The Cities of The Future

Ismaïl Serageldin

How we should shape the city and its institutions is something we have struggled with ever since the small agglomerations grew next to the Nile and other river basins millennia ago. After the failed creations of architects or the conceptual and unrealizable designs of urban planners, at present few are who seem to be happy with the city they inhabit. The hub of dense networks of human interaction where economic, social, political and cultural transactions by the millions occur every day, should be the stage where not only the past and present coexist, but which demonstrate our ability to invent the future.

Joris Hoefnagel: ‘Map of Alexandria,’ in Civitates Orbis Terrarum, c. 1573. George Braun & Frans Hogenberg, Zurich

The city: Locus of diversity, center of human creativity and the base for the material well-being of humanity. But how we should shape the city and its institutions is something we have struggled with ever since the small agglomerations grew next to the Nile and other river basins millennia ago.

The mighty cities of the ancient past, from Egypt’s Thebes—now Luxor, to Athens to Alexandria and Rome; cities whose names still inspire awe and admiration. London, Paris and New York would soon become the cities that captured the spirit of the industrial revolution and beyond. They showed us the misery and poverty that accompanied the gloss and the glitter. They reminded us of the other side of the coin that our imaginations did not want to acknowledge.

Temple of Luxor, former Thebes, Egypt

Courtyard & Piramids by I.M. Pei at musèe du Louvre, Paris

From Plato’s Republic to Thomas More’s Utopia we yearned for a more perfect society, but we searched for it in either a return to a mystical bucolic past, or in the power of new technologies. Yet, galvanized by our dreams or driven by economic necessities, we continued our headlong rush into urbanization. Now, over half of humanity is living in cities with the major part of the rest to follow soon.

But we are unhappy with our cities, and we dream of the future… Some warn of dystopias, in such novels as We or 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 while others want to create utopias. The designers of the perfect city of the future tended to follow two general lines. One was to marry nature, individual homes on private property and, later, the car: from the Garden Cities of Ebenezer Howard to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre city, precursors of the American suburban ideal. Others who saw the future of housing in apartment buildings with the occasional skyscraper, with these large structures standing in vast lawns and parking: from Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse to Joel Garreau’s Edge Cities, describing the American post suburban development of commercial space and significant centers.

Ebenezer Howard: ‘Garden City no 2,’ in Garden Cities of Tomorrow, 1902. S. Sonnenschein & Co., London

Frank Lloyd Wright: Broadacre City Model, 1934–35. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives, New York

Outside of these two mainstream views, there were others who designed huge mega-structures, where forms of great complexity would provide regimented spaces for all the activities that residents would undertake, a triumph of form over function which we still find in many student projects in today’s architectural schools. A few wanted to model the cities as metabolic systems where more recycling would reduce waste and consume less per unit of output. Too few have designed visions of revived old city centers with pedestrian walks and human scale interactive spaces. Hardly any of these designers invested time in reflecting on the kind of people that these designs would house, or the kind of society that they would create.

Indeed, most of those who wrote or designed future cites, whether dystopian or utopian found refuge in technology. Gleaming skyscrapers, flying cars and invisible and clean factories run by machines administered from stunning offices in these skyscrapers. It is the apotheosis of technology, production and consumption.

Ridley Scott: ‘Los Angeles, 2019,’ Blade Runner, 1982

I dream of cities that are organic constructs that do evolve and change, and yet that keep their essential character. Cities that are articulated around spaces and iconic buildings that create ‘a sense of place’ which makes each location unique. The cities I dream of are humanist creations where buildings are designed for people and their idiosyncratic needs and technology is woven into the very fabric of the urban tissue, to serve the residents, recycle waste and protect the environment. Cities where the energy of the sun is harnessed and the pollution of the earth is minimized. Cities where our water and our food will be as fresh and clean as the air we breathe. I dream of smart cities where optimizing the systems that serve our needs is embedded in the structures we build and the machines with which we will interact on a daily basis. But above all, I dream of cities connected to the whole world and that celebrate cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism, and nurture creativity and respond to people’s aesthetic sense and their need to interact constructively with each other. Where justice and fairness ensure dignity for all. Cities where the soundness of our designs and of our governance will be measured by the condition of our weakest and poorest citizen. Cities where in the words of Gandhi there shall be: ‘No politics without principle. No wealth without work. No commerce without morality. No pleasure without conscience. No education without character. No science without humanity. No worship without sacrifice.’

For the city is not just a physical creation of architects and builders, or the conceptual design of urban planners, it is above all the hub of dense networks of human interaction where economic, social, political and cultural transactions by the millions occur every day. They are not only where the past must survive and the present thrive, they are also where the future must be invented. So let us create the cities that will nurture diversity and creativity to invent for tomorrow what we cannot even imagine today.