P. D. Smith is the author of four non-fiction books, the most recent being City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, and is currently writing his fifth, on crime, detectives, and the city. He reviews regularly for the Guardian, blogs (irregularly) on his website and spends too much time on Twitter @PD_Smith. He is also an Honorary Research Associate in UCL's Department of Science and Technology Studies.
Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (published by Influx Press last year) and the forthcoming Tidewrack (Vintage/Farrar, Straus and Giroux). He's written on cities for the likes of the Guardian, Aeon and Dezeen. He writes regularly on art for Studio International, and has a column on video games and architecture for Kill Screen. He can be found @Oniropolis.
The following discussion took place over email during May and June 2016.
Darran Anderson: It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Peter (I enjoyed City immensely). I thought I'd get started with some thoughts on how cities reflect or contain the past – there's often a strong sense in the city of living amongst the wreckage of previous eras. You walk around and there's a Gothic church or a Brutalist tower block or an Art Nouveau facade and what you're seeing is a series of functioning time capsules; the flotsam of earlier times. I always have a feeling that the city can be read and deciphered—and layers of time seem to be crucial to that.
I began seeing space that way when I started to notice the curiosities of street names where I grew up in Derry. Places named after mysterious individuals like "Hogg's Folly" and "Stanley's Walk" or long-lost features like "Windmill Terrace" and "Asylum Road." The neighbourhood I lived in consisted of Victorian terraced houses and because it was an Irish city, it struck me as unusual that most of the streets in that area had Scottish names—Glasgow Terrace, Argyll St, and so on. Years later, when I looked into the census records, I found that a Glaswegian shipbuilder had lived in the house I lived in and the area was home to hundreds of immigrant shipbuilders. By my time, the docks were long gone, as were their workers, but the street names remained like echoes of a lost world, waiting to be rediscovered, hiding in clear sight.
When I go to cities now, one of my fixations isn't just the architecture and the people but the ghosts in the language. Aside from the individual stories, the street names can reveal something of the essence of a city. New York attempts a wiping-the-slate-clean of the baggage of history with its numeric grid. The two cities in which I wrote Imaginary Cities (Paris and Phnom Penh) have similar approaches, combining reason (numeric streets) with the cult of the individual—the latter hedging its bets with boulevards dedicated to Chairman Mao, Charles De Gaulle, and King Sihanouk. London has a telling mix of the storyteller and the merchant (Bleeding Heart Yard, Birdcage Lane, Cockpit Steps, Isle of Dogs, etc). It’s a city, like many on these islands, that can be read.
Do you share that sense of experiencing the city as almost a form of walking archaeology?
PD Smith: Yes, I do think you can read the story of a city in the names of its districts and streets. Though street names, like the façades of shops, occasionally change with the times. In the Middle Ages, many English cities had a "Gropecunt Lane," which was the local red-light district. Sadly they have now been renamed to reflect current tastes and sensibilities. I suppose in this sense our streets are also a palimpsest, with old maps holding the key to their history.
But the idea of detecting layers of history in the names and spaces of a city is deeply evocative for me. Of course, the ground beneath old cities really is like an archaeological layer cake. The tells, or ruin heaps, that now litter the arid landscape of Iraq contain as many as eighteen layers of buildings, one on top of another. The earliest date back some seven thousand years.
Many of our modern cities are built on top of earlier ones. Roman London lies about six metres below today’s street level. While I was researching my book City, I visited the twelfth-century basilica of San Clemente in Rome, near the Colosseum. In the gift shop is a staircase that takes you back through time, down through the rich strata of Roman history.
Beneath the medieval church is an earlier one dating from AD 385, still full of beautiful frescos. But there’s another staircase which takes you even further down, until you reach the streets of first-century Rome. Here, the noise of the cars above is gone and all you can hear is the sound of an underground river rushing past, as if it were time itself. In the subterranean darkness stands a pagan shrine—a temple to Mithras, the ancient god of wisdom and light. Its smooth stone benches are now empty, waiting for worshippers who have been dead more than two thousand years.
It’s a remarkable place, one where the layers of urban history suddenly came alive for me. The proto-Situationist Ivan Chtcheglov said, "All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts." He’s right. The ghosts of the past are all around us in cities. And yes, I agree with you, that the best way to experience the city is through a form of "walking archaeology." For me, understanding the city is a cumulative process, like turning the pages of a book (a paper book!). And that means through the soles of my feet—by walking.
While we’re on the subject of walking (one that’s close to my heart), Paul Auster described New York as a "labyrinth of endless steps." I’ve often thought that the idea of the city as a labyrinth, as a maze of streets and alleys in which you can lose yourself—or perhaps even discover yourself—is a powerful one. Do you agree?
DA: That is something I've thought many times walking through cities, Peter, especially at night. It seems literally the case somewhere like Venice with its maze of canals and bridges, but also figuratively in less salubrious cities I've spent time in; you might lose yourself or find yourself as a doppelgänger somewhere in the dark underbelly. We all tend to see ourselves, with varying degrees of pathos or bathos, as intrepid explorers, but I suspect we're as much the Minotaur as Theseus.
The labyrinth myth is an interesting one that I keep coming back to. I'm intrigued by this character Daedalus who manages to be somehow central and peripheral at the same time. Since my teenage years, I've been a fairly obsessive reader of James Joyce and for a long time it puzzled me why he named his protagonist Stephen Dedalus and not Theseus or Perseus or another more immediately appealing mythic figure, but of course Joyce was right; Daedalus is a far more interesting and instructive character. He creates wondrous things that are used for terrible purposes (the maze) or with terrible consequences (his son Icarus' wings). In effect, he's the great architect-engineer archetype and he's forever relevant; every time space and morality intersect, which is always and everywhere (Le Corbusier, Robert Moses, Zaha Hadid, etc).
The idea of the city as a labyrinth brings to mind one of the crucial conditions, in my view, for a city to remain a living rather than an inert thing: the ability to get lost. I don't completely subscribe to Situationist rhetoric but they had a real point with the dérive idea; of breaking out of deadening routines and plans and rediscovering the city through chance. One of the lessons I've learned with cities is not to get too familiar with the ones you love. As a child, I visited Edinburgh and was completely transfixed. I had no idea that such a place, this Gothic "mad god's dream" as Hugh MacDiarmid put it, could exist outside the pages of a book. Eventually I moved there and spent many years exploring its wynds, courtyards, graveyards, and pubs. And very gradually, the magic I had felt diminished with experience. What I had taken as eerie and otherworldly, for all the city's undoubted strengths, was actually austere and Calvinist. And the territory I was interested in, once I'd walked seemingly every street, shrank to the pristine wildness of the river that runs through the city, the water of Leith. That area retained something of the initial wonder and mystery. It remained poetry and the rest of the city, through routine, work, politics, and religion, fossilised into prose. I'm always conscious now of retaining my love for many cities I'm interested in by explicitly not living in them. I see little shame in admitting to being a tourist and, given I've lived the past few years in the woods by the North Sea, I'm a tourist everywhere I travel now. Given we're guests on the planet for an absurdly finite period of time, perhaps we all are.
I think this reflects a much larger problem for cities. I don't discredit urban planning by any means (it's a multitude of things) but there is always a danger of planning away the poetry of existence, often through commercial concerns but sometimes by trying for a well-meaning "human" environment. Some of the worst examples of liminal spaces in cities I've seen have come through the best intentions but they've lost any of the intriguing accidents, idiosyncrasies, and varieties that people can attach memories to and build personal mythologies around. I see many dangers in the unquestioned advance of Smart Cities (as there are with planned cities), one of which is the side effect of removing inefficiencies—when we very often live and thrive within these blind spots. There has been a backlash against this process; you see it in rewilding, in urban exploration, even in the reminders of the rooftop world in parkour, but I think it's vital to think in much more everyday terms. We could be more conscious of how difficult it will be to have any kind of resonance to place or narrative in your life, a crucial component of mental health and fulfilment, when we're all living in shopping mall-type junkspace.
Can cities slip from being living, breathing places to being what we might call living-dead, however exquisite the corpse is? Alongside climatic changes or catastrophes, do you think there's a danger of cities being perfected out of existence? And in contrast, what do you think makes the heart of living cities tick?
PDS: You’re so right about getting lost in a city and the value of aimless, touristic wandering. But yes, "planning away the poetry"— what a great phrase—is an important subject. In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo says that cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears." Humankind has been dreaming of the perfect city for millennia. For some four thousand years, right up until the twentieth century, China built its imperial cities as a celebration and reflection of the sublime perfection of the celestial realm. Their deeply symbolic cities were designed by the courtly geomancers to create an ideal equilibrium between nature, the state, and the cosmos. What an incredible idea!
Heaven on Earth in the form of a city: from Plato to Leonardo da Vinci, many great visionaries have dreamed this seductive dream of an urban eutopia—or to use Thomas More’s sly subversion of the word—utopia: not "good place", but a "nowhere place."
Ideal cities are pure blue-sky thinking. They are urban fantasies, like Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun from the early seventeenth century—a Babel-like megastructure that was designed to shape the minds of its inhabitants throughout the course of their lives, guiding them to intellectual and ethical enlightenment. The idea of living in a city designed for such a purpose appals me. It would be the dream capital of a dictator but a nightmare for his or her subjects.
The road to hell is, of course, paved with good intentions. The dreams that inspire today’s planned cities, such as Masdar City or Songdo City, are admirable. They want to be sustainable, smart, and safe. But do they work for people—for everyone, not just an affluent elite? To quote Shakespeare: what is the city but the people? It’s city dwellers themselves who determine whether a city is a success. And if it isn’t then people will just rewrite the plans. People show immense creativity in hacking, subverting, and re-engineering spaces to create environments where they want to live, play, fall in love, and eventually grow old and die in—spaces where they can have dreams of their own, not ones predetermined by utopian theorists like Campanella.
So yes, the danger of over-planning a city is always there. But my answer to your question lies with people, with the citizens – they are the beating heart of any great city. For if a city’s streets are a riddle in search of a solution, then that solution is its inhabitants. From Tenochtitlán, the great Aztec capital, to the Walled City of Kowloon—that anarchic community that grew up in Hong Kong thanks to a legal loophole in the 1898 convention with Britain—people make a city great. And great cities are always complex, edgy, disorderly—qualities that are not part of most urban plans. And yet they should be at the very heart of them.
One thing that struck me while writing City was the continuity running through urban history. The idea that cities are expressions of timeless human needs—to trade, to socialise, to be creative—reflected in spaces like marketplaces and stores, restaurants and theatres that are present in all urban communities.
But what does the future hold for cities and urban life? Will we live in streetless vertical cities? Or will climate change force us into defensive structures: underground bunkers or floating cities? Will the future cause us to radically rethink what a city is?
DA: Well, the water's coming. I wholeheartedly believe in scepticism, critical thinking, the Socratic method or whatever we choose to call it, but I've come to associate the word "debate," in politics, with subterfuge. You see it a lot when some horrendous dismantling of society is due to be brought in for some bastard's profit; the way is paved by this kindly vicar talk of "we'd just like to open up a debate." Really, what's happening is the equivalent of those target indicator flares that pathfinders used to drop on enemy cities during the Second World War for the subsequent bombers. I still see intelligent people being dragged into pointless, time- and energy-sapping debates over whether climate change is happening—which is quite deliberate. I take dramatic change as a given. It's always been that way. And I'm inclined temperamentally to act first, then discuss. It chimes with how Kierkegaard rightly, in my view, saw history (lived forwards, understood backwards). The risks if we don't act, given the majority of our metropolises lie on the coast, far outweigh the cost of acting.
The sad thing is it's not just the climate change deniers who are stuck in denial. There are a lot of well-intentioned people who are preaching carbon reduction at all costs as a solution, projecting "No Plan B" on the Eiffel Tower. We're in a golden age of performative grandstanding. When you try to push past this theatricality and ask, "What if it turns out we need a plan B?," they look at you with silent incredulity or at best suggest the building of huge barriers like we have on the Thames. Now, I don't deny these are defences we need to build in certain areas but they will prove woefully insufficient in others. Even assuming they do work, it's not psychologically advisable to set ourselves up in the position of being under siege from the sea. The ocean is a pretty formidable opponent.
Recently, I've been talking to architecture and design studios who are working on the refreshing, well-placed premise that water is going to flood into cities, rather than focusing solely on keeping it out. I spoke to Mitchell Joachim of Terreform ONE and they've a lot of incredibly visionary projects that are fuelled by a surprising amount of common sense. He talks about fighting it in advance rather than retreat, creating artificial reefs and buffer zones of territory to take the hit in storm surges. At the same time, I've been talking to Clouds Architecture Office who've envisaged what they call Aqualta, which is a situation where the cities flood and people, working people, of course, just improvise and continue on, as the rich move up and out.
Cities that don't start thinking radically (long before floating cities are viable) will likely continue ignoring the problem even as it engulfs sections of their city. There'll be sacrifice zones and populations that are just written off. I mean, we have living examples. Take a look at every favela, every shantytown, what happened to Detroit, New Orleans, the refugees in Greece at the minute or the Greeks themselves... There are many technological developments coming (nanotechnology, augmented reality, the internet of things, 3D printing, etc) that will keep us distracted from all this, only if we're privileged enough to exist above the tideline.
One aspect of this that interests me is that although we’re facing climate change, migration crises, the dismantling of the social contract, mass political and corporate kleptocracy, and a thousand other manufactured disasters, very little of this is reflected in prevailing futurists’ visions of what's to come. Instead you get a lot of snake oil chrome and chlorophyll visions of gleaming cities or else this continual promotion of the Smart City with no recognition that it will also be the Surveillance City. The much-touted idea of Big Data will be great, provided again you're lucky enough to exist above its tideline.
It seems to me our visions of the future tell us more about the present than they do the future. The clean open marble piazzas of Renaissance Ideal Cities were dreamt up amidst narrow alleyways and unhygienic squalor. Bruno Taut was dreaming up visions of crystal palaces on top of the Alps, dedicated to universal brotherhood, at the time when millions were living like troglodytes and killing each other in the trenches of the First World War. The age of optimistic futuristic Googie architecture was also the age of "Duck and Cover" and imminent nuclear holocaust. I believe the futurists of today keep producing dazzling visions despite or because subconsciously they know how screwed we actually are. When times are threatening, we dream of utopia. When times are stable, we can indulge ourselves with apocalyptic visions.
Our visions of the future seem to me to be still determined by imperial dominance and cultural hegemonies. So, in this part of the world at least, when asked to think of a future city, our default tends to be to think of future New York or Tokyo or London. These are fine, fascinating cities but they overshadow others. The future will be nothing if not a plurality. Reading Kevin Barry's vision of a future Ireland in City of Bohane or listening to Sun Ra's Afrofuturism or looking at Simon Stalenhag's paintings of future Sweden, I'm increasingly fascinated by what the future will resemble in the overlooked regions of the world, and indeed, their pasts and presents. Are there particular cities that interest you? If you could travel in a time machine forwards or backwards in time, what cities would you visit?
PDS: Nothing dates more quickly than our visions of the future—something I realised when writing my book Doomsday Men. Thankfully, the future often turns out to be more mundane than our dreams and nightmares. Of course there will be technological revolutions, but it will probably be the ones that are most unexpected that cause the most changes to urban life. Those cities affected by rising temperatures and sea levels will certainly be forced to make dramatic changes. City dwellers are tenacious, though: they will cling to the places they know. Storm walls will be built around affluent coastal cities, as they once were to keep out bandits. Urbanites will become extremophiles, adapting their lives to withstand heat and storms. Their cities will become life-support systems shielding them from an increasingly hostile environment.
Not all cities will be able to afford high-tech defences. But people won’t just sit there and wait for the tide to rise. They’ll move. The current mass migrations are just the beginning. Advances in technology, such as 3D printing coupled with downloadable house plans, may well mean temporary, even nomadic, cities will grow up within the span of a few weeks. New geopolitical realities will create new cities in unexpected places. And they will not be the gleaming steel and glass towers imagined by today’s Smart City planners. They’ll look more like the first, densely packed urban communities than the futuristic cities touted by architectural studios. They’ll grow and evolve like biological structures, driven by basic and timeless human needs.
Yes, if I had a time machine I’d love to travel into the future to glimpse tomorrow’s cities and see how they compare with those of the past. If nothing else, it would provide wonderful material for a book! Perhaps the great cities of today will be crumbling, deserted ruins by then. London may be engulfed by a tropical swamp: the towers of Canary Wharf and the City of London reduced to broken fingers of concrete and glass marooned in vast lagoons created by the swollen River Thames. The Shard will no longer house the mega-rich but will provide roosts-with-a-view for cliff-nesting birds and lodgings for aquatic mammals. Luxury skyscrapers will become vertical gardens, as nature colonises these man-made landscapes. The only humans in the city will be roof-top survivalists or tour groups of visiting students ferried from a new metropolis, built on high ground in the north of England: "See—these are the urban ruins of the Anthropocene, a civilization that plundered the Earth and poisoned its air and water. Two thousand years of urban culture down the drain…"
Will these future tourists learn from our bad example? Have we learned from our urban past? The first cities which emerged in what today is Iraq, some six thousand years ago, destroyed their environment through intensive farming and irrigation which led to salinization of the soil. Eventually they couldn’t grow the food they needed to survive. The first cities are now dusty ruin heaps in a desert. When HG Wells first saw Manhattan’s skyline he said: "What a ruin it will make!" The destiny of all cities is to become a ruin heap, picked over by future archaeologists and visited by tourists hunting photo opportunities. Perhaps that is the only certainty in our urban future…
But back to your question—with the benefit of your technological largesse, I’d love to go back in time too. I’ve always been fascinated by Berlin in the interwar years. It was an extraordinarily dynamic city, torn politically between the Nazis and the Communists fighting for dominance on the streets, but also attracting artists, writers, and scientists to its creative heart. Physicists like Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, the remarkable Hungarian émigré who would eventually dream up the nightmare of the atomic bomb. In Berlin’s cafés and cabarets you might also bump into poets like Stephen Spender and WH Auden, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, or Alfred Döblin, whose novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) brilliantly captures the sights and sounds of this incredible city, from the rhythmic thud of the steam pile-driver in front of Aschinger’s bar on Rosenthaler Strasse ("rumm, rumm") to the squeals of dying animals in Berlin’s new slaughterhouse.
This chaotic, vibrant ‘Babylon of the world’ (Stefan Zweig) was also Fritz Lang’s city. His film Metropolis came out in 1927 and it set the standard for all subsequent celluloid visions of the urban future. Lang imagined the metropolis of the future as a dystopia. He wasn’t alone, of course. Artists, writers and film-makers in the twentieth century were nearly all pessimists when it came to how we would live in tomorrow’s cities: HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, JG Ballard’s "The Concentration City", Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner… the list is endless. And they are in stark contrast to the optimistic visions of architects and planners. Why do you think that is?
DA: I think we shouldn't underestimate the benefits of mindless entertainment and I don't think writers should be obliged to write in any particular way, but the writers I've gravitated towards tend to be those who question the way things are. I don't mean that in a didactic sense, which makes for sanctimonious and tedious literature generally, but indirectly, implicitly, self-critically. I think Western civilisation took a wrong turning when it followed Aristotle rather than Socrates or maybe even Diogenes of Sinope. We're redeemed, if such a thing is possible, by questions rather than answers.
First and foremost, I think those authors you mentioned were reacting to the evident bullshit being presented in front of them, what they were being sold politically, commercially, and psychologically, and the genuine fear of where they thought things were heading. As I said, prophecies are always really about the present rather than the future. There are predictions of innovations, certainly, but even these are usually solutions to current problems. For me, every utopian or dystopian book is a critique of the contemporary. It's no accident Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948. Either they're saying "things are flawed and here's how they can be improved" or "things are flawed and they'll get much worse." It amounts to the same critique and the same following of threads into the future. In Victorian times, you'll know how obvious these books were—the narrator is hypnotised or chloroformed and magically wakes up in a future society that acts as a handy counterpoint to the one in which the book is being written and sold.
At other times, it isn't explicit. I think there's a lot to be learned in subtext and implication. I keep thinking of that book Jane Austen and the French Revolution, because she never mentions the French Revolution in her writing but it's most definitely there, like a shadow. You can read the present in a lot of ways and "the future" is just one way. It struck me a few years ago that mental illness was as much a cracked mirror to the zeitgeist as literature was. They both tell us a great deal about the times. What people worry about is a form of depth-sounding; that comment Jung said to James Joyce about his daughter Lucia's mental illness, to the effect, "You are both at the bottom of the sea but where you are diving for pearls, she is drowning."
In another sense, the rise of dystopian literature between, say, 1890 and 1960, was a sign of literature's gradual slip from primacy and its eclipsing with the rise of other technologies (books are a technology, after all). I think authors knew this deep down and perhaps they believed they could regain relevance by becoming Jeremiahs or even just canaries in the mines; to find a purpose beyond typing up potboilers. In the examples you mentioned, they did a damn good job of it. Possibly too good. The reason I say that is that growing up with 1984 and Brave New World instilled a healthy scepticism into readers that has, in a lot of cases, slipped into paralysing cynicism and despondency. Of all the dystopias those writers envisaged, I don't think any of them ever foresaw that their work would contribute to our present deepening malaise in the West, but they inadvertently did.
We live now in the dystopia of no utopias. It's something of a cliché to point out that utopia means "no place" and that all utopias lead to dystopia. What we fail to mention is that the opposite is also true. Every dystopia is a utopia for a privileged few. We've mistaken the choice to be between utopia and dystopia when, in my opinion, it's between competing attempts at utopia by various interest groups. If we don't get ours (an egalitarian/libertarian one I'm assuming), then others will get theirs. It gets a bad press but we absolutely require the utopian impulse, to function. Without it, we begin to drown. Anyone who builds anything, be it a shed or the Shard, is utopian-minded. We all know it is ultimately an impossibility, but to lose that purposeful invigorating delusion is devastating. We see the effects of that loss all around us today where the building of houses, schools, hospitals are just left out of the plans and people are abandoned along with them. It often comes down to a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what utopia is and what function it serves. This is partly because we are absurdly literal creatures, with a primarily and superficially visual culture; so we're always expecting to arrive at somewhere tangible. Utopia, however, isn't a destination. It wouldn't be Utopia if it were reachable (and those who've sought to convince us, by force, that we have arrived through states or markets, have proved that). Instead it's a direction, an impulse, an ephemeral point from which to look back on ourselves to judge how we're doing. It's a navigational tool as unreachable as the pole stars but one to travel, quite productively, by. And we travel by building and creating for ourselves and each other. Otherwise, we drift. And when we drift, we are prey to currents and sharks.
We've spent so long fixated on the 1950s idea that nightmares will be unleashed on us by scientists and technocrats or ruthless collectivist bureaucrats and torturers, or this 1980s cyberpunk idea that we're in terminal decay with technological and Cartesian add-ons, that it blinds us to our current source of misery, which is primarily financial. I worked for a bank for five long years, which was a hugely instructive experience in terms of learning how the world works—and it troubles me greatly watching the news, from respected, supposedly authoritative sources, and realising how little journalists understand economics and what's actually taken place in the past thirty years. It doesn't matter what questions they ask or where they feign to probe, because they aren't even on the correct planet. Perhaps that's the point. The Situationist in me thinks maybe this is just the latest victory of the Spectacle; where the news is just another form of escapism.
But as much as journalists, with a few notable exceptions, have failed, so too have writers. Where are the great works of fiction that even mention the financial crash or the migrant crises, that even have them as a backdrop? They'll come in ten years’ time and be celebrated when it's safe and already too late. I wholeheartedly salute the writers and film-makers who do broach such subjects. It's a lot of weight to take on so I don't blame them necessarily when they can hammer out a pleasant magic realist or literary fiction book about chance meetings in coffee shops and the existentialism of hotel rooms but when I drop a stone down the well that matters, it takes an increasingly long time to echo back.
I'd like to reserve the right to completely contradict everything I've just said and admit that I'm actually very optimistic about the future (given we are, and everyone reading this, at the very least alive), despite the immense challenges we face. What developments do you see coming to pass in cities in the foreseeable future and what particularly catches your attention in both positive and negative senses?
PDS: Yes, I agree that the utopian impulse is vital. The ebb and flow of utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares was what fascinated me when I wrote about the history of the atomic scientists. Advances in science and technology are always a double-edged sword: they can either improve lives or destroy them. There’s a wonderful story by Heinrich von Kleist called "The Marquise of O—" about the danger of putting too much faith in one person. We’re all just human in the end and it’s dangerous to expect our scientists or urban planners to deliver us heaven on Earth.
When City was published, I was struck that one subject kept coming up in interviews: what will the cities of the future look like? Of course, a part of the book deals with future trends, but for me the book was always about the city as an idea running like a red thread through human life and culture, an idea stretching back several thousand years. But I suppose at the heart of our restless creativity as a species is an insatiable, Faustian desire to know what will be the next twist in the human narrative.
So yes—the future of cities! As we’ve both already said, climate change is going to be one of the key factors that will shape tomorrow’s cities. For coastal cities that means rising sea levels; for others it will be rising temperatures. It also means new diseases—like the Zika virus spread by mosquitoes—and mass movements of people displaced by new weather patterns or water shortages. The current wave of isolationism in Europe and the US is the first sign of the political instability that challenges like this are going to stir up. But just as city mayors have joined forces to tackle climate change by promoting greener cities, perhaps they can also challenge the rise of nationalism. I certainly hope so. Because even the most perfect city is a hollow achievement if we lose our humanity—that’s the whole point of Zamyatin’s and Wells’s fictional dystopias.
The future world will not be a global village but a global city. Our wired, connected planet is becoming smaller by the day. Rapid flows of people and ideas will increasingly make borders irrelevant. One of the downsides to this is the increasing homogenization of cities. Regardless of the local political brand, neoliberalism is the global economic religion everyone kowtows to. In every downtown, the same starchitect-designed glass and steel boxes are soaring skywards, built by the rich for the rich. Globalization is leveling out the differences between cities. Soon every shopping street or mall will be identical. Even the street food will taste the same. If that happens then we’ve lost something incredibly precious. The difference between cities is like biodiversity in nature. The world needs a variety of urban cultures, not a corporate monoculture. Think of Beijing bulldozing its traditional hutong neighbourhoods to make way for generic malls and high-rises. Terrible! There has to be a way of modernizing without destroying what makes a city unique.
Predicting the technologies that will change cities is a fun game, but one that is about as accurate as a sci-fi novel. But for what it’s worth, I think autonomous transport will really change the way we use cities—hopefully for the better. A city-wide system of self-driving vehicles, summoned by smartphone, could transform the urban environment. It would be safer, cleaner, and quieter. It might mean the end of the "parasitical existence of personal cars," as Guy Debord put it. People will be able to reclaim the streets.
Cars have changed our cities for the worse. For thousands of years, cities were designed for pedestrians. Then in the last century cars became the city’s most important inhabitants. But Motopia became a dystopia for cyclists and pedestrians. In 2004 there were 1.2 million deaths on the roads. Sao Paulo needs an area larger than Manhattan just to park all its cars. So it would be truly revolutionary if we could move towards a transport system that made owning a car redundant, as has already happened in Vauban in south-western Germany, where 70% of families don’t own a car. I think in the future people will be astonished that we tolerated the infernal combustion engine in our cities for so long.
But as you say, our views of future cities reflect today’s problems. So let’s shift the discussion back to the here and now—what trends in today’s cities do you find most exciting or alarming?
DA: The developments I see that are most exciting are also the most alarming. That's not a great new revelation, incidentally; had we been there when the combustion engine was first unveiled, we'd have likely been saying, "Wow, that's amazing. It may just kill us all too, but it's amazing." It goes back to the symbiotic nature of utopia and dystopia, perhaps. Nanotechnology, the internet of things, industrial 3D printing, and augmented reality are going to really start altering the urban environment and how we interact with it. The reverberations that come from those keep me awake at night, turning over various possibilities in my head, for good and ill.
I think one of the many flaws of our current profit-fixated system (and profit is a pretty good dynamo for human creativity) is that criticism is taken as a threat. The future is served up to us as a sales pitch and negative side effects are covered up until it’s almost too late to address them (take the repercussions of the use of lead, radium, and CFCs in the twentieth century, for example) because who would ever disclose those in a sales pitch? On the other hand, we concede a lot of territory to corporate faux optimists by allowing ourselves to be painted as tech-fearing doomsaying luddites (when luddites weren't even really luddites, as we think of them). I get asked a lot at talks—are you hopeful or fearful of the future? The answer is, it doesn't matter. Change is coming, whether we like it or not, and the real question is how to guide, monitor, and harness it for all of us.
We shouldn't mistake the future for something entirely new. It'll certainly appear that way, but the advances and perils we face are very often ancient. I keep pointing out that the Smart City will also be the Surveillance City but Juvenal was warning "Who watches the watchmen?" in the second century. When we criticise façadism or greenwashing (in places where it's ill-suited and covers up gross inequalities), it's the Potemkin village we're dealing with. We'll advance greatly in terms of technology, no question—it's happening already, but it'll be the old battles we'll perpetually be required to fight. Imagining the aesthetics of the future and how it will operate is entertaining and essential, but to retain any real hope, we need to ask: what will technological developments mean in the hands of both the powerful and the less powerful facing them? And can we escape singular dominant visions of what's to come in favour of a plurality of futures? What we do now dictates so much of what will follow. We're creating the future as we speak. "For whom?" is the question.