Bill Gates plans to build smart city in Arizona desert

One of Bill Gates’ investment firms has purchased land in the Arizona desert to build a city of 80,000 homes. A flexible infrastructure model will help turn it into a smart city. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Bill Gates is investing $80 million to build a smart city in the Arizona desert (Image credit: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank via Flickr)

Bill Gates is venturing into the desert wilderness. Or more precisely, 80 kilometres west of Phoenix, Arizona in the Sonora desert where he plans to built Belmont, the city of the future.

Open, green spaces

“Belmont will transform a raw, blank slate into a purpose-built edge city built around a flexible infrastructure model,” according to Belmont Partners.

Belmont Partners belongs to Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the second-richest man in the world after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. As does Cascade Investment, which recently purchased the 10,000 hectare tract of land west of Phoenix for $80 million.

Belmont would include 80,000 homes as well as industrial, office and retail space, public schools and plenty of open, green space.

The area in the Sonoran Desert is now largely uninhabited. But around 7 kilometres of a planned new freeway linking Mexico, Phoenix and Las Vegas will go through the area.

Solar power and self-driving cars

Developers hope Belmont will re-envision housing in the southwestern United States, where unbridled development has led to congestion and smog in a region that once drew retirees asthmatics due to its slow pace and clean air.

“They are rethinking what a community is that isn’t led by homebuilding,” said Grady Gammage, a real estate attorney for Belmont Partners.

Solar power, self-driving cars and other technology would be key to realizing that vision.

“Belmont will create a forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centres, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs,” said Belmont Partners.

Arizona hopes for growth

People in Arizona welcome the idea, saying the city would spin off tech startups and other business that would generate new growth in the state.

“Bill Gates is known for innovation and those kind of things, and I think he picked the right place,” said Arizona Technology Council Executive Emeritus Ron Schott. “Finally, Arizona is getting recognized for being a place for innovation.”

But others have raised questions about the idea of building a city in the desert. Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton, an Arizona native who now regularly covers Microsoft, said climate change is putting enormous pressure on Phoenix. Concerns about water and sprawl have led to a cycle of real estate booms and busts over the last century that have ruined many plans for utopias in the state, he added.

Not enough water

“Arizona doesn’t have enough water to continue these kind of developments, no matter what the mouthpieces of the Real Estate Industrial Complex say,” Talton wrote. “Whether Phoenix will even be inhabitable by mid-century is an open question.”

Belmont would not be the first smart city in Arizona. In the 1970s, Italian architect Paolo Soleri, a lecturer at Arizona State University, built a futurist city called Arcosanti to the north of Phoenix. But while it draws thousands of visitors each year, it has only a few residents.

In Columbus, Ohio, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is helping to finance a smart transportation system. Self-driving shuttles would take people around the city of more than 860,000 to help make up for the lack of a extensive bus network.

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