Imagining the cities of the future has long been a favorite activity of architects, artists and designers. Technology is often at the heart of these patterns: it appears as a dynamic and seemingly unstoppable force, providing a clear solution to society’s problems.
But our recent research has suggested that we need to significantly rethink how we envision the cities of the future and shift our focus from an overall technological view to other priorities, such as environmental sustainability and the need to address social inequalities.
We need to answer questions about what can and cannot be supported, where cities can and cannot be located and how we can move between them.
The coronavirus pandemic has further reinforced this need. It profoundly changed what we thought we knew about cities. It has further exacerbated existing inequalities and created significant challenges in how we physically live and work together.
The future – yesterday
Influential architect and urban planner Eugène Hénard was perhaps the first to publicly discuss the “cities of the future” in Europe during his 1910 speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. His vision anticipated the technological advances of the future, such as air travel. This technology-oriented approach was also evoked in cinema in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis.
It has also been reflected by architects such as Le Corbusier in projects such as the 1924 Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City). In this work, Le Corbusier developed his concept of the city as a highly centralized, regulated and symmetrical landscape.
This approach can be traced through many successive visions of cities, portrayed as the physical embodiment of technological prowess.
A new approach
But instead of simply focusing on technology to shape our future, we also need to look at it through social and global lenses. These alternative approaches are increasingly urgent. To provide a safe and sustainable world for present and future populations, we must think beyond “solutionism”. This is the idea that every problem we have has a technological solution.
An identifiable change in the way the cities of the future are conceived, designed and built worries the people involved in these processes. They range from localized projects to global initiatives. For example, the Every One Every Day project in Barking and Dagenham in London aims to make hands-on participation in neighborhood projects inclusive and available to all residents. Meanwhile, on a much larger scale, the global vision of the UN Habitat Program’s New Urban Agenda calls for more inclusive and sustainable urbanization and settlement planning.
We may want our cities of the future to prioritize environmental renewal. The Green Machine, a project for a future city by architect Stephane Malka, moves like a moving oasis, filling the desert rather than causing further environmental degradation. This future city collects water through air condensation and uses solar energy to traverse arid landscapes.
These are plowed and injected with a mixture of water, natural fertilizer, and grain seeds as it passes. Agricultural greenhouses together with livestock farms support the inhabitants of the city and complement the local populations. The project is scalable and replicable in relation to the number of people it must host.
Climate change brings with it the possibility of a dramatic rise in sea level. Post Carbon City-State, a project by the Terreform architecture and urban design group, imagines a submerged New York. The project proposes that instead of investing in mitigation efforts, the East and the Hudson River could flood parts of Manhattan.
The new city is rebuilt on the surrounding rivers. Old streets become meandering arteries of living spaces, supplemented with renewable energy resources, green vehicles and nutrient-producing areas. This replaces the current obsession with private car ownership towards greener forms of public transport.
Both projects emphasize responses to the impacts of climate change on technological innovation itself.