Future Past, Future Perfect

In an attempt – perhaps futile – to find enthusiasm and hope for what lies ahead for us Earthlings, I have been re-examining all kinds of depictions of the ‘Ideal City of the Future.’ Images of dystopia hugely outnumber anything even moderately resembling a happier urban model for better days. This is a sad but curious fact. Conversely, the search for positive and ideal urban futures is a heartening and perhaps reassuring exercise, though quite difficult.

First, a short and sobering foray into dystopias. This will be abbreviated – they are dark, unhappy and forbidding places.

Mega-City One, from Judge Dredd
Image by yankodesign
Image by InwardSound
Image by Till Nowak

Okay – enough. This is truly low hanging fruit, but I think it’s easy to see the strength of these images.

On to ideal cities. At the outset, let me say that finding ANY positive images of ANY urban future other than dystopia is very difficult. And the positive images are mostly uninhabitable.

One of the first things that struck me as I began my search was the many ways that most of them resemble the now-obsolete City of the Present. Let us begin.

There are dozens and dozens of images in this family:

Future City by Daimler and Bosch

Or this, from Italdesign:

What were gasoline-fired vehicles are now powered by electricity, and both images show a generously modest volume of traffic. Some of the traffic appears to consist of autonomous vehicles. There are people on the sidewalks (even a Segway if you look close), bikers, shared transportation devices, flying machines. There are also parking spaces, crosswalks, traffic signals and street lights. In the first image, a building in the distance appears to have signage indicating that it is City Hall. Sadly, the title of that building, when you look at an enlargement, is City Mall.

Perhaps nothing more needs to be said. This may be one idea of an Ideal City, but not mine. These city depictions are not the images of a workable future city. Said differently, they won’t work.

It is easy to find other views of future cities that are even more fanciful, and perhaps more far-fetched. Here is a future Paris:

Image by Vincent Callbaut
Image by Vincent Callebaut

But even here amidst Paris’s Second Empire buildings, dripping with greenery and giant green cone-shaped additions, or zooty river traffic sailing along the Seine, the streets are filled with cars and buses and parking spaces and traffic lights and crosswalks. Paris 2050 perhaps, but not exactly an ideal city. Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris and a strong “15-Minute City” advocate, is probably not an admirer of Callebaut’s vision. Her vision, here focused on the Champs Elysee, looks like this:

Image by PCA-Stream

This vision is about to become reality – the first phase is to be completed prior to Paris’ hosting of the the 2024 Olympics.

Next, let’s take a look at the work of the former Chief Architect of the Barcelona City Council, Vicente Guallart. He has written a book entitled “The Self Sufficient City.” I was very taken with this title: I am certain that self sufficiency must be an essential feature of any Ideal City. Guallart’s ideal looks like this:

Guallart is described as “one of the worldwide experts in Ecological Urban Development and Digital Cities with high expertise in Strategic Planning, Master Plan Development, Transport Oriented Development, Project Management, and Building and Landscape Design.” But his superblocks (where we can glimpse a hydroponic future) look a bit airless, a bit oppressive. Too much ‘architecture’ I think. And, as with other visions of the Ideal City, still filled with residue of our current urban dilemma: streets, cars and all the attendant paraphernalia. Seems stifling, and not a place I would like to explore, frankly.

As I looked at these and other possible urban futures, I found myself trying to recognize what was missing, over and above rethinking the car/street/traffic/parking stuff. After some reflection, and a wander through my archive of images, I realized that what I missed most was the commotion, and dis-order, of real people in real places. What I bumped into at first was NYC’s Little Italy, from 1900. Wow – what a tumult!

Next I came upon an image of the city from The Hague, in the Netherlands. The Hague has created a very large car-free city center, and it seems like a terrific vision for a future Ideal City. No Crosswalks! And even better, the place is packed.

The Hague, image by Joao Pimentel Ferreira

Then I wandered over to downtown Manchester, in the UK. Here the streets seem to belong to lots of people on foot, and to the Manchester Tram. The Manchester Urban Institute has started something called “Future-Proof Cities,” which they describe like this: “The Future-Proof Cities theme is now the platform for a unique experiment on the ‘collective urban intelligence’. An open community of co-authors is now working at the frontiers, building on ideas from the book Deeper City, with a 12-month ‘think-and-do-tank’, focused on practical outcomes.” Worth a look.

The center of Manchester, UK. Image by George Standen

Finally, a view of the crowded Farmers Market at Union Square, in NYC. We were just in Union Square in May – it’s a happy and busy place.

Image by Lloyd Alter

So what does this begin to tell us? Well, certainly an ideal city must be filled with life, close, dense, walkable, and much more resilient and sustainable than the city we inhabit today. And while the ideal city might in some way resemble our own city, configurations of things will necessarily be different. Much of our daily life will be within an arm’s reach. What we use we will reuse – the linear economy will have been replaced by the circular economy.

Happily, and with all of this in mind, my searches for a real and better Ideal City began to make a bit of progress. I found the work and images of illustrator James McKay. To give you a sense of his work – he works with REAL SCIENTISTS – I offer the following extended quote:

“Q. (Resilience.org): We are surrounded by dystopian visions and a sense that it’s too late. Most of the films we see are dystopian and that’s the vision that fills our field of vision so we can’t see beyond it to what’s on the other side, namely the kind of future you are trying to capture. Why is it powerful to be able to tell the story of that future we could create? What is the power in it?

A: (James McKay) It is very easy to think of the dystopian ideas. It’s almost lazy. Thinking of the good future is actually really hard because you have to vision something that is qualitatively different. Everyone knows what dystopia looks like. It’s also exciting, in a dramatic way.

The reason that all these Hollywood movies and TV series and things are dystopian is that they’re interesting dramatically. We are all attracted to stories of disasters. When we do sessions with the public, even though we’re coming from a point of view of trying to get them to visualise the optimistic side, they still gravitate towards doing dystopian visions, and it takes a real effort to wean people off doing that.

As soon as you have even just a rough sketch of something that’s optimistic, you then have something that people can react to, the visions can be tremendously powerful in terms of motivating people to make some real changes because they can then start to see there are things that are achievable, and it doesn’t have to be the dystopian, lazy thinking that most people have in their minds.”

I am not crazy about the places that James depicts. His images look a bit too contrived, too arranged with the stuff we know we’ll need, too staged. And some of his architecture is just downright ugly. But they are not filled with unhappy people and drones with lasers.

So maybe this is not quite where I would like to be, but it is a lot closer than anything else I could find. I will keep looking – my Ideal City is out there somewhere. I simply want to find images of a future city that are sustainable, workable, beautiful, and positive. Any suggestions?

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