From concepts of airborne cities to proposals for a dome over Manhattan, these grand plans and unbuildable designs set high expectations
The city of the future has been invented again and again. In science fiction stories, in altruistic urban plans, in the unbuildable designs of architectural provocateurs, the city has a long and robust history of taking on new forms within the human imagination.
Be they prophecy, speculation or simple entertainment, such visions have infiltrated the general consciousness, setting grand expectations and perhaps causing some disappointment at the substandard world we’re stuck with. Where are our flying cars? Our hoverboards? Our conflict-free utopian society based on the principle of love?
But some past visions of the future city have materialised, or at least influenced the development of our urban environment. The freeway-filled “Futurama” presented by General Motors and Norman Bel Geddes at the 1939 New York World’s Fair has clear echoes in today’s car-dependent metropolises. Viewing the city as a set of problems, as in Sim City, is an approach that underpins the current obsession with smart cities. And in cities such as Shanghai, you can squint and see the super-dense neon cityscape of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The purposeful or accidental translation of these past visions is a phenomenon explored in detail by the UK Government Office for Science, as part of an epic two-year project on the future of cities. In looking ahead 50 years at what UK cities could become, the project has also looked to the past to see how predictions and provocations can become reality – or not.
For their report, A Visual History of the Future, authors Professor Nick Dunn and Serena Pollastri of Lancaster University and Dr Paul Cureton of the University of Hertfordshire, reviewed nearly a thousand examples of proposed cities of the future, boiling them down to around 100 projects, proposals and fictional cities that they felt were emblematic of the shifting paradigms of the last century of urbanism. And by grouping them into categories – the “regulated” city, the “layered” city, the “flexible” city, and so on – the authors argue we can better understand how the dominant future urban visions of today may shape our cities in decades to come.
One particularly influential idea is the Garden City, first proposed by Ebenezer Howard in 1898. “The Garden City paradigm is one that just keeps re-emerging, with a slightly different remix each time,” says Dunn. He observes that a number of new themes have become more dominant in recent visions of the future city, among them the ecological city and a trend toward what he calls “street-based urbanism” – “human-centred cities; cities that are based on people walking, bikes, neighbourhoods. And that’s very tangible for where we are now.”
Past visions of the future city – from Howard’s Garden Cities to Albert Speer’s 1939 “World Capital Germania”, to Buckminster Fuller’s 1960 proposal for a dome over Manhattan, to Archigram’s reconfigurable, modular 1964 Plug-In City to OMA’s 2010 concept of a low-carbon, interlinked Europe – will be on display at an exhibition on the Future of Cities project, opening on 10 February at RIBA’s headquarters. It’s a retrospective, but also a prompt – to people both in government and out – to further this process of imagining the future.
“Thinking about how cities will look and the kind of places we may live in isn’t something that policy-makers typically engage themselves with in such a visual manner,” Dunn says. “I think the idea, really, is to plant the seed within the general public’s mind that they can be co-designers of their future. That they don’t have to just receive something that’s bestowed on them from an architect on high.”
The exhibition will also be exploring some of the less visual elements of the Future of Cities project, with an emphasis on re-examining how the UK government relates to its cities, and how those cities relate to one another.
“We’re looking across demography, economics, social sciences; we’re trying to be as broad as possible to understand cities as systems,” says Nick Francis, a researcher at Space Syntax, the urban design and planning firm launched out of University College London. Francis is helping to coordinate the Future of Cities project, and says this systems-based thinking about how cities function will only become more important as cities around the world continue to grow. “How do all our cities connect? What are the flows of people, trade, traffic between them?”
One point that has emerged again and again is the relative lack of autonomy among most cities in the UK. “As a nation we are one of the most centralised in the world, especially when it comes to cities,” Francis says. He estimates that local governments raise only 17% of their own budgets, with the rest coming from central government. “So our cities really don’t have a lot of freedom.”
It is a model that may be becoming obsolete. In their 2013 book The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution argue that US cities are making progress by tackling those issues that the federal government seems incapable of solving. Some issues, they write, are better addressed at the local or metropolitan level, and in a way it’s a prediction about the future of cities – one that Francis thinks could benefit cities in the UK. “We’re moving to a place where I think cities are being seen as the more appropriate scale to tackle specific challenges,” he says. “And I think that is a positive move.”
By rethinking cities as interconnected parts of a system, Francis suggests the UK may be able to address some of the spatial disparities that have limited the economic potential of cities in the north, for example.
“Quite a lot of policy implicitly can end up favouring London and the south-east of the country, and disadvantaging northern cities. It’s not because there’s any sort of malign will there; it’s just because nobody looks at it, so we don’t understand it,” Francis says. “Central government could make better spatially literate decisions, and I think that would lead to better outcomes.”
Visualising the future city – be it a speculative design for a settlement in the atmosphere, a dystopian sci-fi movie, or a new approach to measuring the economy – can begin to guide the form and function of the city to be. Francis is hoping to continue this long tradition with a spinoff competition that seeks “grounded visualisations” of what the future may hold for specific cities. “Getting public responses to that, or asking: ‘would you like a city that looks like this or a city that looks like this?’ … I think it would be quite an interesting exercise.”
And it’s easier than ever to create those visions of the future, of course. “There are so many amazing techniques of representation now,” says Dunn. From easily accessible computer software to video games to CGI filmmaking, there’s immense potential to share these ideas in a visual, captivating way. Dunn points out that even lay people are increasingly capable of engaging with the concept of creating a new or different city – just look at all the millions of children worldwide who are building their own cities in Minecraft.
The past visions of the future presented in Dunn’s report are just a small sample of the potential futures our cities may hold. Which is part of the idea behind the Future of Cities project: to bring more ideas to the table, so the best ones might one day come true.
“We’re not necessarily trying to build consensus with what we’ve written,” Dunn concludes. “We’re trying to just prod people to think about what they want in the future.”