The $10 Billion Minnesota “City of the Future” That Almost Was

The cities of the 1960s were beset by pollution
The cities of the 1960s were beset by pollution | © foundin_a_attic / Flickr
Elizabeth Nicholas

In the 1960s, the American city was in a crisis. Crime rates were at record highs. Infrastructure was crumbling, and pollution was clogging the skies and waterways. A deep pessimism was taking root about the ability of the federal government to ever address the issues of race, economics, and education that were troubling America, and the city especially.

In this despairing environment, a man named Athelstan Spilhaus came up with a plan for a city he believed could solve all of these crises at once. Called the Minnesota Experimental City, the proposed urban center was to be built entirely from the ground up and was designed using only the latest technology so that it would create no pollution or waste and play host to people who spent their whole lives dedicated to continual learning.

Spilhaus was an ardent and successful evangelist for his city. At the height of its popularity, Spilhaus’s proposal enjoyed the support of the famous architect Buckminster Fuller, NASA, numerous civil rights leaders, and then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Hubert Humphrey was a supporter of the Minnesota Experimental City

“The Experimental City will be unlike other cities or towns that have been built in this way,” Spilhaus wrote in a 1967 journal article outlining his vision for the city. “It will attempt to be a city representing a true cross-section of people, income, business and industry, recreation, education, health care, and cultural opportunities that are representative of the United States.” His essay went on to say that the city’s growth would be capped when it reached its optimum population size, “just as machines are not overloaded when they reach their capacity.” The city would have underground rail systems to transport and recycle waste, infrastructure to support driverless cars, and connected computer terminals—a precursor idea to the internet.

Spilhaus’s background made him a natural fit to design the new American city. He had been a mechanical engineer, a cartographer, an oceanographer, a meteorologist, and finally, an urban planner. He had invented a water temperature and gauge depth device used in submarine warfare during the Cold War, designed the science expo for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and was the dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology.

Spilhaus designed part of the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962

And now he was setting out to create the American city of the future. At first, the city’s prospects seemed bright. The Minnesota legislature created the Minnesota Experimental City Authority, which was given the assignment of finding a site for the city by 1973. The committee chose Aitkin County, a little over one hundred miles (161 kilometers) north of Minneapolis.

And it was this momentous choice of location that began the end for the supposed city of the future. Aitkin County residents protested the city, arguing that even with the intention to create no waste or pollution, that would be impossible, and the construction would make their lives unbearable. Between those public protests and a subsequent dip in support in the Minnesota State Legislature, the project lost its funding late in the summer of 1973. This loss of funding coincided with a severe recession, oil shortages, and dips in consumer income and confidence. The optimism of the proposed city seemed extremely out of step with the arduous reality many people faced.

Aitkin County residents protested the city being built near them

The fact that no one ever broke ground on the city, and the plans for it were exclusively made on paper, may contribute to why history has largely forgotten about it. But a new documentary coming out about the city can at least tell its story, even though its vision never became a reality.

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