Young people from Germany, Norway, Latvia, Poland, Russia and Scotland attended last week’s international youth summer school in Benmore, Scotland. The event was put on by Planning Aid for Scotland and by Innovation Circle. The theme was “Cities of Tomorrow”.
I was asked to lead the introductory session. I started with a Powerpoint showing visions from 1913 and 1963 of “cities of tomorrow”, then some of today’s architectural flights of fantasy. High towers, and innovative transport infrastructure (e.g. flying cars) were a recurring theme. I asked the audience what these images told them about cities? Density, concentration of activity, size and the challenges of urban mobility were readily picked out. It’s a good short list for what makes cities tick – or jam up as the case may be.
My next question was “What do the images NOT show you about cities? What are the important parts of urban development that these images ignore?” A young woman from Norway was quick to spot the lack of any clear focus on environment. These cities are pollution-free; there’s no green space, no trees, no blue space, no solid waste. Even more remarkable, there’s often no people visible either. So often our imagery of the future city is constrained not enlightened by architect’s drawings.
Where people do appear they are typically able-bodied young/middle aged adults, strolling happily or driving their cars with the wind in their hair. In marked contrast to today’s cities, there appear to be no poor people, no street traders, no dole queues, no homeless people. Even the built environment is depicted as homogenous glass and steel towers – no historic buildings are expected to survive in the new modernity.
In a deep but unintended sense these kinds of future urban visions are exclusionary. At best they implicitly assume that a combination of technology, wealth and design can override and consign to history fundamental parts of the urban mosaic. However, it is also possible to read such pictures as an affirmation of an urban form created by and for a powerful elite, as if all that matters in cities is the dramatic downtown skyline and ways to avoid the traffic jams.
Last but not least these stereotypical urban images are culturally specific. They are visions of the future city from a European, North American or Japanese perspective. They bear scant relation to the slum-led urbanisation so evident in much of Africa, or the rapidly growing tent cities swelled by refugees in the Middle East, for example.
What kind of cities of tomorrow?
Together the students and I then worked through some of the questions that their generation will have to confront in the design and development of cities for the urban century, the first period in human history when most people on the planet are living in urban areas.
We looked at rapid urbanisation but also at shrinking cities such as Detroit or Murmansk. We considered suburbs and garden cities, and asked “Should cities of tomorrow be high density or low density?” We discussed eco-industrial parks, regulation of pollution and why the poorest people so often live in places adjacent to polluted land or water, or hazardous industries.
How will cities access food in the future – from urban and peri-urban agriculture or from industrialised agriculture far away and delivered to consumers through large supermarkets? Will cities continue to be oil-dependent, or powered by renewable sources of energy? How will cities adapt to climate change?
Last but not least, how will cities be governed? Cities are an ingenious invention, enabling great concentrations of people to share the same space, but to live together in harmony we all have to follow some rules and regulations. Who should decide our urban futures: the banks, politicians, professionals and designers, or people at the grass roots?
The city of the future is with us already, etched by increasing inequality. Much of it will be created through informal development. The soaring towers and techno-fixes so prominent in conventional future city visions will be part of the story, but only part.