Engineers and techies are often misunderstood. They come off as looking cheap when in fact they are optimizers. It is their nature to solve any puzzle that is presented, and the persistent puzzle of life involves getting the most resources while expending the least.

I have a bit of that in me too. That's why my mental hobby for a few decades has been designing what I call Cheapatopia. Cheapatopia is a hypothetical city, designed from scratch to be an absurdly cheap place to live with a ridiculously high quality of life.

Step one in designing Cheapatopia is assembling the team of visionaries. That's you. I appoint myself team leader, and over the next week or so I will describe the elements of Cheapatopia and ask you to suggest the best design solutions.

Today I will discuss some assumptions. The first and biggest assumption is that the era of ridiculous consumption is over, at least for your lifetime. If we want universal healthcare, and a decent standard of living for the exploding population of seniors, the average household will have to learn how to make do with less. But in doing so, there is no reason we can't be happier at the same time, so long as we do it right.

Cheapatopia puts a big emphasis on entertainment and social interaction. If you have that, plus health, safety, and financial security, you might be willing to give up the over-consumption and needless complexity of your old life.

You might also be willing to give up some of the options you enjoy in your current life if the tradeoff is gaining more and better options of a different sort. We'll consider those later.

I believe the next big change in society will involve simplifying our lives, getting rid of the waste and inconvenience that we drifted into, and finding meaning through more social involvement. Cheapatopia would be an engineered city both in terms of its physical structure and in how the citizens participate in it.

For example, in Cheapatopia, no one would ever again hire a babysitter or put their dog in the kennel while they are on vacation. That sort of thing would all be done by neighbors, and you would know those neighbors well.

When you design Cheapatopia, don't assume you would be living there yourself. It won't be for everyone. Don't hold that against Cheapatopia. It's a mental exercise.

Today's design question is this: Where would you locate Cheapatopia, in general terms?

In your answer consider physical beauty, energy, weather, water, proximity to a major airport, natural disasters, and anything else you can think of. And assume Cheapatopians work at home or within the city, so commuting is minimal.

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-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2009
And no need for land line phone service - that saves another $30 - $50/mo. I haven't had a land based line in almost 8 years. I'm an early adopter.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2009
The local government offers free, encrypted wifi. No need for cable tv either - that's what hulu and online movie subscription sites are for.

That saves everyone at least $100/mo. without losing any standard of living in the entertainment department.
Jul 13, 2009

I probably was a bit off point, but back to the premise: I know this "ridiculous consumption" of which Scott speaks. I don't believe it is behind the health care crisis, but I think one could make the point that the mentality that drives RC also drives up the cost of health care and puts it beyond reach of a sizable number of people.

What would I give up? What have I given up? I gave up a demanding, successful career - which involved rarely seeing my kids (I don't multi-task well. My sister handles her career and family beautifully. I'm not capable of doing both well.) I moved from a california town in which consumption is a competitive sport to a less-expensive northwest city. We no longer take expensive vacations or pay for sports programs, the latest electronics, etc. but we live well and happily. We do a lot with community groups - which essentially pool resources to make experiences more affordable to members, so we can enjoy kayaking, canoeing, sailing, rafting, etc. at a minimal cost. I shop at thrift stores instead of Nordstrom - though I do have a few nice outfits when I need them.

I use craigslist to find stuff I want rather than buy new. It might take months of watching the lists to find what I want - but I usually do get what I'm looking for eventually. I raise dairy goats and bees and have a large garden -which is producing beautifully at the moment. I live in a beautiful area with great walking/biking trails. This is my own private cheapatopia - and I'm far happier here than in consumption town - and I believe my kids are much healthier and happier as well.

One other point I should make, however: We lived among upper-middle class strivers. Most americans don't over-consume at that level because they can't. We have come through a period of most folks living beyond their means, but but for most folks that might have meant buying a new SUV, when a used compact would have been the better financial choice. That's not RC, it's just poor planning.

The RC phenom occurs among the professional class. It's a lifestyle choice - but not one that is always made thoughtfully. I don't think that choice should ever be taken out - but there is value in demonstrating quality alternatives. Cheapatopia, to my mind, is about building a fabulous, community-centric lifestyle on a true middle class income. I, for one, think it can be done.
Jul 13, 2009
Up here in the frozen tundra, we call being cheap - "Folgers - Good to the Last Drop."
To locate Cheapotopia I think you avoid the extremes - areas at the center of the continent Moscow, Minneapolis, Bismark. Try the pacific coast or low Rockies - Idaho, Colorado, California.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2009
There are two suggestions that stand out to me. The first is the India suggestion which takes into account economies and exchanges, as well as infrastructure and other resources. The second is Sydney, Australia - which I believe is good, but a little too far south.

My suggestion is the norther coast of New South Wales, Australia.

Energy: Sun, Wind and Wave - not to mention hydro coming from down near Sydney. Further, I'm in favour of Nuclear - in a country as (and as empty) as Australia, it's not too much of a stretch to find large expanse to drop in a big, cheap power plant.

Infrastructure: This region is half a day to a day away from northern and southern trucking routes, both of which has massive ports. It is easy to get things in and out of this area. It's not so close to large international airports, which according to your criteria will lose it some points.

Weather: Mild winters, Temperate summers, and not much in between. Crops grow year round, and you never have to leave your house with more than a single jumper. Not only this, you will never need to use air conditioning. Perfect weather for all kinds of outdoor activities.

Other: Depending on exact position of the city, it's right near the beach. Australia has amazing beaches - big waves, clear sand, and green country all the way up to the shore (almost). For any other sporting event Aussies only need half an excuse to build a stadium or arena - further, we'll build almost any building if we can tie into it some kind of compeittion (I'm thinking civic centres and other community areas - which could be used for sport when required, and for other purposes alternativly. This area already has a number of active communes, so the greater network for support of locally produce produced and services is already there.
Jul 13, 2009
I notice that several folks have suggested Boulder, CO. I agree it's a great town -- scenic, university vibe, winter sports, great summers, etc. I went to school there in the 70s and loved it! That said, the pollution is terrible (OK, passable by LA standards); driving up US 36 from Denver, when you crest the hill at Superior/Louisville, you can't even see Boulder some days. Housing prices can be considered affordable only by LA/SF/NYC standards. You can get most everything Boulder has to offer, except quick access to Denver, by going to Ft Collins, 60 !$%*! north.
Jul 13, 2009
I don't know exactly where to put cheaptopia, but I do know what to look for. First you need a temperate climate, not too hot in summer or too cold in winter. Next you do not want to be close to an ocean, there is to much maintenence associated with salt water. I would like abundant fresh water for recreation, food growth (the cheapest way to eat), transportation, ect., fertile land (food again) and forests (fresh air, recreation & beauty). I would avoid earthquake, flood & drought zones. Just a start, and I'm sure there would be multiple areas that could accommodate this.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2009
Somewhere near Sydney, Australia :)

Physical beauty - Have you seen Sydney Harbour? The Australian south-east coast is probably one of the most beautiful relatively untouched areas in the world, not to mention the Great Dividing Range just behind it.

Energy - if there's some form of clean carbon-capture technology, the Hunter Valley just north of Sydney has one of the largest coal reserves in the world, and it's not too far from a major hydroelectric scheme in the mountains. Coastal winds, tide energy and the sunny weather means renewables can be sources of energy easily, and Australia has roughly 40% of the world's known uranium reserves.

Weather - mild winters without snow, regular seasons (i.e. not tropical) and warm to occasionally hot summers means it's one of the more pleasant areas in the world to live, not requiring much heating in winter, and only a little air conditioning in summer that can be balanced by additional solar generation.

Water - while not abundant to the point of overflowing, the coastal areas receive fairly regular rain - Sydney's average annual rainfall, with moderate to low variability, is 1,217 mm (48 in), falling on an average 138 days a year (source: Australian Bureau of Statistics via wikipedia.).

Proximity to a major airport - Sydney is Australia's premier airport, but there's plenty of land to build more if necessary. This is a weak point in practical terms though, as while it's a major airport, it's a long way to the rest of the world.

Natural disasters - no hurricanes, tornadoes or other adverse weather beyond the occasional summer thunderstorm; Australia is the most seismically inert continent, being in the middle of its continental plate, so no earthquakes or volcanoes. About the biggest fear is bush/wildfires during hot summers, but with adequate forest management the potential harm can be minimised.

Other advantages include a stable, democratically elected government, abundant land and friendly neighbours. Just watch out for the poisonous animals and wear some sunscreen.
Jul 13, 2009
Unfortunately, this is not culturally possible in America. Individualism goes too deep here. Do most people even live near their parents? Why would you expect to create the necessary level of trust with a townful of strangers then? I would forget all of the nice-to-haves and try to do this in the Midwest, maybe. You want as close to a community subculture as you can get in America.
Jul 13, 2009
"Physical beauty, energy, weather, water" -probably not the right starting point, scott.
Imagine you land the Cheapatopeans there, they will, in no time, start fighting on who can acquire the bigger share of that. May be we are better off starting with fixing the value-system of the Cheapatopeans. In fact, when the homosapiens started walking !$%*!$ the whole world was a Cheapatopia. And today we ended up with controllatopia, terrorotopia, communistopia, dumbotopia....
Jul 13, 2009
Scott, I think you should have put this in bold:

"When you design Cheapatopia, don't assume you would be living there yourself. It won't be for everyone. Don't hold that against Cheapatopia."

A solid 75% of commenters seem to have missed that. :)

As a resident of the midwest united states, my first thought was to say that Cheapatopia should be built here. I suspect that almost everyone who suggested a location thinks very highly of their home (after all, it's where they've chosen to live, and people will try to justify their own decisions until the end of time). For the record, I live in the middle of lower Michigan and I love it here.

One reason that I suggest the midwest (and, in particular, the Great Lakes region) is because of the abundance of *fresh* water. It does you no good to be on the water if it's salt water! In order to be close to an airport and yet still have low land values, I suggest southern Wisconsin, just north of Chicago, not too far from the shore of Lake Michigan. This region is essentially devoid of all natural disasters, and there is a lot of undeveloped space there that Cheapatopians could build on. It gets plenty hot and plenty cold, without going too far in either direction (in my opinon, of course). If a slightly warmer climate is desired, south of Chicago would work just as well.

Someone suggested that there be several Cheapatopias in various climates. I think that's probably the best idea we've heard so far.

An aside to those who are suggesting Hawaii: do you really think that's an affordable place to live? There may be some cheap land available, but as far as overall cost of living, there are only a few more expensive places to live in the world!
Jul 13, 2009
Kerala, India. It's cheap, pleasant, and its literacy rate and life expectancy are high. Or possibly Goa. In India, they "really like older people":


India will become increasingly attractive as improvident, aging boomers look for a way to live the rest of their lives on capital of perhaps US $100K. Maybe get Andres Duany to design Cheaptopia -- he did a great job with Seaside, Florida -- and New Urbanism generally rocks. Then build it on India's west coast.

Possibly get Apollo Hospitals to set up a clinic there.

Idlis and sambar, yoga classes, first-run Bollywood movies, excursions to World Heritage sites, canal tours, friendly English-speaking neighbors, good Internet connections...all for a fraction of what you'd spend in the U.S. What's not to like?
Jul 13, 2009
Somewhere south of New York, hilly for breezes, less tornadoes, risk from hurricanes, four strong seasons for aesthetics.

Piedmont NC, inland Penn, Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps a decayed rust belt city, like Cumberland MD, or someplace in southern Ohio for water shipping. Access to coal, water power, wind power, solar. Coal is useful as feed stock for plastics, fertilizer, so on.

Using old tech, railroads, water power, coal, would be a cheap way to go, also access to salvage iron would not hurt. Cheaper to remodel than build if you do it hippie/artist style.

First step; Hire Steward Brand, some of the Burning Man people, anybody that has been a successful urban homesteader.

The pattern is always the same. The freaks and geeks colonize and rebuild a decayed slum and once it gets a coat of paint, the yuppies and real estate guys move in an reap the profits.

If you set up a foundation to hold land in trust so sweat equity would be permanent, you would have a good basis for a society, which is what you are building.

It's a little far north, but how about buying Detroit? Flint Mi?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2009
Detroit has it hands down. Abundant water, fertile soil, lots of people who need a reason for being, only man-made disasters. City already decimated and ready for rebuild. Close to Canada if the whole experiment implodes. Can't miss.
Jul 13, 2009
Sarcasmo77: I never said the government would eliminate the inefficiencies in the system. I said we need to do so. I don't really care who does so. Also, government can accomplish amazing things when the political will exists to do so, including the willingness to sacrifice. Or was it the private sector that defeated Hitler?
Jul 13, 2009
@ cartman: "We could make that happen by cutting out the gross inefficiencies in the existing system. " and the GOVERNMENT is going to do that? You've seen the Soc Sec system right?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2009

If the idea were to give some bureaucrat the power to make decisions over my life, I'd agree with you, I think the point is to re-imagine a community built around quality of life issues. I'm a capitalist to the core, but that doesn't mean that I have to buy into someone else's profit-making scheme if it isn't in my best interests.

Case in point: A pastor friend of mine takes a group of middle school kids to Mexico every year. A bunch of those kids are on select soccer teams here in the US. They play with the Mexican kids - and it is usually a total rout. The Mexican kids kick our select-team kids' rears. Why? Because while american parents are shelling out the bucks for team membership, soccer camps, special coaching, etc., the mexican kids are playing several hours a day, every day on a local dirt field (that they manage to reach on foot, not by minivan). How many american kids just get together with their buddies and play pickup games in the park anymore? Not many in my neighborhood, at least.

I think there is plenty of room for rethinking the way we organize our lives without veering into communism - or minting new bureaucrats.

-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 13, 2009
I've spent a bunch of time writing a reply to get a "you must login to comment" message.
So I'll make this short. I need the basics (a kitchen with a sink, a freezer, an oven, a fridge, dishes, and the basic kitchen tools; a bathroom with a tub/shower, a sink, and a toilet; a room separate from those for sleeping; I don't need need a bed, but I do need a pillow and covers; otherwise, I want a laptop, an internet connection, hot running water, electricity, at least one chair, a few books or a local library, a grocery store with a bunch of vegan options close by, a transportation option [buses are fine], and that seems about it). As a community, I think we could have a bus we could all use to get to the city, a wifi internet connection, a swimming pool, a library, a gym, a heterogeneous "mall" of small businesses struggling against big ones elsewhere (that's where some of us would work), etc. Everything should be solar/wind powered. It would not be in the city, but near one.
Anyway, when you build a cheapatopia, be sure to invite me. And get me a good job.
Jul 13, 2009
Boulder, Colorado is the closest thing to Cheapotopia I can imagine. Fairly temperate, plenty of water & sun. A collegiate vibe. Close to most any outdoor activity you can imagine. Healthy-lifestyle oriented. All four seasons are beautiful. Cultural diversity.

Cheapotopia would need large solar and wind farms that provide all the city's energy needs. That would be the #1 investment in infrastructure.
Jul 13, 2009
Portland Maine!
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