Best and Worst Case Scenarios for the Future

We asked designers, urbanists, and city-dwellers to outline their personal best- and worst-case scenarios for the future: one idea they would like to see happen, or one they fear might be on the way.

Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 and author of Turn of the Century:
My vision of the urban future exists as a Venn diagram, with a big circle full of Hopes on the left overlapping with another big circle of Fears on the right. On the left side of the left circle, I’d put maglev rail systems, Wi-Fi ubiquity, hand-held GPS electronic maps, and the migration of the Times Square TKTS idea online.

At the far right of my Fears circle would be the proliferation of pseudo-public, pseudo-piazzas on the ground floors of office buildings and the metastasization of advertising messages into the last remaining untouched bits of the urban tissue.

In the overlapping middle section are the cool-but-disconcerting things: Jumbotrons, ubiquitous surveillance systems, and my favorite—eyeglasses that work like a fighter pilot’s visor, with useful data beamed in real-time onto the insides of the lenses.

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James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere:
We are lurching toward the end of the cheap oil fiesta which has pretty much made modern life what it is. We are going to have to downscale everything we do in this country. We’ll have to live closer together. We’ll have to get very serious about growing more of our food closer to home, without petrochemical “inputs.” The age of the 3000-mile Caesar salad is coming to an end. We are about to experience “globalism-in-reverse”: the Wal-Marts and other national chains will not survive the changes ahead. The car will be an extremely diminished presence in our lives. Get ready to live locally.

Ben Rubin, artist and sound designer:
An inventor in a little Brooklyn workshop hacks into a Blackberry handheld and discovers that, with a modification to the firmware, it can be redesigned to work for free within a short range. Working with a small upstate electronics manufacturer, this inventor makes a thousand of these mutant pagers and sells them through newsstands and bodegas in his neighborhood, and a free wireless community network is born. As the device becomes more popular, people in other neighborhoods and then other cities adopt them. A graduate student in Chicago gets one and sees an opportunity to add a couple of chips to the circuit, and she invents a new kind of free local voice message system.

What keeps any of this from happening today is a dense structure of economic and regulatory control. Among the strongest components of these structures are patent, trademark, and copyright laws, laws that originated to protect the rights of inventors and artists. However, now intellectual property law serves mainly to shore up the empires of major conglomerates with enormous stakes in a few closed technologies; this leaves us with an impoverished landscape of overpriced, shrink-wrapped, and thoroughly unimaginative communications products.

An Open Source revolution, where inventions and technology are thought of as a shared public trust, would transform this landscape into a continuous call to creative engineers and designers. Instead of just designing new ring tones and faceplates for cell phones, individuals would have the opportunity to re-shape the very infrastructure of electronic communication, opening the way for diverse and democratic transformations of communication in the city of the future.

Martha Schwartz, landscape architect:
I think the technologies that will affect us most are those involved in the exploration of “inner space,” meaning our own bodies. In the next 100 years, there will be spectacular advances made concerning the health of our bodies. Through massive breakthroughs in genetic engineering (thanks to more powerful computing) and nano-robotics, huge strides in medicine and healthcare will occur that, in turn, will allow us to live longer and healthier lives. This will change our perception of life much more than the structure of our cities.

However, these scientific advances will trickle down to city-building. We have already seen a change in our culture as it relates to spare time, as leisure activities (such as shopping) are increasingly shaping our [pastimes]. I believe that as more people get older, healthier, and wealthier, they will return to the cities from the suburbs in order to indulge in more active, educative, and social leisure activities, all of which are more accessible, varied, and of higher quality in cities.

Bad scenario: We continue to elect Republicans who work feverishly to dismantle the government and any regulation (except for white collar-type crime) that might positively impact the environment, the un-enfranchised, and those who cannot adequately fend for themselves. Thus, public education continues to erode, sending any middle-class person (regardless of color) into the suburbs, leaving the cities to the poor and their miseries. Our electric cars (or whatever alternative power we can evolve for the least amount of money) take us further out into the New Urbanist enclaves now walled off and protected by hired armies. Our birth control technology allows us to further control our numbers, and we find that our population stops increasing. (The Hispanic population decides to use prophylactics.)

Our city populations are shrinking too, and this, with a lack of tax base, infrastructure, and social conscience, allows the city to crumble from within (see Detroit). Nature takes over, and the crumbled, romantic ruins become the favorite places to visit from the ‘burbs, as the National Parks have been sold to the Chinese and are no longer wilderness. (They have been sold for their own good, just as the Bureau of Land Management lands are now been forested for their own good.) The poor are relegated to occupy the first “ring” of the city, now abandoned by the middle-class. The latter will finally disappear into the landscape as the poor hop from inner to outer rings, much as the ripples from a stone thrown into the water die out from the interior first.

Aaron Betsky, Director, Netherlands Architecture Institute
I think the essential question [for the future] will be how we can define what it is that is urban. What is the essence of the collective, participatory, and artificial environment that we have made for ourselves? How can that urbanity be developed in places other than the traditional downtown? The city is not just a large collection of buildings, nor is it just a meeting place for strangers or a shopping mall.

[…] Instead of trying to worry about saving the city, we should worry about how to preserve and develop that little nothing that makes us urban. In the Dutch situation, the history of urban design as the collection, visualization, and translation of statistics and data underscores such an activity. Those things, however, are not all. The recognition that the landscape we inhabit is exactly that, shaped land, and that it is artificial, means that we can make new landscapes, as opposed to just separate buildings; create emptiness at a large scale as “new nature”; and plan our environment without using the exclusionary and defensive mechanisms of zoning.

The continual redevelopment of cultural heritage through an ad hoc planning process at whose core is what they call here “spatial arrangement,” or how we collectively occupy, use, and plan space, is a useful model for urban development. On a concrete level, the Rotterdam School of planning, which analyzes and preserves existing geographic and built patterns and contrasts them with the new elements (in a sort of landscape version of the Secretary of Interior Standards for Historic Preservation), is worth examining. So is the strategy of hybrid, discontinuous, and fragmented application of mass-production techniques applied by firms such as MVRDV.

The future—from my limited perspective 21 ft. below sea level—is an artificial space protected from the encroaching seas, both literal and cultural. It threatens to flood the specifity of place by a system of design that defines the empty potential of human territory and the uses of historic forms to provide the building blocks for an unknowable future.

Sam Schwartz, urban designer and transport, environmental, and community planner:
Remember gridlock? Way back at the start of the 21st century? Ever since capitalism was applied to the city’s most precious resource—space—traffic congestion has gone the way of the VCR. Every car now has its own “signature,” a complex code imbedded in the car that allows for e-license plates. No more toll booths. Drivers are invoiced for the amount of time spent on city streets. Rates vary by time of day, day of week, and season. [In New York,] Fifth Avenue by Rockefeller Center now costs $25/minute once the [Christmas tree] is lit. Central Park costs $5/mile, with revenue going to maintain the park. There’s so much revenue bridges and roads are kept in pristine condition and the extra money keeps the subway fare at 50 cents! For the business man or woman on the go, first-class lanes on the bridges and highways keep traffic moving at 40-50 mph for just $10/mile. For those nostalgic for the paralyzing traffic, just visit any nearby suburb.

Andres Duany, principal of DPZ and co-author of Suburban Nation:
I am certainly not worried about the cities of the future if they are the kind that the New Urbanists are working on. The traditional city is a better platform to absorb change than any of the urban proposals of modernism. Bear in mind that Manhattan is a 19th century city, and look how resilient it is. The oldest sections of Boston, Paris, London, and Barcelona have been able to absorb all manner of technological innovation, and today they routinely out-perform all the other sectors any way you care to measure. Those modernist sections are turning to crap, of course. The modernist urban proposals have proven to be as passing as fashion, as in needy of constant bolster as any monocultureIt is so evident that modernist urbanism is undermined by nothing more exotic than the passage of time.

If I were to worry, it would be about experimental urbanism’s neo-apologists at places like the Harvard School of Design. This country can’t afford any more generations of terminally confused students. It is remarkable how those poor students are habituated by a few mutually designated teachers to perform for the approval of a few self-designated critics and editors afterwards. That this can pass for a professional education is amazing.

How about an alternate curriculum for these young, who would be better-satisfied dedicating themselves to ethical causes? Architecture’s necessary critical stance cannot long be confined to expressing the demise of western culture, however fun it is to do so. The hard way of being critical—actually undertaking actions that lead to reform—will creep back as problems get worse. We are past due for a re-conception of architectural education that will involve the restoration of a useful and effective body of knowledge. You can already read about it in Jorge Silvetti’s plea to reset the clock back 40 years—all the way back to Rossi’s early writings.

Morley Safer, 60 Minutes correspondent, CBS News:
What I fear most from the new technology is the promiscuous nature of new technology. So beyond talking labels in supermarkets and talking traffic lights, city managers and mayors will surely inflict on us talking “No Parking” signs—we already have talking cars. More upon more sensory smog will assault us, increasing the already overloaded atmosphere of urban existence. Big Brother (CCTV cameras) has been watching us for years and listening as well: now he will be shouting at us. We are forsaking Athens for Pyongyang.

If you can think of common sense as new technology, then the best things that can happen to a metropolis like New York, for example, would be to impose draconian rent controls on major landlords and developers. It would inhibit construction of the hideous and hideously expensive personal monuments being built by both the public and private sectors.

It would also help maintain some kind of sensibly balanced demographic in the city. It is currently almost impossible for young people to live in New York. The people who could offer the city their drive, their imagination, their sheer joy have effectively been banished. We are rapidly becoming a metropolis of geriatric millionaires and wise-guy carnival operators in freak-show overstretched limos that are hazardous to everyone’s mental, aesthetic, and physical health. It would be easy to legislate or tax such vehicles out of existence. But of course it will not happen. The legislative-landlord complex, even more insidious than the military-industrial complex, will continue to rule and to ruin.

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