, CITE will have that, too. Sherri Brueggemann recently told the website Hyperallergic, “The metaphor that immediately comes to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? I thought, what an interesting idea, I wonder what kind of art there would be [in CITE]. I was teaching an art management class and looking for one great project. When I presented it to my students it took them a while to wrap their heads around the idea, but then it stuck and they all started talking about it.”

A call for projects was announced and entries came in from across the country. Four winning proposals were chosen by students and are currently part of the ongoing Albuquerque Museum exhibit All Over The Map: The Ongoing Dialogue of Public Art.

It’s not certain that CITE will actually use the winning proposals, but Brumley seemed enthusiastic about the general concept, explaining over the phone that the city should be a “fully activated, populated, living, breathing city, and one day the population disappeared.” In other words, it should look like people left, not that people had never lived there at all, and that would necessarily include public art.

As promising as the project is, there’s something a bit spooky about an empty American Sun Belt town, even one intentionally designed to be empty. The scope of the CITE project touches an irrational, but not entirely meaningless, fear that today’s vibrant, bustling, human-run cities might one day be abandoned. People are accustomed to cities changing gradually, if continuously, over time. Major change on the scale of a city can be alarming. In fact, that’s the point of the project—to learn how to more efficiently manipulate a city. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in the case of projects that aim to improve energy efficiency and emergency response. But someone skeptical of government overreach or corporate influence might not be keen on the creation of a platform intended to hone change-making methods. The scope of the project is dazzling. One hopes its vision matches the value of the results.